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Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller says the rest of the state has something to learn from Lake County about restoring public trust shattered by government corruption.

Zoeller said Northwest Indiana's Shared Ethics Advisory Commission has shown downstate leaders how to provide ethical awareness to local government employees, and the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority has been transparent in how it spends state and local economic development money.

Zoeller said he hopes the recently formed Indiana Public Integrity Coalition is planning to provide ethics training to public officials around the state along the lines of the services now given by the decade-old Shared Ethics Advisory Commission under the leadership of Calvin Bellamy.

"We have taken a page out of Cal Bellamy's playbook," Zoeller recently told The Times Editorial Board.

The indictment and imprisonment of local officials continues apace in Lake County, but Zoeller said he sees reasons for optimism. "I will say, just for this area, we are doing a lot better up here in terms of recognition of (public corruption).

He applauds East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland for bringing in the Share Ethics Advisory Commission to provide inspiration for an ethics policy and detailed training to city employees, many of whom have had to work under corrupt former administrations.

"I told the mayor ... I will admit he has earned a little bit of trust from the days when I started with Mayor Pastrick and Pabey."

Zoeller won a 2010 civil court ruling that branded former East Chicago Mayor Robert Pastrick's administration as corrupt and ordered Pastrick and former political allies to pay $108 million in damages for the 1999 sidewalks-for-votes scheme. Former Mayor George Pabey is nearing the end of a five-year prison term following his conviction in federal court for stealing the services of city employees to work on a private home his family owned.

The RDA has invested tens of millions of dollars in casino and Indiana Toll Road fees annually into regional infrastructure projects such as the Gary/Chicago International Airport and recreational facilities on the region's Lake Michigan shoreline since its inception in 2005.

Zoeller said when the General Assembly was asked to create the RDA, "the word around the Statehouse, was 'They will steal the money if you send it up there.' To their credit, the RDA has shown they can follow some very strict rules, reporting the moneys going in and coming out ... Nobody has ever raised a claim they made off with it. They have done a great job of showing that there is a new era up in the region."

Zoeller said his office has pursued about 200 cases of public corruptions since he first took office six years ago. One of the largest was the theft of $310,325 by a former clerk of the Merrillville Town Court.

"We have gone after public corruption all these years, and I do think we have raised some profile, but we have almost inadvertently made it seem like there is more of it than there is. It's healthy to start with the premise that corruption is a very small part of local government, state government.

"But any of it is too much. We live in a democracy requires some element of public trust. You have to maintain that trust. It is easy to squander what little trust public officials have," Zoeller said.

"People confuse personal ethics with public ethics," he said, explaining there is a long tradition of private businesses employing friends and relatives of the business owners. "If you are a public officials, hiring your children to work over the summer isn't the same ethics.

Bellamy is a big advocate of teaching people the difference between doing the right thing as a person and assuming you are doing the same in the office that you serve.

"I'm the attorney general. I have an office, but I'm not the office myself. I represent the office and have to protect it," Zoeller explained. "One of the things is to make sure I don't do something which would discredit the office or raise questions in the public. We need to be sensitive to those things. Even if it isn't a violation of the statute, you don't want to do anything that would risk public confidence in the office you serve."

He said most public officers have a vested interest in creating ways to reduce the temptations to steal public funds, such as separating those who write checks for government and those who keep financial books to track such spending.

He said most public employees caught with their hand in the till start small.

"Most of them often say they took a little bit because their spouse gambles, they always have some justification. And then they are going to give it back. They just get in deeper and deeper." He said state and local government needs to train employees "that this is an on-off switch. If you take public funds, its against the law even if you put it all back, I won't go after money missing, but you will still go to jail.

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.