Political corruption: Some public officials believe rules are not for them

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by Brandon A. Perry
For New Pittsburgh Courier

(Part three of a four-part series from the Indianapolis Recorder.)

“These are arrogant public officials who play by their own rules,” assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Bell said at a courthouse in Northern Indiana.

Bell wasn’t talking about the Taliban or North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. He was referring to East Chicago Mayor George Pabey and his city supervisor, Jose Camacho. Last week, a jury found the two politicians guilty of conspiracy and theft. They were accused of using city funds and workers to renovate a lakeside property in Gary that Pabey owned.

But you don’t have to travel upstate to find cases that involve political abuse of power.

In Indianapolis last month, former city-county councilman and police major Lincoln Plowman was indicted on charges of soliciting a bribe and extortion. Investigators allege that he asked an undercover FBI agent for $5,000 in cash and a $1,000 campaign contribution in exchange for using his influence to help open a strip club.

In August, C.K. “Bud” Gray, the sheriff of Hancock County (just east of Indianapolis), was arrested for using $3,000 of his department’s funds to pay for personal expenses.

Mike Hobbs, a former Lawrence Township trus­tee, went from being a rising star in Democratic politics to being out of office after his conviction for using a $500 fire department check to pay his rent.

Most government officials seem decent and hardworking, but why do some abuse power?

“To some degree, many people in political positions pursue them in part because they are drawn to the power and what it can do for them,” said Dr. Margaret Ferguson, chairwoman of political science at Indiana University-Purdue, University Indianapolis. “They might develop a sense of privilege where they feel no limitations should be applied to them.”

How can officials who abuse their power be held accountable?

Well, for starters, this year’s election is being held for offices ranging from Congress to state legislative seats and county government. Therefore, anyone who is unhappy with a specific elected official who is up for reelection could vote for that person’s opponent.

Often, when a political leader is caught in corruption, he or she will either resign or choose not to run again for the position. Others might stubbornly try to cling to power, but there are ways to remove them.

“Sometimes you can pull a person from office before the end of a term,” Ferguson said. “In some states, recall elections are held to determine whether or not someone should stay in office.”

According to the Indiana Elections Commission, state law does not permit recall elections, but provides other avenues for removing officials who abuse their power.

Impeachment cases in Indiana have been rare, but there have been several recent incidents of officials not meeting legal requirements. Pabey and Hobbs, for example, have now become ineligible for their offices due to a 2008 law that automatically bars officials from their position if they are convicted of a felony.

Although not chosen in elections, appointed government officials also wield considerable power. Depending on which state or local agency they work for, they can use personal judgment to determine who receives certain benefits, resources and privileges.

Appointed officials are not immune from accusations of abuse of power, either.

In one recent example, a staffer with the Indiana Gaming Commission was reprimanded for not reporting 13 complaints against casinos across the state and lying about the complaints to superiors.

Internet blogs and websites such as http://www.ComplaintsBoard.com give people a public forum to anonymously state their frustrations with certain state and local agencies without fear of retribution. These sites contain many statements from citizens angry about abuse of power.

“They are corrupt, kidnap children from happy homes and get away with it every day,” a poster wrote on Complaints Board about the Child Protective Services (CPS) agency. “They perjure themselves every time they open their mouths. No one in the state has control over this department.”

Officially, complaints against government workers can be shared with management in the agency they work with, who are then supposed to initiate an internal investigation over the matter. Unfortunately, this does not always happen and the complaint gets stalled. Calls can also be made to the elected official who appoints the leader of the agency or department where the alleged abuse has taken place.

“Typically, people who are appointed are selected by elected officials, so the mechanism of control is still through the people that we elect,” Ferguson said. “As citizens and voters, we have to set expectations for public officials to a high standard in order to make it costly for elected officials to have corruption anywhere in their administration.”

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