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4/25/2012 9:34:00 AM
New Indiana task force aims to root out public corruption

Lisa Trigg, Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Slipping some extra cash to a public official to get a particular alleyway paved could lead to criminal prosecution if a new group looking for corruption catches wind of the bribe.

Criminal violations of the public’s trust will be investigated by a new Public Corruption Working Group comprised of multiple federal and state agencies.

The Working Group has been organized by U.S. Attorney Joseph Hogsett, who pledged at a media conference Tuesday in Terre Haute to make public corruption one of his office’s top prosecution priorities.

Hogsett said he believes the Working Group’s creation will make officeholders and public officials think twice before taking action that compromises their integrity. He sees the Working Group as forging resources of many agencies and using federal laws, which often carry tougher penalties than state law, to put the worst offenders behind bars.

“We hope that we find very little, but I am afraid that this Working Group will be very busy,” Hogsett said from the federal courthouse at Terre Haute.

The Indiana State Police — a partner agency in the group — often receives complaints and allegations about corruption, whether that is in government or private sectors, Hogsett said.

“The Indiana State Police has a long-standing history of working on public trust cases,” Sgt. Joe Watts, of the ISP Putnamville Post, said. “We are excited to work on sharing information. We have our normal resources that we use, and now we have federal resources for our investigations.”

Other Working Group members include officers and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service, Department of Labor, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General, Department of Transportation and the U.S. Secret Service.

“This coordinated effort is historic, in terms of both the number of law enforcement agencies involved and as to the singular focus on such an important issue — the integrity of our public offices and officeholders,” Hogsett said.

The group will work with local prosecutors when that is appropriate, he noted, especially if a case of wrongdoing turns out to fit better in the local jurisdiction.

“Our message has been consistent, but bears repeating. It doesn’t matter what your politics are or who you know,” he said. “If you violate the public trust, this Working Group will find you, will investigate you and the U.S. Attorney’s Office will then prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”

Hogsett acknowledged that a common complaint among the public is the corruption of elected government officials, whether that is in the awarding of contracts for taxpayer-funded projects, or in the hiring of contractors based on cronyism, nepotism or patronage.

A hot line has been set up at (317) 229-2443 for the public to report information on criminal activity to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Hogsett said that in the last six months, his office has concluded the prosecution of an Indianapolis City-County Council member who was found guilty of soliciting a bribe. Prosecution has begun on another council member accused of fraud. The office also recently prosecuted an elected official in Jackson County who defrauded taxpayers of more than $300,000.

“We live in a culture where people are fairly cynical about government and governmental leaders,” Hogsett said, “and to hold the government accountable is the unique responsibility of these federal agencies.”

Conversely, he said that most elected officials are honest and honorable people working for the public good.

Prosecutions generated by the Working Group will be spearheaded by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brad Blackington and Sharon Jackson, both senior litigation counsel who are among the most experienced trial attorneys in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Forms of corruption vary, but include bribery, extortion, graft and embezzlement. Corruption can facilitate criminal enterprises such as drug trafficking, money laundering, human trafficking, and other illegal activities.

In the private sector, corruption increases the cost of business through the price of illicit payments, the management cost of negotiating with officials, and the risk of breached agreements or detection. Although some claim corruption reduces costs by cutting bureaucracy, the availability of bribes can also induce officials to contrive new rules and delays. Corruption can distort the playing field, shielding firms with connections from competition, and sustaining inefficient firms.

Corruption can also divert public investment into capital projects where bribes and kickbacks are more plentiful. Officials may increase the technical complexity of public sector projects to conceal or pave the way for such dealings. Corruption can also lower compliance with construction, environmental, or other regulations, reduce the quality of government services and infrastructure, and increase budgetary pressures on government.

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