Thursday, November 17, 2016

11172016 - Portage Indiana Mayor James Snyder - Indicted for public corruption - NEWS ARTICLES










Portage Council eyes replacing city's utility board
Post-Tribune
February 21, 2017
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-portage-ordinance-st-0222-20170221-story.html

The Portage Common Council may be getting into the sewer business, at least temporarily.

Council President Mark Oprisko, D-at large, said the council will hear an ordinance at a special meeting Thursday calling for the council to replace the Portage Utility Services Board.

Oprisko also said the council will consider dropping its charge to keep Mayor James Snyder from collecting $30,000 as the utility board's chair.

"We're not going to be the kind of people who are going to take a big stick and keep beating (Snyder) with it," Oprisko said. "But, I also think it's illegal (for Snyder) to even make the $30,000 on that board."

The council essentially will become the board for six months, leaving the door open for the utility board to become a citizens council again.

Snyder could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In a special meeting nearly two weeks ago, the council voted to strip Snyder of the $30,000 salary after unanimously voting to remove him as a member of the utility services board two days earlier.

Snyder's position on the two ordinances affecting his role and salary on the board remained unclear Tuesday.

Oprisko said council members are open to taking over the utility board following concerns with Snyder's use of board funds. Oprisko, who is the utility board's vice chair, also said the mayor's efforts last September to get the utility board to pay $93,000 of legal expenses he incurred while under federal investigation riled council members.

Snyder was federally indicted on public corruption charges in November, a fact that hasn't been far from council members' minds in trying to take over the utility board.

Councilman Collin Czilli, D-5th, said he approves of the council, in effect, becoming the utility services board for six months or longer if necessary -- and now giving Snyder the $30,000.

"I hate that we have to (replace the utility board), but we've been put in a position where we need to have strong oversight of that board in order to feel like we know exactly what's going on with some of the actions the mayor's taken over at utilities," he said.

"And, as for the $30,000 salary, from the beginning, I think the actions we took to remove the mayor from the utility services board were never meant to be punitive, but they were meant to be corrective.

"To me, the mayor makes $83,000, with his utility services board money, and, I believe the mayor should continue to see the same pay he was receiving."










Portage mayor 'confident' he'll give speech in 2018
nwitimes.com
February 17, 2017
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/portage-mayor-confident-he-ll-give-speech-in/article_83b3c3b7-c060-594f-820b-0ec7d4f20318.html




video

PORTAGE — Without making direct reference to his upcoming federal trial or his recent battles with the City Council, Mayor James Snyder told a group Thursday that the city will weather the present "hurricane."

Snyder addressed a packed room at Woodland Park during his annual State of the City address hosted by the Greater Portage Chamber of Commerce. Snyder was indicted last November on bribery and tax evasion charges. His trial is set for April 10. Recently he has been battling with the City Council which is attempting to remove him as chairman of the Utility Services Board.

Departing from previous years' State of the City addresses, Snyder opened and closed the presentation and allowed his department heads to provide updates on their departments.

"Over the past year, we saw the wind shift," Snyder told the group, adding the wind had been at Portage's back, but the city was now "in the middle of a hurricane."


"With our foundations, we can weather this storm and we can lead with great confidence," he said before introducing Police Chief Troy Williams to give an overview of his department during the previous year.

Following presentations by Williams, Fire Chief Tom Fieffer, Street Department Superintendent Joe Mokol, Parks Superintendent Jenny Orsburn and Economic Development Director Andy Maletta, Snyder closed the presentation by telling the audience that 2017 is the year of confidence.

"We have been through battles before and the city has prospered," he said, adding that he, his wife and city staff are "very grateful for the confidence, support and well wishes" they have received in recent months.

"I have confidence that I will be here to deliver the 2018 State of the City address," Snyder said closing the presentation.










Portage administration director resigns over differences with mayor 
nwitimes.com
February 17, 2017
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/portage-administration-director-resigns-over-differences-with-mayor/article_53a6e77f-6b32-50a9-9db4-30d43cfffa7d.html

PORTAGE — Director of Administration Joe Calhoun resigned this week over what he called differences in philosophies with Mayor James Snyder.

"It just came to a point where our leadership philosophies weren't meshing," Calhoun said. "It is my job to get on board or to get out of the way. I decided to get out of the way."

