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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.

It remains one of the most disgusting sights associated with corruption and graft in the Region.

Piles of moldering clothing, at one time donated to benefit the less fortunate, lay in 8-foot-high heaps across an area larger than a football field inside a shuttered industrial warehouse in Gary.

The best intentions behind the people who donated the clothing went to die on that warehouse floor — the items never making it to the poor and destitute who needed them.

It was all courtesy of a politically tied entity known as the Gary Urban Enterprise Association, or GUEA, a nonprofit that would become an icon of foul corruption in Northwest Indiana.

Twelve years later, it’s a symbol of what could happen if entities seeking to help deliver Gary from its depths of decay aren't careful about how the help is given and who administers it.

Some of the elected powers that be in Gary aren't exactly filling us with great confidence in this regard.

Just last week, Times reporter Lauren Cross revealed a ghost of GUEA past.

Gary municipal government took ownership of the GUEA building after the agency went defunct in 2007, and many of its principals, some who happened to be local government elected officials, were convicted of crimes against the taxpayer.

Last month, the city transferred ownership of that building to the church of Curtis Whittaker, a politically tied private accountant whose past clients include the GUEA and the city of Gary. Whittaker also is pastor of the church that took title to the building, and he pledges to use the old GUEA headquarters as the site of urban renewal.

Regardless of his intentions, transferring title of a publicly owned building, which once belonged to a symbol of Region corruption, to an accountant who once served the defunct GUEA doesn't send the right message.

And it should be a warning shot to Indiana that perhaps the elected leaders of Gary aren't ready to administer any help the state may provide the struggling city without strong state oversight.

History of corruption

To understand this point, a GUEA history lesson is in order.

GUEA came into existence in 1985 under a state law permitting U.S. Steel and other Gary businesses to reduce taxes by donating more than $15 million to the association between 2000 and 2003. The donations were aimed at improving the quality of life within the three-square-mile area of the city known as the Emerson neighborhood.

A drive through the Emerson today resembles a jaunt through a war-torn, third-world country. There is no booming GUEA-brokered development to be found.

A Times investigation first made public in 2004 that former GUEA Director Jojuana L. Meeks used GUEA money to enjoy perks, such as a Jaguar and a rehabilitated home, rather than the neighborhood revitalization the agency was supposed to performing. She charged more than $163,000 on GUEA credit cards and permitted overpayments to herself and other GUEA officials amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The nonprofit collapsed in 2007.

A revolving door formed between the GUEA offices and the Hammond federal courthouse for GUEA principals, many of whom were convicted of enriching themselves with GUEA proceeds, which in the end were public dollars.

Among the indicted and convicted was former Lake County Councilman Will Smith and others with close political ties to Region government.

All told, Meeks and eight other people eventually were indicted by federal grand juries for embezzling more than $1 million from the publicly supported agency.

In the case of the heaps of moldering clothing in the shuttered Gary warehouse, GUEA drew up that blueprint as well.

In 2007, a Times investigation revealed a chain of business deals brokered by the GUEA in which the copious amounts of donated clothes were placed in storage into the warehouse, providing a lucrative fee to a Gary business in the process, even though GUEA owned hundreds of unused buildings where the clothing could have been stored for free.

"The rag storage served no legitimate purpose for GUEA and was clearly part of a common scheme to steal from GUEA," Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Bell wrote in court records in 2007.

Coming full circle

Given the large size and dark hue of the figurative bruise the GUEA scandal left on the Region's political hide in the early 2000s, it smacks as horribly inappropriate that a former GUEA headquarters building would be turned over to anyone once affiliated with the defunct nonprofit.

Perhaps Whittaker will make good on his promise to transform the former GUEA property into an urban fish farm by the end of summer 2019.

However, none of us should hold our breath.

Last week, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb told The Times he is "hell-bent on helping Gary."

His pledge is noble.

The governor is right to point out the glimmering promise that should exist for the future of a city like Gary, located in an incredible transportation crossroads and just south of one of the world's largest economies in Chicago.

But the governor also said he had no interest in having the state take over day-to-day operations of municipal government the way it already has done by administering the troubled Gary public school district.

Instead, the governor said he wants the state "to assist in making sure they are on a flight path to success."

Again, that shows noble intentions.

Unfortunately, so many good intentions for a brighter future for an impoverished, crumbling Gary have been sent to die at the hands of corruption and mismanagement.

Any state effort to right Gary's sinking ship will demand proper third-party oversight.

Otherwise, those good intentions could end up moldering on the floor an abandoned warehouse while state taxpayers pick up the tab.

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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