MERRILLVILLE — Ethics training for public officials can help the Region overcome a “past that is not necessarily one of exemplary public service,” Thomas Kirsch, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Indiana, told a regional ethics group Thursday.

“A commitment to ethical and lawful practices is the first line of defense in ensuring the public’s confidence in our government,” Kirsch said at the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission’s annual summit. “I can’t think of anything that erodes public trust … more than corruption of elected and appointed officials in office.”

To illustrate the point, Kirsch recalled the “extraordinarily disappointing” roster of corrupt regional officials from the recent past. Audience members groaned as he recited a list as long as it was embarrassing.

“In the last dozen or so years … the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of Indiana has convicted elected officials from the Lake County recorder’s office, auditor's office, surveyor’s office, sheriff’s department, county council, several local mayors, several local councilmen, local trustees, a judge, a clerk, a city controller, a city engineer, a city parks director, and dozens of unelected officials of corruption-related offenses,” he said.

SEAC, which comprises representatives from Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties and more than 20 municipal governments, aims to combat that kind of pervasive wrongdoing with its outreach to public officials. While the group has gained prominence for its candidate ethics pledge, its day-to-day work focuses on providing training to municipal employees in an effort to promote ethical decision making.

Kirsch, who prosecuted numerous public corruption cases as an assistant U.S. attorney, said political graft has harmed the fortunes of cities across the Region.

“Corruption is not a victimless crime — far, far from it,” he said. “Corruption hurts people and economic markets of nearly every kind. Businesses won’t come, residents flee, the crime rate goes up, and the public is worse off in nearly every way.”

That’s why taking an early intervention approach with newly elected officeholders and government employees is so important, according to Cal Bellamy, who founded SEAC in 2005. The group aims to prevent unethical behavior from deteriorating into the illegal, he said.

“We’re trying to focus on the gray areas, the early stages of doing something wrong so it doesn’t get to the criminal level,” Bellamy said. “That’s the whole philosophy of our training and our program. We’re in the business of prevention.”

Lake County’s reputation for crooked politicians notwithstanding, Kirsch said corruption cases have tapered off somewhat since Operation Lights Out, a massive federal prosecution in the 1990s that saw dozens of local officials convicted of corruption-related offenses in one fell swoop.

“I hope that means people know we’re being vigilant,” Kirsch told The Times, adding that ordinary citizens and government employees now seem “energized” to come forward with information about public corruption.

“I think that’s happening more now than 20 years ago,” he said.