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ABDUL-HAKIM SHABAZZ Commentary: When all else fails, yell 'racism!'

June 5, 2006

I was playing eight-ball one night with a black guy who tried to convince me it was a racist game. He said it was racist because the object was for the white ball to knock the colored balls off the table, and the last one to go in was the black ball. However, when I told him everything evened out in bowling because a black ball knocked over a bunch of white pins with red necks, he shut up.

I tell this story because allegations of racism have surfaced in the dismissal of Heather Bolejack, the black former director of the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. Charges of racism make about as much sense as the argument made by the guy with whom I played pool.

Bolejack's rise to prominence is an attractive and inspiring story. She graduated with honors from Butler University. She later went on to get her law degree from Indiana University. She was a Lugar Scholar, the highest award given to minority students in Indiana. She worked at the law firm of Ice Miller. She was the youngest person ever picked to head a state agency. And along the way to the ICJI, she was a strong advocate for women and children.

But somewhere along the way, something went wrong, and now white people are to blame. In February, someone from Bolejack's office notified the state's inspector general that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, something was rotten in the ICJI.

After an extensive investigation, the institute's board of trustees fired Bolejack, as well as Deputy Director Katalina Gullans. A report issued May 26 by the Inspector General's Office said its investigation uncovered financial irregularities, including the awarding of a $417,000 grant to Michael McKenna, a longtime friend of Bolejack's husband, without board approval.

Bolejack went on the offensive. In her first public comments, she denied any wrongdoing. She suggested that others at the ICJI had conspired against her. She also took aim at Gullans, who the report said confessed that she intentionally submitted false travel vouchers to the state and later lied about them.

A spokesman for Bolejack called the allegations false and part of a public lynching and execution. Words like "lynching" and "execution" evoke images of black persecution during a darker time in our nation's history and incite anger and charges of racism. In addition, intellectually challenged broadcasters have made similar racism charges regarding Bolejack to their uninformed audiences in an effort to feed the beast.

Such talk makes my jaw drop in disbelief, knowing the Daniels' administration's commitments to reaching out to minorities

McKenna has also said he did nothing wrong and that he followed proper procedures. But McKenna might have a few credibility issues because, although he told the press he moved up here after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina (which hit in late August 2005), state records reveal his company, McKenna Consulting, was formed Aug. 2, 2005.

The racism charge would carry some weight if the inspector general's findings did not tend to lead elsewhere. The report concluded McKenna-not the underprivileged children-was the primary beneficiary of the grant and that Bolejack was personally and substantially involved in awarding the contract without trustee approval. Documents were falsified to make it appear as if the grant had been properly authorized and Bolejack attempted to direct at least two more grants or contracts to McKenna that ICJI staff refused to process, the report said. The Inspector General's Office conducted 50 interviews and said it shared the preliminary findings with Bolejack, which appears to contradict her earlier statements that she was made aware of the charges against her only just before her termination.

It is unfortunate that things have gotten to this point. Bolejack is innocent until proven guilty and deserves a fair hearing. However, trying to argue racism in the court of public opinion is offensive and uncalled for. It only diminishes those people with serious claims who will be taken less seriously when they need to make them.

Bolejack's supporters can argue a lot of things: her ignorance, a staff that misled her and a friend who betrayed her. But arguing race is like arguing that pool is a racist game. Maybe someone should try bowling.



Shabazz is the morning show host on WXNT-AM 1430 and an attorney. His column appears monthly. He can be reached by e-mail at ashabazz@ibj.com.
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