RICH JAMES: Why did feds make a spectacle of Van Til?

2013-05-28T00:00:00Z 2013-05-28T07:58:04Z RICH JAMES: Why did feds make a spectacle of Van Til?By Rich James nwitimes.com
May 28, 2013 12:00 am  • 

It’s been bugging me for a year.

What is it with the feds and Lake County Surveyor George Van Til?

It was a year ago that the feds put on the biggest dog-and-pony show I’ve seen in more than three decades of political and governmental reporting.

A host of federal agents exited Van Til’s office and filed down the escalator carrying computers and file boxes out of the county building.

It was quite a show. And as always is the case, the feds had nothing to say.

“It is an ongoing investigation,” is the routine line.

Never in all my years have I seen the feds that demonstrative while seizing records from any governmental unit in Lake County.

The feds come all the time, taking records here and others there. They generally do it quietly, not seeking attention.

So, what was it with the feds and Van Til? Why did they want him to appear to be Public Enemy No. 1?

The weeks and months passed, and little was heard. Just what was in all those records the feds carted away? And why did they want the world to know what they were doing?

About a week ago, we found out, but it didn’t answer the nagging question.

The feds indicted Van Til, essentially saying he used some employees to work on his political campaigns on county time.

But the announcement of the indictment didn’t explain why the feds put on such a show the day the records were hauled away.

The indictment was on a Friday. Things became somewhat clearer on Monday when Van Til went to the federal building in Hammond to be advised of the charges against him and to enter a plea.

It was the appearance on Monday that gave new meaning to what happened the day the records were hauled out of the office.

I have covered dozens of these arraignments over the years. From a news standpoint, they are routine and boring.

For Van Til, it was dehumanizing.

Instead of being allowed to routinely walk into the courtroom, Van Til was offered up for public ridicule.

After being held in a jail cell, Van Til was shackled hand and foot, connected to a chain around his waist, and led into the courtroom.

Yeah, he was pretty much treated like Hannibal Lecter – the worst of the worst.

The guy who put on the shackles said it was “procedure.” He lied.

In all the many arraignments I have covered in federal court, no defendant was ever been brought into the courtroom in cuffs and leg irons.

I don’t know about Van Til’s guilt or innocence.

But, I do know the feds owe him an apology. They owe the rest of us an explanation.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjames@219.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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