EAST CHICAGO | Mayor George Pabey promised change after he broke Robert Pastrick's 33-year stranglehold on East Chicago politics in 2005, but at least one thing remains the same: Federal agents are investigating city employees.
And region political observers say the political culture that seems to persist in East Chicago can only mean more bad fortune for the historically embattled city.
City spokesman Damian Rico denies Pabey did anything wrong by hiring contractors and friends -- who also are East Chicago city workers -- to fix up a house owned by Pabey and his daughter Maria Pabey in Gary's Miller neighborhood.
Federal agents have not spoken with Pabey about the matter. So far, agents only have interviewed engineering department employees, Rico said.
Pabey's election was a break from corruption and waste, including a sidewalks-for-votes scandal that occurred on Pastrick's watch, Rico said.
"Mayor Pabey has run this administration with professionalism and integrity," Rico said.
But not everyone in city government sees it that way.
Former city employee Alicia Lopez-Rodriguez, a Pabey ally turned enemy who was crushed by Pabey in the 2007 Democratic mayoral primary, said she believes where there is smoke, there is fire.
"I don't think that it'll end with anything but indictments," she said. "If they really start investigating, they're going to find out a lot."
Any East Chicago official who may be indicted would be upholding what some refer to as a long tradition of shame in the city. And some region political observers say the chain of corruption continues to hold down the city from achieving better social and economic footing.
History of shame
The Sidewalk Six -- three Pastrick-era city department heads and three city councilmen convicted of trading $24 million in concrete work and tree trimming for votes -- are the most famous people indicted in city history, but lesser scandals have felled other officials.
East Chicago political fixer Robert Cantrell was convicted of 11 fraud counts in June. Cantrell ran the barely breathing county GOP for many years with cooperation from Pastrick, the Democratic rainmaker.
Pastrick never was charged in the Sidewalk Six investigation, but Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter in 2007 hit Pastrick and others with a civil racketeering lawsuit, accusing Pastrick of running the city as a "corrupt enterprise." The trial is expected to start this spring.
Pastrick inherited the city from John Nicosia, who resigned under federal investigation. Nicosia was convicted in 1979 of obstructing justice in a case involving kickbacks.
But a criminal conviction won't necessarily end a politician's career in East Chicago. Eleven years after Noah Atterson Spann was sentenced for taking bribes as a Lake County commissioner, Pastrick hired him to run his 1999 campaign.
Rudy Byron was indicted with Spann. He pleaded guilty in 1988 to filing false tax returns, and he failed to report more than $63,000 he received from two maintenance companies. Pabey made Byron parks superintendent. Byron later was transferred, then laid off, Rico said.
East Chicago's one-party political culture is not without a system of ethics, said Dan Lowery, a political commentator and a dean at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting.
"What you have is the ethics of the Mafia, in effect," Lowery said. "It's taking care of family. That is an ethic. It's just not an ethic that's legal."
Politics is a religion in East Chicago, Lowery said, and power is built through ethnic coalitions that care for their own.
City patronage jobs are crucial in East Chicago, a poor city that doesn't offer a lot of private jobs, Lowery said. In cities that depend on patronage, budgets bloat, services flounder and residents suffer, Lowery said.
City Controller Charlie Pacurar said the city has trimmed its work force since Pastrick ruled. Pabey has trimmed the city staff from 1,049 before Pastrick's defeat to 809 now, Pacurar said.
And Rico said Pabey aimed an early round of firings at eliminating corruption from the Pastrick era.
But Pat Bankston, director of the Indiana University Northwest School of Medicine, said the region's reputation for corruption hurts local businesses, including hospitals. Region residents drive hundreds of miles away for routine medical care they could get in the region, and outsiders have heard the area is "not so nice." Government corruption contributes to a self-fulfilling prophecy of mediocrity.
"You think you're not so good, so you're not so good," Bankston said.
Pabey has said nothing substantial on the current investigation, saying through Rico he doesn't want to impede the federal process. Approached Tuesday by a Times reporter at his news conference announcing his new appointment for police chief, Pabey showed clear frustration as he again declined to comment.
"When the time comes, I'll give you anything you need," Pabey said, before he turned away, shook a few more hands and disappeared into a private meeting.
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