A former Elkhart Truth colleague of mine – the grizzled police reporter David Schreiber – used to say that you could sum up 90 percent of crime in four categories: Greed and gross greed; stupidity and gross stupidity.
When it comes to political corruption, I might add three other categories to explain another 8 or 9 percent: Ambition and gross ambition, and just plain laziness.
While the headlines in recent days have Washington datelines with an array of arrows pointed at the Obama administration, Indiana also seems to be going through a corruption phase centered, it appears, at city halls and county seats.
In the past few months, we’ve watched former St. Joseph County Democratic Chairman Butch Morgan and Jennings County Democratic operative Mike Marshall convicted of elections law felonies, former Marion County deputy prosecutor David Wyser plead guilty to bribery, Lake County Surveyor George Van Til indicted, Lake County Coroner Thomas Philpot convicted and jailed for public corruption, Hammond Councilman Al Salinas plead guilty to bribery, former Indianapolis Councilman Paul Bateman Jr. sentenced to 27 months on a fraud charge, and Gary Councilwoman Marilyn Krusas pleading guilty to tax evasion.
Last Tuesday, FBI agents hauled away boxes from the Indianapolis City-County Building in an investigation of the Indy Land Bank, with assistant administrator Reggie Walton arrested along with four others.
This corruption convulsion echoes an assessment made by author John Bartlow Martin in his 1947 book “Indiana: An Interpretation,” where he observed that “Indiana had lost its way” in the 1930s and 1940s, with just about every week bringing news of a new corruption case, indictment or sentencing of a public official.
In addition to all the activity over the past month, in recent years we’ve watched the conviction of Republican Secretary of State Charlie White on felonious election law violations, and Republican Indianapolis Councilman Lincoln Ploughman convicted in 2011 of bribery and attempted extortion charges. There also were Democrat East Chicago Mayor George Pabey, Democrat Calumet Township Trustee Dozier Allen Jr., Lake County Councilman Will Smith Jr., former Democratic Congresswoman and Gary Clerk Katie Hall and her daughter, Junifer, all on public corruption charges.
Add in the dozen or so cases every year of theft and misappropriated funds by township trustees and small town clerk-treasurers, and you find officials who fail to recognize that the State Board of Accounts routinely scrounges up missing and misappropriated funds.
The good news here is that beyond Charlie White’s hapless crimes, the Indiana Statehouse has -- apparently -- kept on the straight and narrow. So have, for the most part, city halls in our bigger cities like Fort Wayne, South Bend, Lafayette, Evansville and Terre Haute. Until the Indy Land Bank arrests, Indianapolis has had very little corruption since the creation of Unigov four decades ago.
In watching this parade of convictions, indictments and probes, it’s worth noting that the rogue behavior afflicts both major political parties. It appears to be concentrated – at least for now – at city halls and county seats. And if you’re a public official, the cold hard fact is that officials –from the SBA to U.S. Attorneys Joe Hogsett and David Capp – are watching.
As I’ve told my sons, sometimes you have to state the obvious, so here is today’s lesson: Public service is a bad place to seek riches and cut corners on elections. If you want to get rich, don’t run for office.
In the election fraud cases, it appears to have been driven by sheer laziness and dirty tricks. The forged 2008 Clinton and Obama presidential ballot petitions were turned in days before deadlines.
In April 2011, Hogsett announced the formation of the Public Corruption Working Group. “This coordinated effort is historic, in terms of both the number of law enforcement agencies involved and as to the singular focus on such an important issue – the integrity of our public offices and officeholders,” Hogsett said of his group ranging from the FBI, to Indiana State Police to the IRS and other federal agencies.
“Our message has been consistent but bears repeating: It doesn’t matter what your politics are or who you know,” Hogsett noted. “If you violate the public trust, this working group will find you, will investigate you, and the U.S. attorney’s office will then prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law. Very often, public corruption prosecutions can be traced back to one anonymous tip.”
Capp, who started his career in 1985 with Northern DA Jim Richmond’s “Operation Lights Out,” was also part of successor Joseph Van Bokkelen’s Operation Restore Integrity that helped end the East Chicago political dynasty of Mayor Robert Pastrick, though he avoided criminal charges.
“Our office will continue to vigorously pursue public corruption,” Capp said.
As a reporter at city halls in Peru, Elkhart, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, as well as Allen County government, I have found a vast majority of mayors, council members and commissioners I have dealt with dutiful, honest, caring and thrifty.
But for the rogues among us, the message here is: Big Bro is watching.