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Editor

Marc Chase is a veteran investigative reporter, columnist and editor of more than two decades. He currently leads The Times news staff as local news editor. He can be reached at 219-933-3327.

A pattern of public corruption tediously repeats itself in Northwest Indiana, and we're all to blame.

It's not just the old adage of history repeating itself, which it clearly often does. Nothing is more true in the lexicon of Region political corruption than everything old being new again in the 70-plus public corruption felony convictions since the 1980s.

But drilling down into why the same common themes of bribery, fraud, extortion and self-enriching theft rear their ugly heads in our local government offices decade after decade requires some uncomfortable self realization.

Much of it emanates from a culture of acceptance, aided by the patronage notions of continuing to serve the leaders, who hand out jobs to county residents or their families.

We all should be reminded of the putrid cycle of corruption illustrated in the case of former Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin, who is expected to formally plead guilty to felony fraud charges Monday in Hammond federal court.

History repeating itself

Elgin and her son Steven Hunter filed the plea agreements in federal court late last month but await a formal acceptance of the pleas by a federal judge.

In those agreements, Elgin admits she extorted campaign contributions from her government employees and required them to work — on the government time clock — to further her re-election bid.

Hunter's plea agreement acknowledges he distributed his mother's campaign fundraising tickets, which township employees were required to sell or buy as conditions of their employment.

If any of these tunes sound familiar, you no doubt remember some of the golden oldies of Region public corruption.

In the 1980s, former Lake County Commissioner and then Sheriff Rudy "Bart" Bartolomei was criminally indicted, in part, for shaking down government employees for campaign contributions. He also was implicated in a scheme to inflate custodian fees at the Lake County Government Center that manifested themselves in bribes paid back to Bartolomei and other public officials.

Bartolomei ultimately pleaded guilty to two felony counts in federal court, was sentenced to 28 months in prison and became a federal witness against other corrupt politicos.

Culture of acceptance

Former congresswoman turned Gary city clerk Katie Hall took her own turn at the government employee shakedown game.

Hall served in the U.S. House between 1981 and 1985, then left Congress and become Gary city clerk.

Hall and her daughter, Junifer, were convicted of public corruption charges in 2003.

Hall has since died, but a culture of acceptance continues to follow her.

Each year, her namesake Katie Hall Education Foundation Inc. sponsors the Katie Hall Public Service Awards Luncheon. Region and national dignitaries regularly accept self-congratulatory awards from the foundation.

The foundation likes to celebrate that Hall was one of the congressional leaders who helped make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.

It's difficult to conceive, however, how King, a visionary leader in civil rights, would celebrate a Gary official found guilty of shaking down government employees.

The culture of acceptance doesn't stop with the Hall case.

Most Lake County residents remember former elected county Surveyor George Van Til.

He ultimately pleaded guilty to felony counts of wire fraud in Hammond federal court, and the circumstances harken political deja vu.

Van Til was indicted for compelling government employees to perform campaign work on taxpayer time. He also was accused of directing an employee to remove a government computer's hard drive to conceal his tracks.

The culture of acceptance reared its ugly head in the Van Til case, as well.

Ahead of Van Til's sentencing, his attorney submitted more than 100 pages worth of letters  to the court in which dozens of political friends and allies — including sitting elected officials — carried water for Van Til as character witnesses.

In a "there but for the grace of God go I" move, officials including Indiana House Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, and Highland Clerk-Treasurer Michael Griffin, wrote letters asking the court for leniency and essentially vouching for the character of a man who already had admitted to stealing from taxpayers.

Their support didn't stop with letters. A Times file photo shows Brown walking in solidarity with Van Til as the former surveyor exited the Hammond federal courthouse, having just pleaded guilty in the case. Griffin attended the same hearing to publicly show support for his friend.

Continuing cycle

The culture of acceptance also has elevated some public corruption felons to the ranks of sage advisers to sitting Region politicians.

Lake County political observers recognize Bob Cantrell as a longtime political operative, helping push proverbial buttons both behind and in front of the Region's political curtain.

Many also know Cantrell completed a federal prison term last year following a public corruption conviction for steering government contracts, and accepting kickbacks, while an employee of the North Township Trustee's office several years ago.

Cantrell had barely made it out of prison when he re-emerged in Lake County political circles, allying himself with sitting elected officials and even showing his face at the 2016 candidate filing deadline at the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point.

Unfortunately, many of Lake County's elected leaders, including Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay, have embraced Cantrell's political support in spite of the felon status.

Porter County isn't immune from the problem, either.

Last week, an earnest-looking Portage Mayor James Snyder bent over a map in his City Hall office while Portage High School students intently listened to the mayor explain upcoming city projects.

The students were participating in the annual Youth Government Day to learn about the way government is supposed to work. This particular scene, which exudes a veneer of wholesome learning, was captured for posterity in a published Times photo chronicling the event.

However, the image glosses over the very unwholesome reality that Snyder, though innocent unless proven guilty, is under federal indictment for allegedly accepting bribes in the awarding of city towing work.

Who's to blame?

In the end, who's to blame for the seemingly endless cycle?

The media? Public officials who serve as apologists for fellow officials who've been convicted of crimes against the taxpayer? The voters who keep electing people who perpetuate the cycle? The registered voters who may be disgusted with public corruption but don't even bother to vote?

How about apathetic citizens or disorganized parties of political opposition who don't run against the status quo incumbents?

It seems there's plenty of blame to go around in this cycle of political corruption, aided and abetted by a culture of acceptance.

The most important question is when will we all take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide what we can do to break the cycle.

Editorial Page Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/marc.chase.9 or Twitter @nwi_MarcChase. The opinions are the writer's.

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