When Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry won the election in November, he said he was "taking down the 'for sale' sign" from the prosecutor's office.
But Wednesday, it was Curry who was raising eyebrows and facing scrutiny. The prosecutor announced he was dropping charges in a high-profile case against a local metal recycling company -- and that the company, OmniSource, had agreed to donate $300,000 to law
Curry said the money will help cover the cost of the nearly two-year investigation, and that 20 percent, or $60,000, will go to the prosecutor's office.
"It creates an appearance that the dismissal was purchased," said Shawn Boyne, who has studied prosecutorial ethics and is an associate professor at Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis. "Whether or not it's true . . . it creates that appearance."
It's common for people and companies convicted of crimes to pay restitution and fines, but even Curry couldn't think of a case where someone who's innocent paid.
Curry said he views the money as a small punishment for the fact that, knowingly or not, OmniSource was taking in stolen goods.
The company was accused of knowingly buying stolen items, such as copper wire and cars. But the case garnered extra attention because OmniSource employed more than 50 off-duty Indianapolis police officers as security guards.
Joel Schumm, clinical professor of law at Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, said the $300,000 donation is surprising, considering Curry promised to restore faith in the office after Prosecutor Carl Brizzi was criticized for accepting $30,000 in campaign donations from the father of a convicted woman who had decades shaved off her sentence.
"There shouldn't be an exchange of money in a case where the prosecutor says there's not enough evidence," Schumm said of Curry's decision. "It doesn't smell right."
And not to OmniSource, either.
The company is now raising questions over the intended use of its $300,000. The company didn't know that 20 percent of the money would go to the prosecutor's office, said Ben Eisbart, who is vice president and oversees compliance for Steel Dynamics, OmniSource's parent company.
He said OmniSource thought the money would be used for law enforcement training programs, not reimbursement for the investigation.
"I would like to get that clarified," Eisbart said, "because that certainly wasn't our understanding."
Boyne, the associate professor at IU School of Law-Indianapolis, said Curry doesn't seem to be in violation of any specific rules on ethics. But, she said, "this whole case just would've looked a lot cleaner without the donation." . . .The one aspect of this story that I wish Ritchie had covered in more detail is the fact that at least one of the off-duty police officers working at OmniSource was conducting undercover sting operations against several of OmniSource small scrap metal competitors in Indianapolis. Ritchie writes, "Among those officers was Jason Prendergast, IMPD's chief investigator of scrap metal thefts." "Prendergast was reassigned because of the investigation. IMPD also changed its policies on where officers can work when they're off duty." Those investigations headed up by Prendergast resulted in prosecutions and jail time for the offenders, and the licenses for those businesses to operate scrap metal yards in the city were pulled. When those persons were prosecuted, they had no idea the person heading up their investigations was on OmniSource's payroll. Even former Public Safety Director Scott Newman conceded a commanding officer in IMPD's ranks had provided favoritism in assigning work shifts to cops who worked for OmniSource, in effect putting OmniSource's needs ahead of the public's interest in having those cops working their respective beats at other times.
Curry quickly bought into the notion that there was no wrongdoing by any IMPD police officers. I say he reached that conclusion without even bothering to investigate the facts. That was one of my criticisms of the investigation from the beginning. Scott Newman announced at the time all IMPD officers had been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing long before all of the evidence had been gathered and a grand jury had been given the opportunity to see the evidence. That made the investigation suspect from the get-go. There should have been a special prosecutor brought in to look at the charges. It was incredible that the U.S. Attorney's Office didn't step in and take over the investigation given the implication of possible collusion between IMPD and OmniSource to put competitors of OmniSource out of business using the criminal justice system.
Ritchie did get a reaction from former Marion Co. Prosecutor Carl Brizzi to Curry's decision. Brizzi had been accused by OmniSource's attorney, Larry Mackey, of grandstanding and engaging in a money grab, which is a bit ironic given that Curry's office is profiting from the outcome of the case.
Brizzi bristled at the news that Curry was dropping the charges and the civil forfeiture.
He said there was plenty of evidence, including videos and information from undercover officers, to show that OmniSource intentionally bought stolen property.
"It's disappointing," he said of Curry's decision. "Of course there was something there."I said it before and I'll say it again. There are two forms of justice in this county. If you've got money and can hire the right attorneys or have the right political connections, you can pretty much buy your justice.
A Star editorial today, "The mystery of the closed case", echoes the concerns raised by Ritchie's story:
Let's be sure we have this straight.
A company is hauled through a criminal probe lasting more than two years, the charges get dropped, the authorities agree to return $279,000 in confiscated money, and the company's owners for all their righteous indignation donate $300,000 to the county.
Welcome to the strange case of OmniSource, large recycler of metals and target of a crusade against stolen-goods trafficking that embarrassed the police and divided prosecutors.
Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers were forbidden to moonlight at OmniSource after allegations surfaced of purchases of stolen metals at six of its scrap yards, where 51 IMPD members did part-time security work.
Despite the cloud that hovered over the company and IMPD, Prosecutor Terry Curry said Wednesday there was too little evidence to substantiate the charges of corrupt business influence and attempted receipt of stolen property "initiated by grand jury indictment under my predecessor."
The predecessor, Carl Brizzi, rejoined that he and the grand jury were satisfied illegal deals took place. "What's different now?" he asked.
One difference, Curry said, was that a judge threw out the corrupt business charges. The theft counts, he said, lacked direct evidence that OmniSource employees knew the goods they accepted were stolen.
Not being privy to secret grand jury files, the public is left wondering why one prosecutor's high-profile pursuit is another's lost cause. OmniSource maintains it was shaken down to pad the law-enforcement budget under the forfeiture laws, a claim Brizzi dismisses. He says he had a case; Curry won't second-guess him directly; the rest of us speculate.
Nobody, meanwhile, can offer a convincing explanation for the "settlement" whereby OmniSource gets back its $279,000 and various property and then writes a $300,000 check to the agencies that investigated and prosecuted it. Since when does an exonerated defendant give a dime to the state?
The authorities prefer to let these questions rest in peace while they move on against the multimillion-dollar problem of metal theft. How will they get it right, however, if they can't tell us how two years of effort went into getting it wrong?