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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.

I did my honest best to save Lake County taxpayers the $185,000 they now must pay to settle an embarrassing sex scandal courtesy of a county elected official.

In full disclosure, I had no idea that when Lake County Recorder Mike Brown opted to hire a politically connected — and already scandal-prone — part-time employee in 2014 that she would end up suing Brown and the county in an alleged sex-for-promotion harassment lawsuit in 2017.

No one could have foreseen those specifics. But some form of disastrous writing already was on the wall.

Soon after he hired her, I warned Brown, and the public, of the folly in choosing to put Estela Montalvo on the public payroll.

He clearly didn't listen, and now here we are.

At the time of her hiring, Montalvo, herself a past unsuccessful candidate for Lake County recorder, had an embarrassing mark on her legal record. 

Montalvo was convicted in Cook County court in 2010 for misdemeanor resisting arrest and obstruction of police charges. For that she served a year on court supervision.

Her husband, disgraced former East Chicago Library Director Manuel Montalvo, was convicted in the same case. Both were arrested in May 2010 after a raucous altercation with NICTD police on a South Shore Line railroad platform in Chicago.

Manuel Montalvo also was convicted in an unrelated federal case in 2013 for providing false information on his 2009 federal tax return. Hammond federal court records indicate he falsely listed business and medical expenses on his tax returns for which the East Chicago Library Board already had reimbursed him.

Manuel Montalvo was sentenced to 24 months probation, four months of home detention and was ordered to pay restitution in the tax case.

Brown's hiring of Estela Montalvo represented a trend of using taxpayer-funded county government jobs as a virtual halfway house for connected folks with criminal records.

At the time, it seemed clear Estela Montalvo's patronage connections landed her a job with little-to-no hiring scrutiny.

During a 2014 interview and in a subsequent column, I challenged Brown on the matter, noting taxpayers deserved better for their money.

Brown argued he was giving her a second chance and that she was a model employee.

Four years later, it's likely his opinion has changed.

In May 2017, Montalvo sued Brown and county government, alleging 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.

Brown argued he had no sexual contact with Montalvo whatsoever, but Lake County prosecutors and state police concluded that while there was evidence of an inappropriate sexual relationship, no crime occurred.

The allegations went beyond the inappropriate use of county employees and resources for a sexual affair with a married woman. They included predation by a person of power on subordinates.

The agreement by Brown and the county earlier this week to settle the lawsuit may not be an outright admission of guilt, but appearances are everything.

And a $185,000 legal settlement — along with as-of-yet undisclosed legal fees for five lawyers who defended the county in the case — casts a rather infuriating image.

As the elected county recorder, Brown oversees 22 employees and a $1 million annual budget, presiding over the county's official archive of legal property and other documents.

He has two years left on his term, and state term limits dictate he can't run again for the same office in 2020. But he could seek any number of other public offices.

Brown also has been criticized for keeping a low profile since the lawsuit was filed, with many county officials observing he's regularly not in his office during working hours.

Times reporters have had the same observation when visiting the recorder's office on several occasions within the past year.

Lake County voters should remember this sting of embarrassment.

They should remember it could have been prevented. They must be mindful of the abuse, lack of judgment or a combination thereof represented by Brown.

It should motivate them to prevent Mike Brown from holding political office ever again in this county.

Local News Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 933-3327 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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