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We all must wonder — when sitting public officials defend those who've done wrong — how much the apologists themselves are hiding.

Longtime Region residents should be familiar with the culture of corruption permeating many levels of local government and politics.

But how carefully are any of us looking at the warning signs — the smoke signals sent by sitting public officials when they offer support, comfort or justification for the acts of colleagues who've been caught in clearly unethical behavior or convicted of crimes against the taxpayer?

The recent federal indictment and guilty plea to felony bribery by former Merrillville town Councilman Tom Goralczyk shows us why it's increasingly important to be leery of any local leaders who act as apologists for those who perpetuate public corruption.

In late summer 2014, a little more than three years before he would plead guilty to the felony bribery charges, Goralczyk strode into a closed meeting of Region county and municipal officials carrying a blue designer Michael Kors purse.

It was a closed executive session of the Lake County Solid Waste Management District Board, so I wasn't permitted in. But several in attendance at the meeting confirmed what happened there.

At the time, Goralczyk represented Merrillville on the 27-member board, which is supposed to hasten local recycling by distributing government funded grants to Lake County communities.

Goralczyk brought the designer woman's handbag, complete with matching accessories, into the meeting to defend its purchase as an appropriate gift for a solid waste district employee.

No, Goralczyk didn't buy the purse himself. Times investigations had revealed then-solid waste district Director Jeff Langbehn made the lavish $750-plus purchase as a gift for a female subordinate in his office. Taxpayers footed the bill as it was made on Langbehn's government credit card.

Nearly all others on the 27-member solid waste district board expressed appropriate disgust when it was revealed Langbehn made the unauthorized purchase, which he initially tried to call a briefcase. In fact, the purchase would lead to Langbehn's firing.

But not before Goralczyk defended Langbehn in a meeting of other board members.

Langbehn wasn't charged with any crime in the purse matter, but it clearly was an unacceptable personal use of taxpayer dollars.

Thankfully, for taxpayers' sake, the rest of the board didn't buy Goralczyk's overtures. Following Langbehn's ouster, a subsequent Times probe of waste district finances revealed hundreds of thousands taxpayer dollars spent on lavish dresses, watches, Chicago theater tickets, expensive meals, a surfboard and luxury hotel stays, among other largesse.

Ultimately, when he stood before Lake County solid waste board members and was a virtual lone voice of support for Langbehn's purse purchase, Goralczyk was unwittingly doing us all a favor.

He was showing us the unethical colors that, as it turns out, would define his period of supposed public service.

Fast-forward from the purse matter to just a couple of weeks ago when Goralczyk was indicted on, and immediately pleaded guilty to, charges of taking bribes from a federal police informant in exchange for a vehicle towing contract.

A silver lining to the matter is Goralczyk, 51, was no longer a sitting public official at the time he pleaded guilty. Voters ushered him out of office in 2015.

But the bribery counts to which he admitted occurred in the heart of his tenure as a supposed public servant. Federal authorities say Goralczyk accepted a 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee for a cut-rate $400 purchase price from the informant, even though he knew the vehicle's value exceeded $2,500.

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He also accepted a 2008 Ford Focus, valued at more than $5,000, for free, and was provided four camper tires and free storage for a personal motorcycle — all in exchange for steering towing contracts, court records show.

Then Goralczyk left evidence of trying to cover his tracks, presenting false bills of sale to the state for the vehicles, prosecutors say.

This all happened between February 2013 and August 2014, in the heart of Goralczyk's eight-year tenure on the Merrilllville Town Council.

In the end, new Hammond-based U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch II got it right when he characterized Goralczyk's actions as "self-dealing and graft."

Goralczyk gave us advance warning with his support of self-enrichment by defending Langbehn's purse purchase — and helping prop up, even through inaction or complacency — the wasteful and unethical spending of hundreds of thousands of more dollars in solid waste district funds.

It's a reminder to keep a keen eye on our public officials before they're potentially led off to federal prison.

It's why I've promised to publish the names and identities of all sitting Region public officials who file letters of support and leniency in the court record in the upcoming sentencing of disgraced former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, now a convicted felon.

Buncich's attorney has said dozens of letters, yet to be filed with the court, have been written on the disgraced sheriff’s behalf — presumably seeking a lenient sentence. This is all for a former top law enforcement officer convicted in a similar towing contract bribery scheme.

Taxpayers have a right to know the names of public officials who continue carrying water for other public officials convicted of public corruption or who engage in unethical behavior at taxpayers' expense.

Such letters of support can provide us all with a guide when it comes time to push buttons in the polling booths.

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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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.