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April 25, 2012

Evidence shows public corruption cases hard to pursue

U.S. Attorney hoping to curb illegal activity by public officials in Indiana

INDIANAPOLIS — As part of his promise to make public corruption one of his top prosecution priorities, U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett has set up a hotline for anonymous whistle blowers.  

He doesn’t think he’ll have any problem attracting callers. Hogsett is convinced the scarcity of public corruption cases generated by federal prosecutors in central and Southern Indiana over the last decade doesn’t mean there aren’t officials violating the public trust in a criminal way.

“I’d like to think that was the case,” said Hogsett, who 18 months ago took over the role as chief federal prosecutor for a district that covers two-thirds of the state. “But I don’t think it is.”

But if Hogsett hopes to spark a flurry of investigative leads with the new hotline, 317-229-2443, he also knows following through is a much tougher task.

Experienced prosecutors say public corruption crimes are among the most difficult and time-consuming cases to pursue. High-profile by their nature, they typically involve people who covet power and are skilled at accessing its spoils in secretive ways.

HARD TO PROSECUTE

Classic public corruption cases — in which money is exchanged for favors — are “very difficult” to prosecute, said Craig Bradley, an Indiana University law professor who worked as a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C.

One major reason: When money passes from one person to another in a corrupt transaction, it’s often impossible to prosecute unless one of those persons is willing to admit his or her role.

“It’s not like the guy who goes into a 7-Eleven store, pulls out a gun on somebody and demands money and gets caught,” said Bradley. “There’s usually no videotape of the crime.”

And often few people eager to talk. When Bradley helped prosecute a 1976 case known as “Koreagate,” involving allegations of bribes funneled to U.S. congressmen by the South Korean government, he was met with walls of silence.

That was particularly true among the staff members of congressmen adept at inspiring devotion from their staff.  

“I was surprised by that attitude of ‘I’m just going to blindly protect my boss,’ ” Bradley said.

Hogsett’s announcement earlier this week that he’s formed a multiagency Public Corruption Working Group is an indicator of the resources needed to curb corruption. The group brings together investigators from a myriad of agencies, including the FBI, the IRS, the Secret Service, the Indiana State Police, and the federal departments of labor, housing and urban development, and health and human services.

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