Despite his protests, Van Til was just another Lake County crook
For months after his indictment for public corruption, George Van Til blamed power-addicted federal prosecutors and unnamed political assassins for falsely accusing him. He was afire with righteous indignation.
People — he called them naysayers — were always out to get Van Til.
He wrapped himself in the flag of truth. That truth, plus Gary-mayor-turned-defense-lawyer Scott King, will set you free.
But when he took a plea deal last week and walked out of the Lake County Surveyor’s office he’d occupied for 20 years, Van Til finally fessed up — sort of — that he was exactly the crook he had said he was not.
Mistakes were made.
Those “mistakes” did him in.
He apologized — also, sort of — but not for the months of self-serving, self-pitying lies that followed the felony indictments. He had called upon the earned loyalty of his allies, friends and family. Trust me, he demanded.
Anyone might wonder if Van Til ever knew what he was doing was actually a federal crime for which you can serve time. He now has figured out the truth, but his smarmy, deflective resignation letter leaves the larger question unanswered. Was he a good guy who erred in a moment of weakness, or was he always a defiant petty crook who is sorry mostly because he got caught?
Van Til was always a perfectly supportive apparatchik in the local Democratic Party and a prince of political posing. He is the sort of schmoozing sidekick such power structures cultivate.
He was influential because he had sway over contracts for county infrastructure work. But his implied power extended into other realms. He was part of the gang that ran the county.
Perhaps he thought his genial back-slapping motif insulated him from real danger by real prosecutors. Van Til ultimately proved only that good networking skills don’t work on federal prosecutors.
Based on his personal Facebook page, Van Til saw himself a liberal defender of progressive social positions and superior morally in general to all Republicans. Father, husband and man of high spiritual values. Those close to him likely viewed his downfall as tragic. This is a reflected worldview that Van Til himself cultivated.
He held this view steadfastly even during the years when he was stealing from the people and manipulating his office’s staff to keep getting electing.
If you read Van Til’s 998-word resignation statement, you would assume the crime was a one-time moral oops. He just fell off his horse of moral rightness.
But in 2007, he was caught giving a new county-owned pickup truck to his teenage son as transportation to school. That “mistake” occurred at the height of public debate over allowing county officials take-home cars. Here’s your 50 bucks, and I’ll raise you 50.
He got caught.
As self-imposed punishment, Van Til told reporters that would penalize himself for his “bad judgment” by giving up the Mercury he leased at public expense to drive to and from work. He said he would drive a personal car to and from work at personal expense, like normal people.
Then several weeks later, he was caught swiping $150 in county gas for his own car. His defense? He had to give up his county car and driving was expensive.
We can extrapolate from these events that Van Til’s predilection for sopping up public gravy was not a habit he picked up in 2012 because, as his resignation letter surmised, he finally had become too comfortable in the job.
In Van Til’s view, his previous 40 years of service were relentlessly noble, honest and beneficial to the public good. Just ask him.
The goodbye letter suggests he manfully resigned as the “right thing to do” but that’s maudlin show biz. Under Indiana law, convicted felons are automatically tossed out of office.
The same resignation letter also is notable for what it does not say. Though he laments his tragic “downfall,” Van Til never quite admits that what he did was a crime. A real, statutory, prosecutable crime. He called it “wrongdoing.”
He is the 84th Democrat in modern Lake County history to experience that grudging epiphany. He took from the people and never gave it a thought. He stole. It was repetitiously criminal.
He stopped only because he got caught.
David Rutter was an editor at six community newspapers more than 40 years, including nearly a decade as managing editor of the Post-Tribune. His column appears Sundays in the Post-Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com.