CROWN POINT | Prominent Lake County Democrat George Van Til's indictment Friday on felony fraud charges has local politicos wondering just how many more black eyes the party will take in the federal government's ongoing corruption probe.
Although Van Til won't be on the 2014 ballot, dozens of incumbent Lake County Democrats face voters next year. Allegations of Van Til's scandal just add to the long-held belief in some county political circles that the region's Democratic Party breeds public corruption, say political observers hailing from both the local Democratic and Republican parties.
Since 1985, the net cast by federal authorities to ensnare political corruption has led to at least 60 indictments, mostly of defendants in or directly affiliated with the Lake County Democratic Party.
Van Til's indictment on wire fraud and obstruction of justice charges came just four days after disgraced former Hammond City Councilman Al Salinas, a Democrat who represented the city's 2nd District, pleaded guilty to taking more than $10,000 in kickbacks to steer government work to a Munster tree-trimming company.
And earlier this spring, former Lake County Clerk and Coroner Tom Philpot turned himself in to a federal prison in Milan, Mich., to begin serving an 18-month sentence for stealing federal money earmarked to improve the collection of court-ordered child support payments.
"We as Republicans see this as a systemic issue. This happens all the time," said Lake County Councilman Dan Dernulc, the county Republican chairman.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., county Democratic chairman, sadly agrees.
"This makes our jobs that much harder," McDermott said. "'Take one step forward — and blow your foot off' seems to be the motto of our party."
McDermott had urged Van Til, Lake County's surveyor, last year to stop his re-election campaign for the good of the party because federal investigators already had begun a probe into the surveyor's office. Van Til ignored that advice and won re-election last fall with more than 63 percent of the vote.
"I took a lot of heat in the party for saying that," McDermott said.
Political observers said this will only add to the headwinds Democrats already will face next year with the adoption of a local option income tax on county residents and workers.
A number of Republicans and Tea Party advocates argued the tax shouldn't be approved because it will only fuel endemic corruption by the majority Democratic Party.
Dernulc said these allegations are more justification for a plan he and fellow Republican County Councilman Eldon Strong are pushing to remove political patronage from county government hiring practices.
But none of those moves will remove the stain of current and past political corruption indictments in Hammond federal court.