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'Indictment Friday'' has become just another day

By Andy Grimm / Post-Tribune staff writer

HAMMOND '' What ever happened to 'indictment Fridays'?

This time last spring, the tension in Lake County political circles used to build like a lottery jackpot each week before Friday news conferences hosted by U.S. Attorney Joseph Van Bokkelen.

Starting on a May Friday in 2001, with the indictment of Gary City Clerk Katie Hall, 30 local elected officials, political insiders had been named in a series of grand jury indictments announced by Van Bokkelen, most on Friday afternoons in the basement of the federal courthouse here.

Fridays, Van Bokkelen admits, have become less of an occasion as most of his prosecutors have been tied up taking those charges to trial.

'We probably created an expectation,' said Van Bokkelen, who once closed a news conference waggishly promising reporters, 'See you next Friday.'

Van Bokkelen knows people are waiting. The wave of indictments has turned the once-jaded residents of Northwest Indiana into enthusiastic, and sometimes overzealous, informants on the topic of corruption in their towns. Chasing down those leads and gathering evidence to get a grand jury indictment '' much less to try a case '' takes time.

'It takes a lot of gearing up to try a case, and it''s the very people that were presenting those indictments that are in court,' Van Bokkelen said. 'You sort of re-trench.'

More indictments are to come, Van Bokkelen said.

Federal prosecutors nationwide have some latitude when choosing where to focus their staff. In most judicial districts, the top priorities typically are prosecuting drug or organized crime networks.

In Van Bokkelen''s Northern District of Indiana, he chose public corruption as his top target, followed by firearms cases, gangs, drugs and terrorism.

As a Republican appointee in a region run by Democratic elected officials, the order of that list has caused some of his indictees to complain he has been charged with conducting a politically motivated witch hunt.

'I live here,' Van Bokkelen said. 'Nobody told me as U.S. attorney to go after public corruption in Northwest Indiana.'

Van Bokkelen says a special federal grand jury remains impaneled exclusively to unravel cases of public corruption, and grand juries in Hammond and South Bend also review public corruption.

Some longtime residents who recall the fanfare and flurry of high-profile indictments during the Operation Lights Out probe of the 1980s are concerned Van Bokkelen''s office is running out of steam.

'Here I am 20 years later and (public officials are) at it again,' Van Bokkelen said. 'The only difference this time is hopefully, we don''t stop till we''re done.'

Contact Andy Grimm at 881-3148 or [email protected]