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Who Will Be The Next U.S. Attorney For NW Indiana?

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Who Will Be The Next U.S. Attorney For NW Indiana?

FBI special agent Laura Walker with U.S. Attorney Joseph Van Bokkelen, HUD Inspector General Barry McLaughlin and IRS agent Allen Johnson. (Post-Tribune/Stephanie Dowell)

The whole country is watching Illinois struggle with its public corruption mess. But across the state line in Indiana, Hoosiers also are worried about misconduct among their government officials. Just like in Chicago, the U.S. Attorney in Northern Indiana has been a key prosecutor of political corruption. So many Hoosiers want Barack Obama to approve a top prosecutor who will continue that trend. But history isn’t on their side.

Democratic-appointed U.S. attorneys in Northern Indiana haven’t always had public corruption tops on their list.

Northwest Indiana came out strong to help elect Barack Obama for president. The Democrat-rich area played a big role in Obama winning Indiana, the first time a Democrat has done that in 44 years. Now Hoosiers hope Obama can help them reverse layoffs in large industries and save downtrodden urban sectors. And they especially want the incoming Democrat to make sure northern Indiana gets a U.S. Attorney who will continue the fight against public corruption.

EISENSTEIN: The realities of Northwest Indiana it is the most corrupt public government in the country.

Maurice Eisenstein teaches political science at Purdue University Calumet in Hammond and he’s been an outspoken observer of Northwest Indiana politics.

If the past is any indication, Eisenstein says, Obama will not approve someone to be the top federal prosecutor in the area who will go against the Democratic grain in Northwest Indiana.

EISENSTEIN: We’ve gone through cycles for almost 40 years that when a Republican U.S. attorney comes in, large amounts of public officials get prosecuted. And when the Democrats come in they don’t. Part of that is because Lake County’s run by Democrats and Democrats don’t pursue Democrats.

Eisenstein say to be fair the reality is not quite as sinister as that may sound. Democrat-appointed U.S. attorneys in Northwest Indiana have usually kept busy with other priorities like prosecuting violent crimes and fighting drug lords. But no matter what the priorities, whoever takes over the U.S. attorney’s role in Northern Indiana will have big shoes to fill.

The last U.S. Attorney Joe Van Bokkelen, who stepped down in 2007 to become a federal judge, is something of a legend. Van Bokkelen became U.S. Attorney in the days following 9-11, recommended by Indiana Senator Richard Lugar and approved by President George Bush. For the next six years, Van Bokkelen pursued corrupt public officials vigorously, sending dozens of public and elected officials to the federal pen.

Former Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter grew up in northwest Indiana. Carter says the person who fills the role as U.S. attorney will almost certainly have to taken on public corruption as relentlessly as Van Bokkelen did.

CARTER: I think that’s the expectation. I think they will be held up against Van Bokkelen’s work product over the past few years and I don’t think it will look very good if they don’t rise to that level also.

St. John, Indiana attorney Joe Hero can’t get enough of County politics. He often attends press conferences when a local politician gets indicted but not in any official capacity, mostly, he says, for amusement. Public corruption in Lake County fits the model of Tammany Hall. Sitting inside a warm, cozy bar in Valparaiso last week, Hero says Barack Obama’s call for change will be tested with this appointment.

HERO: Obama is going to have to decide if he’s going to cater to the political kingpins of Lake County or if he’s going to do the right thing and continue the good work that Joe Van Bokkelen did. It’s a test of Obama’s integrity. It’s traditional that the senior lawmaker of the president’s party recommends who should fill the attorney position, considered the chief federal enforcement official in the district. Indiana U.S. Senator Evan Bayh will make that recommendation to Obama. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. Most attorneys are replaced when a new administration takes over.

Names that have surfaced for northern Indiana include longtime northwest Indiana attorney Jim Wieser, Gary attorney Karen Freeman Wilson, who served as Indiana attorney general, St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak of the South Bend Area and David Capp, who is currently serving as interim U.S. attorney and served under Van Bokklen as first assistant. Capp is highly regarded and could be the frontrunner.

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