Calhoun added that he had recently been pulled into the investigation of Snyder by the FBI, saying he was interviewed by agents after Snyder was indicted in November. He wouldn't comment on the particulars of the interview.

Snyder appointed Calhoun to the position more than three years ago. A 17-year Portage firefighter, he was technically on special assignment from the department to take the job and could return to the department.

"It was a fantastic job. I do feel like a lot was accomplished to bring the departments together," he said, praising department heads for their efforts over the last three years to move the city forward.

"I can't say enough about their dedication. They came together and worked together. They were awesome to work with."

Calhoun was considered the second in command at City Hall, providing a link between departments and between departments and the mayor. He managed policies, aligned human resource policies and was involved in union negotiations with employee groups. He said those negotiations are not yet completed.

"Sometimes jobs in the public sector, especially the job Joe Calhoun had, can be more punishing than rewarding," Snyder said in an email statement. "Right now we are on the grueling end with five union negotiations, the federal intensity on myself, dozens of major projects and the council scrutiny."

"Joe is a great friend to me and Portage, his service has been relentless and he is one of the hardest working men I know. He is doing what is best for him and his family; what he has accomplished in Portage will change it for generations to come. All that I can say to Joe is 'thank you,'" Snyder said.

Calhoun said he wasn't sure of his future. He has had a conversation with Fire Chief Tom Fieffer about returning to the department. A merit lieutenant, Calhoun was serving as an assistant chief when he was appointed director of administration.

"I have resumes out throughout the country, and I am hoping something will come through," said Calhoun, adding it may be his time to retire from the department and to "move on" and leave Portage.

"Portage residents are receiving and will continue to receive the same high quality of service. All department heads are stepping it up a bit for now, and when the time is appropriate we will work on replacement," said Snyder.










Portage mayor abuses taxpayers' trust
Chicago Tribune
February 17, 2017
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/opinion/ct-ptb-editorial-snyder-st-0219-20170217-story.html

An indictment doesn't equate to guilt. That determination is left to a judge or a jury.

A federal indictment on corruption charges, however, is at the very least an embarrassment and a serious distraction if you're trying to run a city. By most ethical standards, it should inspire a careful, conservative profile, especially for a city's top-elected official.

Not so with Portage Mayor James Snyder, who's a clear winner over runner-up Lake County Sheriff John Buncich in the "outlandish actions by indicted public officials" category. While the performances don't rise to Hollywood's Academy Award-level, they're all too prevalent in the region.

In Buncich's case, he just wanted was his guns back. Federal agents confiscated his firearms after his arrest last year on corruption charges tied to a towing scheme. Buncich's attorney said the sheriff needed the weapons to perform his duties. The judge disagreed.

Snyder, meanwhile, makes Buncich's request seem reasonable.

He's embarked on a course of maintaining his innocence while enjoying perks at the expense of taxpayers. Snyder, a Republican, took his family and a security detail to Washington last month for President Donald Trump's inauguration. And, while some Portage residents struggle with monthly car payments and bills, Snyder drove a leased Chevrolet Tahoe to Washington that costs the city $800 a month. It's generously equipped with Sirius radio and OnStar.

If the trip wasn't enough to rankle folks, two police officers also drove a city vehicle to Washington because Snyder felt he and his family needed protection as they attended inauguration events. The need for security seems especially curious since Snyder's notoriety doesn't extend much farther than Porter County.

That trip seemingly was the last straw for Democrats who control the city council, which had been co-existing in a bi-partisan fashion with Snyder, who's in his second term as mayor. Together, the council and Snyder had pushed through improvements, including new police and fire stations and a needed renovation at City Hall.

Council members rightly became angered when they found out last year that Snyder attempted to pay a $93,000 legal bill with money from the Utility Services Board, which he chairs. The money was going to go to two law firms representing Snyder in connection with a federal investigation that resulted in bribery and obstruction charges in November. Both law firms returned the checks, saying they represented Snyder, not the utilities board.

Recently, the council moved to strip Snyder of his $30,000 salary and position as chairman of the Utility Services Board. At Snyder's direction, the board hired an Indianapolis law firm, which advised the council that removing Snyder violated state law. Undeterred, the council dumped Snyder. Council President Mark Oprisko warned it might pass an ordinance dissolving the Utility Services Board to save taxpayers from an expensive, lengthy lawsuit pitting the city against its own utilities board.

Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham called Snyder's acts "a pattern of disrespect for the taxpayers of Portage … it's just wrong," he said.

We couldn't agree more. A mayor facing federal indictment shouldn't be trekking off to a gala inauguration or charging taxpayers for his own legal troubles. The Portage City Council is safeguarding its taxpayers from Snyder's overreach, which has created a toxic atmosphere in a city with its pride and promise on the line.










Top Portage administrator resigns position
Post-Tribune
February 16, 2017
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-portage-calhoun-resign-st-0217-20170216-story.html

Joe Calhoun, the city's director of administration and Portage Mayor James Snyder's top deputy, confirmed Thursday he is resigning effective Saturday.

Calhoun, who has coordinated the day-to-day operations of the city and utility services since 2014, said his work philosophy and the mayor's "just weren't meshing" and cited job-related stress for his departure, but Calhoun praised the administration's department heads.

"I've loved and cherished this job over the last three years, and I do honestly hope I've made some positive impressions on the city," Calhoun said. "I can't tell you how lucky I've been to work with those department heads. They do an incredible job of moving the city forward."

Last month, the FBI interviewed Calhoun, partly as a follow-up to Snyder's November federal indictment on public corruption charges.

"There's been a lot of job-related stress with all of this other stuff going on," Calhoun said of Snyder's legal woes.

Snyder did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

Before becoming Portage government's virtual second-in-command, Calhoun rose through the ranks over 17 years to become assistant fire chief. Calhoun, whose work as administration director is considered a "special assignment," still is on the payroll at the fire station and, earlier this week, discussed "the possibility of returning to the ranks of the fire department," Chief Tom Feifer said.

Feifer said he had not received any official e-mails or other confirmation on Calhoun's resignation or plans to return to the fire department.

Calhoun said he loved his work with the fire department and may return someday, but he has begun looking outside of the city for his next step, calling it "a natural progression" in his career.

"It's probably best I move forward and move outside of City of Portage government," he said.

City Council President Mark Oprisko, D-at large, said Calhoun's departure will be "a huge loss for the city."

The council will keep the position's salary line item open, but the council also should have some say in who replaces Calhoun, Oprisko said.

"I pretty much begged (Calhoun) to stay, but the stress level of working in City Hall got the best of him, and I don't blame him," Oprisko said. "I don't want just some political crony or somebody that doesn't have enough experience to come in to that spot."

Along with running most of City Hall's operations, Calhoun has been thrust into difficult positions during his tenure. Last October, following revelations Snyder tried, in his role as chairman of the Portage Utility Services Board, to get the board to pay $93,000 in legal fees related to a federal investigation, the mayor put Calhoun and the utility services board attorney before local media to answer questions about the checks.










Snyder: Portage in a 'hurricane'
Post-Tribune
February 16, 2017
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-portage-state-of-city-st-0217-20170216-story.html



Mayor James Snyder alluded to the legal and political storms wrapping around Portage during his annual State of the City address Thursday while encouraging the audience of Chamber of Commerce members to remain confident in the city.

Snyder also expressed hope he will beat a federal indictment last November on public corruption charges. Since then, Common Council members have called for his resignation and have voted to strip Snyder of his position as chairman of the utility services board and its $30,000 salary.

"We saw the winds shift like never before in Portage. We are now in a hurricane," Snyder began. "(2017) is the year that Portage is in a state of confidence. Portage will not only beat this storm, but we will be better as a result.

"This year, we have confidence our progress in Portage will continue," he told several hundred audience members. "And we have confidence I will be here to deliver the 2018 State of the City address."

Rather than deliver a speech lauding his administration's accomplishments last year, Snyder bookended presentations from his department heads on last year's events with brief comments of his own.

Economic Development Director Andy Maletta spoke of the "explosion" in new home starts, from nine starts in 2015 to 79 starts last year, and bringing new businesses -- including Monosol -- to Portage, while the police and fire chiefs spoke of improved services and new stations.

Parks Superintendent Jenny Orsburn praised her staff, which, she said, "has contributed significantly to the quality of life" of residents, and Streets Superintendent Joe Mokol lauded an increase in residents recycling and new time and money saving equipment.

