Charming benedictions wasted on thief in nice suits

Longtime East Chicago Mayor Robert Pastrick, shown in 2003 in front of his East Chicago home, died Friday at 88.

Robert Pastrick was a charming, affable, grandfatherly statesman and his permanent passage from life at age 88 was a sad moment.

The Lake County sheriff was very sad. The Lake County prosecutor was very sad. Hammond's mayor was sad. Even the Democratic candidate for Indiana governor was a tad weepy.


Everybody, it seemed, admired Pastrick.

Pastrick was a swell guy, and we'll all miss him, although the people of East Chicago from whom he and his corrupt political gang stole millions in public money will miss him less.


Honorable public service won't miss him. Integrity won't miss him. The truth won't miss him.

For 33 years, Pastrick was the kind of phony political Robin Hood that bruised Northwest Indiana's reputation. He casually stole from the poor and enriched himself. Pastrick and clever chums got fat while he bled the impoverished people of East Chicago.

He was a thief who wore nice suits.

But death makes intellectual cowards of survivors and seldom more so than in politics. We normally don't tread heavily on graves, lest friends treat us badly after we are gone, too.

But Pastrick's surviving party chums made his career-long corruption seem irrelevant, if not heroic.

There was no public honor in Pastrick.

When a racketeering and corruption lawsuit finally brought him down in 2003 after 30 years in power, the world got a better accounting of what a totally corrupt mayor in a totally corrupt town looked like.

Much of Pastrick's modern clout derived from industrial property taxes and the city's then-named Showboat Casino which had to turn over 3 percent of its revenue to benefit East Chicago. The cash was divided into three equal accounts for diverse city needs.


Pastrick eventually siphoned all of that money into piggybanks he alone controlled. His city council cronies then concocted elaborate, interwoven borrowing schemes for public bonds to buy improvements the casino money should have bought. They even dealt themselves massive "personal contract" fees for arranging the bonds.

Patrick sidekicks got rich. The city was awash in cash. Pastrick and his gang — friends, allies, relatives, hangers-on — took it.

He traded sidewalks and tree trimming for votes, took kickbacks from building contractors, bought a half-dozen elections and employed thousands in no-work jobs as a grafting payoff. He didn't invent crookedness, but he mastered the art.

The entirety of East Chicago government was an extortion scam. He eventually stole so much that checks for city bills bounced.

Pastrick mastered absentee vote fraud, using city workers and even stole a primary election with a ballot-stuffer brigade. The state finally caught him and ordered a new election. He finally lost to a "reform" candidate who was also a crook.

In his last election after nine terms, fewer than 3,500 city's voters backed him. He finally found an election he couldn't buy with patronage, pilfering and payoffs.


Even the people of East Chicago — who never had many choices except a cunning, plundering political overlord — eventually had enough.

As prosecutors said when Pastrick was finally unmasked, he did not merely commit illegal acts. His city government of East Chicago was itself the criminal enterprise.

He and pals were ordered to repay $104 million, though the city never got more than pocket change.

Pastrick stiffed the people of East Chicago until the day he died.

So when current office holders genuflect at his graveside, you wonder what values their pious benedictions are representing.

Said Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr.: "He epitomized East Chicago. He was a legend … Always a consummate gentleman. Pastrick was a statesman on a national scale."


Said governorship-seeker John Gregg: "You couldn't find anyone who worked harder for or had more pride in his community than Bob Pastrick … We extend our condolences to his family, friends and all those his life touched."

Said Sheriff John Buncich: "To me, he was a good mayor. He had a concern about East Chicago."

Prosecutor Bernie Carter? "Sometimes you have to look at the positives. Everybody makes mistakes and may want to redo something. He did so many good things."

Flags at the Robert A. Pastrick Marina and Robert A. Pastrick Library were lowered to half-staff on the day he died.

Maybe he exhibited noble qualities in private life. We are many people in our overlapping universes.

But his public life deserves no maudlin pretense. Save that for public servants who do not lie, steal or cheat. Don't demean honesty by honoring a crook.


As for Pastrick, he was a manipulating, calculating pickpocket and corrupter of civic morals.

He was a remorseless, venal villain. He wore nice suits.

David Rutter was an editor for 40 years at six newspapers.