by Maureen Hayden CNHI Statehouse correspondent
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — Joe Hogsett was being vetted for the job of U.S. Attorney four years ago when he asked a federal judge for advice.
That judge observed that there hadn’t been a high-profile public corruption case in the southern district of Indiana since the early 1990s, when federal investigators separately brought down a bribe-taking state court judge and a well-connected union president caught skimming dues.
The judge cited two possibilities for the dearth of corruption cases, Hogsett recounted recently: “One, we have the most honest, ethical, above-the-board public officials in the entire land. Or, two, somebody is asleep at the switch.”
Hogsett bet it was the latter.
U.S. Attorney Hogsett’s district covers 60 Indiana counties, where he’s made public corruption a top prosecution priority. He’s raised his profile by ramping up prosecutions of gang members and corrupt politicians, arguing that both undermine the public’s sense of safety, since he became top federal prosecutor in a district that covers two-thirds of the state.
He created a multi-agency Public Corruption Working Group, a team of federal and state investigators in 2012. Since then his office has charged 30 public officials with various crimes — three times the cases charged in the previous two years.
Last month, Hogsett re-affirmed his commitment to routing out corruption as he traveled the state to announce a trio of indictments of public officials — including a rare perjury charge against a county child-welfare director accused of lying to investigators about a sex-abuse case.
Hogsett revealed that FBI officials in Indiana are beefing up their resources, creating a stand-alone team of agents tasked with investigating public wrongdoing, which mirrors a national priority by the FBI to expand investigations of public corruption.
“Our message has been consistent, but bears repeating,” Hogsett told reporters. “It doesn’t matter what your politics are or who you know. If you violate the public trust, this working group will find you and investigate you, and the U.S. Attorney’s office will then prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”
Only later did Hogsett admit how tough that threat is to carry out.
“The plain fact is,” he said, “cases of public integrity and corruption are often very difficult to make and to prove.”
Last fall, for example, Hogsett reluctantly shut down a high-profile probe of former Marion County prosecutor Carl Brizzi. A three-year investigation failed to yield sufficient evidence that the top cop in the state’s capital had accepted bribes while in office.
The corruption task force had nailed two of Brizzi’s associates, including a former deputy prosecutor. But Hogsett had to tell investigators their mostly circumstantial case against Brizzi wouldn’t hold up in front a jury.
A few weeks later, that convicted deputy prosecutor, whom Hogsett wanted to be sent to prison, was sentenced to probation.
The results were discouraging, but Hogsett was undeterred.
“Those kinds of prosecutions, in the final analysis, are worth doing, even if the result isn’t what you hoped it would be,” he said during a recent interview. “It sends a very important message to everybody up and down the government chain that somebody is out there watching what they’re doing.”
Public officials caught under Hogsett’s tenure have included city councilmen with dirty money, township officials who embezzled public funds, IRS employees convicted of unemployment fraud, and a wealthy financier who spent stolen money on campaign contributions to prominent state politicians. The caseload has also included a police chief who used town money to buy himself a cache of guns and a deputy sheriff accused of brutalizing suspects in his custody.
Robert Jones, the FBI’s special-agent-in-charge in Indiana, said the range of cases is telling: “There is no acceptable level of public corruption.”
Hogsett hasn’t been without critics. His early decision to crack down on corruption raised questions about his political ambitions.
Hogsett, 57, a father of three and Rushville native, launched himself into state politics more than 25 years ago. He was a top aide to former Democrat Gov. Evan Bayh, elected as Secretary of State in 1990, and later served as chairman of the state Democratic Party.
But, earlier this year, Hogsett killed rumors he’d be leaving the U.S. Attorney’s office to run for Indianapolis mayor. In committing to stay in office until his term is up in January 2017, the Obama appointee effectively ruled out a 2016 run for governor or Congress.
“I cannot in good faith walk away from the responsibility that I have,” he said at the time.
His commitment to the job has earned him the “Mr. Clean” award from the Indiana chapter of Common Cause, the government watchdog group. The group honored him last summer for his decision to prioritize prosecution of public corruption.
But it was also a recognition of his history as a good-government advocate, said Common Cause Indiana director Julia Vaughn.
Back when he was Secretary of State, Hogsett, a Democrat, worked with the state’s then-attorney general, a Republican, to get a strict interpretation of lobbying disclosure laws. Both men, said Vaughn, drew the ire of party leaders and legislators who later rewrote the laws to make them more lax.
“He’s not a Johnny-come-lately to the idea that public service should be about public service and not about private gain,” Vaughn said.
Hogsett appreciated the award but sees the praise as fleeting. “If you decide to go after public corruption, you don’t make many friends,” he said. “Usually just enemies.”
Reach Maureen Hayden at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MaureenHayden