Snyder listed accomplishments such as raising $60,000 for the Indiana-American water amphitheater at Founder's Square, an open air pavilion planned for the Portage Lakefront Park and the widening of Samuelson Road before calling on help from other city leaders.

"It's time for all of us to join together, both the city council and the mayor's office, to work toward this year of confidence," Snyder said.

Only two city council members, Sue Lynch, D-at large, and Scott Williams, D- 3rd, attended the address. Lynch, who last week called for Snyder's resignation, praised the work done by the city's department heads.

"What I heard today is we have some great department heads, and they're continuing to work hard together despite what is going on in the city," Lynch said. "As for (Snyder), he really didn't say much, but I think that was by intention."










Davich: Portage mayor should know image is everything in court of public opinion
Chicago Tribune
Jerry Davich
February 10, 2017
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/opinion/ct-ptb-davich-james-snyder-resignation-st-0213-20170210-story.html

Should Portage Mayor James Snyder step down from office while awaiting his public corruption trial in April?

Before you jump to a knee-jerk answer — I'm pretty sure all of us have one by this point — ask yourself why Snyder hasn't done it yet. Would it further tarnish his public image? Would it suggest guilt to city residents? Would it complicate his legal defense? Is it strictly about keeping his income, health insurance and other financial perks intact?

I don't think so.

Sure, those are all factors in his decision, but I believe Snyder is convinced he's innocent of all federal charges against him. Convinced. Nothing less.

"I am absolutely convinced that he believes that," said Portage City Councilman Collin Czilli (D-5th), who has called for Snyder's resignation along with several other city officials the past few weeks.

On Nov. 18, Snyder was formally charged with one count of tax evasion and two counts of bribery involving a local towing firm. Snyder pleaded not guilty, and he's been repeating that mantra since that day. I don't see him stepping down, even for the next two months, despite public outcry to do so.

Unlike those of us who either hope the mayor is innocent of these charges or that he will be found, or plead, guilty, Snyder acts assured he has done nothing wrong. Nothing. He has stated this publicly, and to me, and to other city officials.

Is this the common, even predicted, response from yet another Northwest Indiana public official indicted by the feds? Or is this the sad delusion of a man who may be serving prison time later this year? His supporters insist it's possible that Snyder has indeed been wrongly accused, and he will soon be exonerated of all charges.

And yes, presumed innocence until proven guilty is legally correct in our country, though many observers in this area have already presumed his guilt. It's easy to do in Northwest Indiana, where federal agents historically charge and convict public officials with an impressive success rate.

Snyder knows this, yet he insists he is not guilty of any wrongdoing.

Former Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist, who could easily serve as the poster child for modern-day public corruption, took a different tact after he and his wife Deborah were caught by the feds.

"They both knew they were guilty," said Kim Frizzell, the city's administrative assistant and a longtime city employee. "He essentially cased the joint during his time as a city councilman, learned how to manipulate people and using his terms as a training ground for public corruption later in his career. He had an agenda from early on."

The former eight-year city councilman pleaded guilty to improperly and illegally using money from his reelection campaign and the city's food pantry. The stolen funds were used for gambling at a casino boat, federal prosecutors said.

After deliberating only a few hours after an eight-day trial, a jury found Soderquist and his wife guilty. They were both sentenced to prison late last year.

Will the same fate be served to Snyder, who also is battling against public perception?

"My reputation is shot until I win, and I understand that," Snyder told me.

On Thursday, I heard from city residents who had just found out that Snyder drives a city-leased vehicle costing $866 a month. He also used this vehicle last month to drive his family to Washington D.C. to attend inauguration events for President Donald Trump. And he upgraded his hotel room on the taxpayers' dime.

"The fact that in 2016 we raised utility rates by 32 percent makes it look even worse," Czilli said.

Regardless whether you believe he should have attended this event with his family, or not, it simply looks bad for his public image. Then again, public image is not supposed to sway the verdict of his trial, scheduled for April 10. Just the facts, ma'am.

Czilli shared with me the Portage Utility Service Board paperwork filed for 2017 regarding Snyder's city-leased vehicle, a 2016 Chevy Tahoe. Snyder is one of several city officials with city-leased vehicles at their disposal, ranging in monthly cost from $613 to $779 for the five-year lease term.

