Rutter: Homecoming for Willie Harris is bad news
Up to this moment, you had valid reasons to trust Karen Freeman-Wilson’s reign as Gary’s mayor.
She said all the right things, attended the forward-thinking seminars where good government was the exalted theme and seemed to administer the business of Gary adequately. If you like that “vision thing,” you like her. She has sprawling ambitions for Gary.
Without saying so, she has strongly intimated that the bad old days of back-alley flimflams were over because she would operate with squeaky cleanliness.
But now she’s let Willie Harris back in the chicken coop. Bad sign. The chickens need to be on high alert.
She either did it knowingly or because she wasn’t paying attention as he slipped in. Because it was a public vote, you have to suspect that everyone involved was aware of who Harris is and why he should not be close to public money.
The last time Harris could put his hands on public money involved in real estate, he stole it. The feds caught him and sent him to federal prison for four years.
Now Gary has given a government swindler and banished lawyer — unrepentant and defiant to this day — nearly $90,000 in federal money.
Harris and his construction company got a contract last week to rehab properties with the recommendation of Gary Community Development and the Department of Public Works and Safety. Freeman-Wilson operates both through appointees.
Being a felon doesn’t prohibit an applicant automatically, but reliable work history is a criterion for granting federal contracts when competing bids are similar. Harris’ construction firm might be on the level, but his personal “work history” includes a series of clever scams through various Gary agencies in 2001.
One of those agencies was the debauched and defunct Gary Urban Enterprise Association for which Freeman-Wilson was legal counsel. The association’s crookedness was too crooked even for Gary to tolerate. By the time federal prosecutors and judges trolled through its leadership, there was hardly an honest candidate left in Gary to run the joint. The rest were in prison.
Harris was a scam ringleader but never has publicly admitted his wrongdoing. It was a sordid plot. Didn’t do it, he has always said.
He skimmed $50,000 from the Gary Urban Enterprise Association in 2001 when Freeman-Wilson was its legal counsel. She apparently did not see Harris stealing, and she was not accused of anything more than terribly dim eyesight.
Let us simply suggest that Freeman-Wilson should not be tacit allies with Harris, if for no other reason than he made her look like a dupe a decade ago. Caution and diligence about Harris are reasons enough to keep him outside, and Freeman-Wilson could have plugged his new cash pipeline, though it runs deeper than the construction contract.
The last campaign finance numbers reflect that Freeman-Wilson was the lead bankroller in Kim Robinson’s successful campaign to unseat Mary Elgin as Calumet Township trustee. She funneled $3,300 to Robinson, and the usual Democratic Party suspects followed. One of them was Harris, whose construction company gave Robinson $1,200.
Gary politicians have never mastered the art of appreciating appropriate boundaries while shunning potential conflicts. Candidates who take money from crooks are subject to being frisked.
So now Harris is back. And he has money.
Helping to finance Robinson’s campaign also seems an unusual choice for a reformer mayor. Robinson is a rubber-stamp council ally of Freeman-Wilson. Her mother was sent to prison for pilfering $50,000 as part of Dozier Allen’s corruption when he was Calumet Township trustee. The lawyer for Robinson’s mom was Freeman-Wilson. Observers report they saw Allen frequently at Robinson’s campaign headquarters.
See a pattern? If you were merely biding time until the next FBI tour bus rolls up to government headquarters to haul off the miscreants, none of this would seem surprising.
But Freeman-Wilson implied that the “new” Gary of her political vision would never be like the “old Gary.” People expect better, she said, and she would deliver better. This week should make everyone wonder if the “new” looks too much like the “old.”
Harris’ eagerness to pillage even an elderly relative involved in the Gary Urban Enterprise Association deal shocked the federal judge who gave him nearly the maximum sentence. “It’s almost unforgivable,” U.S. District Judge Phillip Simon said of Harris.
That’s moot because Harris never sought forgiveness, which requires penitence.
Freeman-Wilson apparently has pardoned him anyway.
Contact Rutter at email@example.com