The smoke plumes of alleged impropriety are again billowing from the Lake County Government Center in thick figurative clouds.
Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors should follow their senses on this one and determine if the smoke emanates from the criminal fires of public corruption.
We learned about the smoke earlier this week in a civil lawsuit filed against Lake County Recorder Mike Brown. The lawsuit alleges he compelled a part-time government employee of his office to engage in sex acts as a condition of possible promotion to full-time status.
But right now, it's just a civil lawsuit — claims stacked like firewood into a smoking pit of flaming allegations.
Regardless of their veracity, such civil accusations carry enough smoky odor that they should be garnering a probe for possible criminal fires.
In fact, the allegations seem to be rooted in the same soils from which other local government officials have been convicted in criminal public corruption cases.
The civil lawsuit, filed by former part-time recorder's employee Estela Montalvo, specifically alleges that Brown compelled her to engage in sex acts with him in Brown's county government office in Crown Point as well as at Brown's residences.
Montalvo claims Brown tied offers of a future promotion to these encounters — and that he perpetrated a similar quid pro quo cycle by rewarding another woman with a promotion.
The allegations go beyond their face-value repugnance of possible predation by a person of power on subordinates.
As the elected county recorder, Brown oversees 22 employees and a $1 million annual budget in the county's official archive of legal property and other documents.
If Brown was compelling a government employee to engage in sexual conduct with him, particularly on county hours and in his taxpayer-funded office, it's no stretch to say he was misappropriating public money and resources.
If Montalvo's allegations are true, the case is not much different, on its base, than other Region public officials who've been criminally convicted for using county workers or money for personal purposes or to fuel their political campaigns.
In the end, it's alleged personal use of taxpayer resources.
Then there's state and federal bribery laws to consider.
If sex were traded as a condition of employment or with the enticement of a possible promotion, how is it substantially different from a public official who offers or receives bribes?
And if Brown used his position as an elected official and department head to compel sex from Montalvo and others, as is alleged in the lawsuit, it sure seems to fit the spirit of official misconduct, which also is a crime defined in Indiana statute. Most reasonable people would infer official misconduct from an elected official using his or her government office for sexual encounters with government employees.
I'm no lawyer and don't even play one on TV. No doubt, truth can be elusive in such cases.
However, the smoke of these allegations begs a thorough investigation by the fire marshals that are state and federal agents and prosecutors.
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter told us he's looking into the allegations for any basis of criminal activity.
That's a start, but most taxpayers would have a lot more faith in the results of a criminal probe orchestrated by the U.S. attorney's office in Hammond. You know, the same office that has garnered 70-plus criminal convictions against corrupt Region politicians or their politically connected crony contractors since the 1980s.
Lake County taxpayers deserve to know a thorough search for any fires of criminal wrongdoing has occurred.
Most civil lawsuits of this magnitude end up being settled out of court, with no regard for revealing fact or showing true culpability.
Such a situation, in this case, would leave embers of distrust burning in the hearts and minds of Lake County citizens.
A criminal probe by federal agents, whose offices aren't so close to the smoke of the Lake County Government Center or its partisan politics, could go a long way to truly sorting this one out.