"We also paid for Sirius XM and OnStar data in (Snyder's) vehicle," Czilli said.

To add context, it should be noted that the City Council voted unanimously for this fleet of vehicles after the general election in 2015. (Other municipalities in this area pay for similar city-leased fleets.) And it's likely that most Portage residents would never know about this contract if not for Snyder's indictment.

A federal indictment magnifies every move, every decision, every public comment. Everything he does is now under a microscope. Snyder knows this.

It's hard to believe after all these decades, all these indictments and all these convictions that a public official would dare commit a crime of any kind, even stealing a handful of paperclips.

Then again, it's not that hard to believe when you consider the human dynamics at work, the same universal dynamics that existed more than a century ago, corrupting so many others after they were elected into public office. Those damning attributes haven't gone away. Greed, ego, arrogance, the lust for power and a feeling of invincibility.

Does Snyder feel invincible against the charges against him? Should he show this attitude in public? Is this merely a reflection of how he genuinely feels in private? I don't know. Unlike his critics and political opponents, I'm not hoping for a guilty verdict in April. We've had too many public officials found guilty of corruption in this area.

But one thing is certain regarding public opinion about Snyder, and it was echoed publicly by U.S. District Court Judge James Moody at Soderquist's sentencing hearing.

"What the hell were you thinking?" he asked incredulously.










Portage council axes utility chairman's salary
NWI Times
February 10, 2017
https://www.google.com/search?q=Portage+council+axes+utility+chairman%27s+salary&oq=Portage+council+axes+utility+chairman%27s+salary&aqs=chrome..69i57.874366j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

PORTAGE — City Clerk-Treasurer Christopher Stidham is challenging the legal basis of Mayor James Snyder's battle in regard to action taken by the City Council this week.

That council action included the passage of an ordinance on Tuesday removing Snyder as chairman of the Utility Service Board.

Stidham spoke at length Thursday about his findings prior to the council passing a second companion ordinance deleting the $30,000 annual salary for the Utility Service Board chairman position currently received by Snyder. The ordinance also removes the salary for any future chairman.

Stidham, who graduated from Valparaiso University's law school in May, said he had reviewed the letter from Faegre Baker Daniels, the law firm appointed by Snyder after the Utility Service Board voted 5-1 on Wednesday to hire legal counsel to defend itself.

"Not surprisingly, the letter is based on misstated facts which resulted in gross distortions of the law. ... I offer this legal opinion not as attorney for the City Council but as clerk-treasurer only. I would strongly recommend following up with your council attorney for additional legal opinions," Stidham said.

The city's legal counsel didn't attend Thursday's meeting.

Snyder, who chaired the meeting on Thursday, offered little public comment during a meeting at which several council members asked for him to step down as mayor, including City Councilman Patrick Clem, D-2nd.

"I was raised to respect people, to be honest. I don't see that here. I'm going to ask you to resign," Clem said.

Snyder, who was indicted in federal court in November on three counts including bribery and tax evasion, faces an April 10 hearing.

After the meeting, Snyder said he has no intentions of stepping down as mayor.

Snyder offered the following statement in regard to action taken by the council:

"Members of the council passed, in haste, ordinances Tuesday night and tonight that clearly violate state law, despite being provided with legal advice to better inform their decision. The council action sets the stage for further legal battles which could be very costly and burdensome for the city. In the coming days, I will gather advice and contemplate possible options before taking action. As I give this careful consideration, I welcome the opportunity to have productive conversation with council members to determine if we can reach a more workable agreement."

Stidham, citing state laws, said the council does have the right to remove Snyder as chairman of the Utility Service Board.










Portage mayor loses $30K panel chairmanship in city council vote
Chicago Tribune
February 10, 2017
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-portage-snyder-ordinance-st-0211-20170210-story.html
The Portage City Council late Thursday capped off a tumultuous week by passing an ordinance that strips Mayor James Snyder of his $30,000 salary as the Utility Services Board's chairman just hours after an Indianapolis law firm advised the council that doing so could be a violation of state law.

Council President Mark Oprisko, D-at large, who also is the vice chair of the Utility Services Board, also said the council may invoke the "nuclear option" — passing an ordinance eliminating the current Utility Services Board — and added that "we're not going to waste taxpayer dollars" on a potential lawsuit between the board and the city.

