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Gary City Hall

Gary City Hall

Independent reviews of government missteps demand untainted authorities, not politically tied cronies, to weed out problems.

Appearance means everything.

It's a lesson Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson seems intent on ignoring.

Regular readers of The Times are familiar with the recent misuse of some $8 million in taxpayer money that was supposed to be earmarked for Gary's Emergency Management Services fund.

Those public safety dollars were pillaged, allegedly by two city finance officials who no longer work for Gary, to pay for a litany of other expenses not associated with the intended purpose.

The city has reported $131,850.49 of the money is unaccounted for and needs to be investigated.

City officials have said this misuse of funds occurred without required authorization of the City Council.

After the public embarrassment set in, Freeman-Wilson hired private accountant Curtis Whittaker, and his firm Whittaker and Co., to perform a supposed deep-dive into what happened and why.

The decision to hire Whittaker was flawed from the beginning.

Whittaker, who also is pastor of Gary's Progressive Community Church, has perennial political ties with Freeman-Wilson and other levels of Region government.

He contributed $11,000 to Freeman-Wilson's campaign over four years and has been awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in lucrative city contracts in the past two years.

Whittaker also served as a defender and apologist for a torrent of wasteful spending practices exposed in past Times investigations of former Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin.

Elgin is now a federally convicted felon, having pleaded guilty to shaking down government employees for campaign contributions.

In the early 2000s, Whittaker performed accounting work for the defunct and controversy-laden Gary Urban Enterprises Association.

The nonprofit agency's principal officials were convicted of embezzling about $1 million in public funds that were supposed to be redeveloping Gary.

Whittaker wasn't accused of wrongdoing in the Elgin or GUEA cases.

But his association with the two entities leaves too many questions in the minds of the public. A better choice could have and should have been made to probe the misuse of ambulance fund money.

Now the matter is in the hands of the Indiana State Board of Accounts, as it should be. A state audit of the matter should be much more independent and less tainted in appearance.

Freeman-Wilson should have sent the matter to state auditors, or at least hired an accountant with less political baggage, to begin with.

When contacted by The Times earlier this week about Whittaker's political baggage, Freeman-Wilson defended him, saying she was "absolutely comfortable with (Whittaker) as a licensed professional, who wouldn't undermine his integrity."

A better choice for an independent review wouldn't have needed defending.

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Members of The Times Editorial Board are Publisher Christopher T. White, Editor Marc Chase, Deputy Editor Kerry Erickson, Assistant Local News Editor Crista Zivanovic and Regional News Editor Sharon Ross.