OWI photo

Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist leaves the Hammond Federal Courthouse with his wife, Deborah, and the mayor's stepdaughter, Miranda Brakley, after the trio pleaded not guilty to charges in 2014.

John Luke, The Times

It’s difficult to define justice. I guess it’s pretty much in the eye of the beholder.

Justice sometimes is served. Oftentimes it’s not.

Justice just recently waived its fickle finger in Lake Station.

Thirty years earlier, justice came down in the form of a clenched fist involving the very same allegations.

I spent much too much time in the 1980s in a federal courtroom in Hammond as the government prosecuted judges, other officials and lawyers for their roles in what was called Operation Bar Tab.

Several were convicted of the heinous crime of mail fraud.

What they all conspired to do was withhold from the state some records of convictions for drunken driving and reckless driving.

For the defendants, that meant there would be no points placed against their driver’s licenses and no penalties from their insurance companies.

And what did Lake County Court Judges Steven Bielak and Orval Anderson get for their kindness? Well, actually, nothing.

U.S. Attorney James G. Richmond said Bielak never received money for his benevolence.

And, during all those years in court, never did I hear an accusation that a dime changed hands.

Almost a dozen folks were convicted. And they went to prison. Lives were shattered. Careers were lost.

Were they wrong? Sure. Did they deserve to go to prison? I guess that depends on one’s interpretation of justice.

Three decades later we have a similar thing happening on a lesser scale.

Miranda Brakley, a former Lake Station City Court clerk, was accused of failing to send the records of drunken-driving convictions and other moving violations to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

The operative word here is accused. She was never charged.

LaPorte County Prosecutor John Espar, who supervised a state police investigation, called Brakley’s conduct “a general and widespread failure” of the court’s legal duty.

Espar also said there was no evidence that money changed hands.

One of the keys to what happened in the mid-1980s and what took place in recent years is what the General Assembly did in 2011.

The legislators changed the legal definition of official misconduct in 2011 to decriminalize a public official’s failure to perform official duties. Any of Brakley’s failures to report convictions to the BMV prior to 2011 are beyond the state’s five-year statute of limitations.

Was Brakley wrong? Sure. Should she have gone to prison? Again, I guess it depends on one’s interpretation of justice.

Had the state penalty for official misconduct been in place back in the 1980s, Bielak and others might not have been prosecuted by the feds, although the mail fraud statute can be draped around almost anything that borders wrongdoing.

Bielak and others went to prison for their wrongdoing. Brakley never was charged for doing the same thing. Some call that justice. Others don’t.

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

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