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Van Bokkelen Steps Down as U.S. Attorney

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Van Bokkelen Steps Down as U.S. Attorney

Joseph Van Bokkelen

Ask people to name an aggressive U.S. attorney from the Midwest, and it’s likely most would identify Patrick Fitzgerald of the Northern District of Illinois.

But Northwest Indiana has had its own public corruption buster over the past six years. Now Joseph Van Bokkelen is stepping down as U.S. attorney for Northwest Indiana to take a federal judgeship.

Michael Puente has covered Van Bokkelen for years, first as a newspaper reporter and now for Chicago Public Radio. He brings us this report.

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Just a few days ago, the U.S. attorney’s office in Hammond announced that it had wrapped up a public corruption case against a township trustee who spent 300-grand in public money on personal pleasures like motorcycle racing.

The trustee had finally been sentenced.

It’s an example of Joe Van Bokkelen’s style: He may be a week from stepping down as U.S. attorney for Northwest Indiana, but he’ll be using every last bit of remaining hours to focus on weeding out political corruption.
His commitment has been both professional and a little personal; He’s spent much of his life in this part of the Midwest.

VAN BOKKELEN: If you go any place in the state of Indiana and you say you’re from Lake County, Indiana, people kind of look at you and say, ‘We’re sorry.’ That shouldn’t be the way it is. Lake County is a wonderful place. It’s got many opportunities, but this image needs to be changed. And, I think it’s due to the efforts of a lot of people, not just this office, I think that’s changing.”

Van Bokkelen took over as U.S. attorney just two days after 9/11. As U.S. attorneys did in 2001 at President Bush’s orders, Van Bokkelen announced that fighting terrorism would be part of his agenda. But so too would be tackling public corruption.

There were doubts Van Bokkelen could live up to that pledge. But he set out to show he meant business. He prosecuted Gary, Indiana Clerk Katie Hall, a former congresswoman, for pressuring her staff to donate to her political campaign.

Other indictments of high profile politicos followed: The former head of the Indiana Democratic Party; a former union boss; a political confidant of former Gary Mayor Scott King and others in Gary City Hall and in county government, along with the youngest son of a legendary East Chicago mayor.

Fridays in Lake County would become known as “Indictment Friday,” with Van Bokkelen holding regular press conferences to announce his next big catch. He had a knack for the dramatic, including last year when he unveiled indictments against the heads of a Gary firm for allegedly spending federal funds on themselves.

VAN BOKKELEN: “This is some of the most offensive conduct we have ever seen. This was not organization that was intended to help the citizens of Gary, but it helped at least two people and probably some more.”

Perhaps the biggest day for Van Bokkelen’s office came on Sept. 5, 2003. That’s when a grand jury indicted six East Chicago public officials for misspending millions of dollars in public funds on a failed public works project in exchange for votes.

As the U.S. marshals office rounded up those indicted, Van Bokkelen stood at a podium talking about weeding out public corruption, as East Chicago Mayor Robert Patrick stood watching and listening just a few feet away, unaware of what was taking place in his city. But some thought the whole thing was staged. Van Bokkelen insists it wasn’t.

VAN BOKKELEN: “I didnt anticipate that everything would hit at the same time as it did. In terms of the message that we were trying to get out, I think it was a good thing.”

Rich James has written about local and state politics for the Post-Tribune, my old newspaper, for nearly 30 years. James says Van Bokkelen isn’t the first local U.S. attorney to go after public corruption, but,

JAMES: “He was the first U.S. attorney to go into East Chicago and have some success.”

But James says Van Bokkelen may also be remembered for those he didn’t catch in East Chicago’s political shenanigans.

JAMES: “He didn’t bring down the hierarchy of East Chicago that people kept waiting for and waiting for and never came because it either wasn’t there or people wouldn’t cooperate to help Joe get them.”

Still, James says Van Bokkelen’s efforts have made for a better Lake County.

JAMES: “Is there still corruption, sure there is still some but I think Joe Van Bokkelen got the attention of a lot of sitting officials and said you’re no longer going to do it the way it used to be done.”

After next week, Van Bokkelen will be hearing cases as a federal judge, just three floors above his current office inside the Hammond federal courthouse. He should be hearing his first cases by late August, but he’ll be staying clear of any criminal cases he prosecuted.

I’m Michael Puente, Chicago Public Radio.

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