Ethics training hopes to breach region's walll of shame

2014-03-16T00:00:00Z 2014-03-16T01:04:15Z Ethics training hopes to breach region's walll of shameBy Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
March 16, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Lake County has served a bottomless brunch for corrupt government and business.

Go back to the mid-1980s and Rudy Bartolomei, who was a county commissioner and sheriff. He was convicted of possession of an unregistered firearm, entered the witness-protection program and started a cascade of bribery convictions of public officials in an investigation known as Lights Out.

Peter Benjamin, who served as county assessor and auditor and consultant, was another spectacular case of local government gone awry. He pleaded guilty in 2003 to bribing a county official with cash and a suite of dining room furniture and forging signatures for money to indulge in prostitutes and drugs.

In a team effort, East Chicago municipal officials and contractors perpetrated the concrete-for-votes scandal during the 1999 East Chicago Democratic primary, misappropriating and profiting from a scheme to reward compliant voters with new sidewalks or driveways.

The years have brought more of same: ghost payrolling cops paid for work undone or hard at work for drug gangs, union bosses embezzling workers funds, municipal and county officials who either evade taxes or use their offices to enrich themselves illegally.

Porter County cannot compete with Lake in terms of public corruption statistics.

However, Porter County Clerk Karen Martin raised eyebrows in 2011, but didn't break the law when she hired her daughter, Carrie Martin-Schenck, about a week after taking office. Porter County has a nepotism policy prohibiting hiring relatives; it doesn't apply to elected officials.

What history teaches, said Calvin Bellamy, president of the Lake County Shared Ethics Advisory Commission, is that fear of disgrace hasn't been a sufficient deterrent and proposes an alternative.

"We have to step back earlier and establish a culture that doesn't approve of this type of behavior and prevents it," Bellamy said last year a day after former County Clerk Thomas Philpot was sentenced for theft of public money.

Bellamy has been trying to convince local elected officials to employ the ethics commission, which started about a decade ago.

The commission, which has no permanent staff or salaries, hosts training in ethical decision making for department managers, government boards and commissions by volunteers based on case studies and participant dialog.

It offers ethics training to municipal employees in Crown Point, Dyer, East Chicago, Highland, Hobart, Lowell, Munster, Schererville, Whiting and LaPorte County. Gary is in the process of joining and Ogden Dunes has expressed interest in joining.

Bellamy said other local governments decline to join for a variety of reasons: the membership fees, ranging from $250 per year to $1,500 per year are too high, the feeling that ethics is just common sense learned in school or church or concerns that joining the commission is either an admission of the community has ethical problems or will be seen by others as trumpeting  their ethical superiority.

Lake County officials have declined to join on grounds the commission's Code of Shared Ethics and Values is good philosophy, but too vague to base a county ordinance on.

It includes 32 instructions on how public officeholders and employees should promote, including: honesty, civility, accountability and fairness.

Bellamy said the code was drafted and reviewed by Indiana University Northwest, Purdue University Calumet and Calumet College professors who instruct on ethical matters.

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