When I met Keith Soderquist, I thought he was a man of his convictions. He still is, but in a much different way.
Soderquist, of course, was given a four-year sentence a week ago on public corruption charges. U.S. District Court Judges Rudy Lozano and James Moody also ordered him to pay $4,184 in restitution to Lake Station, the city he once served as mayor, and $22,571 to the Internal Revenue Service.
Soderquist inspired both disgust and disappointment when he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Specifically, he stole food from his city’s poorest residents when he took money from the city’s food pantry.
Moody blasted Soderquist with both barrels.
“You stole from the food pantry? That’s obscene. I’ve sentenced many politicians in my 40 years here, but what you have done ... Your city is full of people who are unemployed, underpaid and on welfare. What the hell were you thinking of? Are you goofy? Answer me!” the judge spat out.
Those are the same questions many of us were asking. What was Soderquist thinking?
When it came to technical expertise, he was good. He did a lot for the city. But what he did to the city was so bad that it is what he will be remembered for.
Character is an important factor in determining who should run the government, whether it’s at the presidential level, the municipal level or anywhere in between.
Soderquist offers many lessons for those of us who have 20/20 hindsight, at least. Here are three:
1. Relatives shouldn’t be on the same payroll.
Soderquist’s wife, Deborah Soderquist, was sentenced to two years in prison. She ran Lake Station’s food pantry and was treasurer of her husband’s re-election campaign.
The Soderquists used money from the food pantry and the re-election campaign fund to gamble at area casinos. He wasn’t corrupted by someone else. He corrupted himself.
Prudence requires an outsider to look at finances. Nepotism is a bad policy.
2. Don’t install eavesdropping equipment in government buildings.
While still serving as mayor, after his indictment, Soderquist secretly recorded telephone conversations and listened to about 30 phone calls made or received by potential government witnesses.
Whoever thought putting this technology into a city hall was a good idea must not have been around when President Richard Nixon was caught up in the Watergate scandal.
3. Transparency makes for good government.
Speaking to the Valparaiso Rotary Club on Monday, state Auditor Suzanne Crouch touted the www.in.gov/itp/" href="http://www.in.gov/itp/" target="_blank">Indiana Transparency Portal, which you’ll find at www.in.gov/itp.
A show of hands proved her point that not enough Hoosiers have taken advantage of this window into the workings of state government. The transparency portal, consistently named one of the best in the nation, lets people see where their state tax money is going.
The Department of Local Government Finance has a similar effort in its Gateway website.
Crouch’s office is working on a new version of the transparency portal and is considering a plan to make the software available for free to local government.
Someone tipped the federal government to Soderquist’s wrongdoing. Think how much easier it would be to catch crooked politicians if the data were easily available online for anyone to find.
Better yet, think of how many politicians would think twice if they knew how easily they could be caught.