The salary amendment ordinance passed on a 6-0 vote, with Councilman John Cannon, R-4th, absent.

The advice from Faegre Baker and Daniels did not go over well with the council or Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham, who countered the law firm point by point, defending the council's decision to also strip Snyder of his position on the board.

The Utility Services Board, under Snyder's direction, voted to hire Faegre Baker and Daniels to represent the board against the council's moves to change the board's leadership. The law firm sent a two-page, double-sided letter to council members Thursday afternoon describing the controversial ordinances as violations of state law.

Council members claimed that hiring the law firm could cost the Utility Services Board more than $500 an hour, but Snyder said he had not yet signed the contract and did not know how much Faegre Baker and Daniels' work will cost the businesses and residents that use sewer service.

In a written statement he issued coinciding with the meeting, Snyder wrote that "the Council action sets the stage for further legal battles which could be very costly and burdensome for the city," but he also left the door open for a compromise and an opportunity to "reach a more workable agreement."

After the meeting, Snyder said he likely will veto the ordinance firing him and the other stripping him of the chair's salary "if they are invalid."

"If (the ordinances) are valid, then I have some decisions to make," he said.

Snyder has the option to veto the ordinances.

Earlier this week, the council passed a string of ordinances that appeared aimed at Snyder and his administration.

One ordinance prohibits Portage mayors from naming themselves to the Utility Services Board and moves the board's finances and budget responsibilities to the Portage clerk-treasurer.

By state law, mayors appoint the majority of utility services board members, with local councils, or legislative bodies, appointing a minority of board members. In Portage's case, a local ordinance calls for the mayor to appoint two Democrats and two Republicans.

Following tradition, Snyder appointed himself and three others to the board, and the board elected Snyder its chairman. The chairman earns a $30,000 salary, also by ordinance.

In September, a Utility Services Board employee sent two checks totaling $93,000 to two law firms, Dogan and Dogan of Portage and Winston and Strawn of Chicago, for representing Snyder in a federal investigation, but both firms returned the checks, insisting they represented Snyder as an individual and not the board.

The move riled Oprisko and other city officials, who claimed Snyder never consulted them on the payments.

City officials also have complained bitterly of Snyder's use of Utility Services Board funds.

While not illegal, many of those moves were inappropriate, Stidham insisted Thursday night, calling Snyder's actions "a pattern of disrespect for the taxpayers of Portage."

"It has nothing to do with legal or illegal, but it's just wrong," Stidham said.

Snyder tied the council's actions to his indictment last November on federal corruption charges, something the council has vehemently denied.

"I think you can imagine this isn't easy," Snyder told the audience. "I'm looking forward, and my family is looking forward — but hopefully things are dropped before we get to that point — to our day in court."










Legal help hired to sort out Portage ordinance to remove mayor from board
Chicago Tribune
February 09, 2017
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-portage-utilities-snyder-st-0210-20170209-story.html


A day after the Portage City Council voted to remove Mayor James Snyder from the chairman's position on the Utility Services Board, the board on Wednesday hired Chicago-based law firm Faegre, Baker and Daniels to look into the matter.

Snyder later said he did not know how much the legal work will cost the board.

The action stems from Tuesday's City Council action, which not only removes Snyder from the Utilities Board, but also eliminates the $30,000 salary that comes with it. The move came after Snyder and City Council President Mark Oprisko debated a variety of topics, from Snyder's use of a board-leased SUV to comments made to local media.

The council was expected to vote Thursday night on a proposed ordinance to delete the $30,000 salary.

"I feel the ordinances are completely invalid," said Snyder, who handed out city letterhead with parts of a state statute prohibiting legislative bodies like city councils from eliminating or reducing elected officials' salaries in the same year those bodies pass such ordinances.

"It's very clear you can't punish a mayor by taking away his salary."

Last September, Snyder tried to get the board to use utility funds to pay $93,000 in legal fees to law firms representing Snyder in a federal investigation. The firms returned the checks, and the board has not returned to the issue since Snyder's indictment last November on public corruption charges.

The board is made of four mayoral appointments, including the mayor himself, and three council appointments, including Oprisko, who is the board's vice chair. Oprisko was the sole board member to vote against hiring the law firm.

Another council appointee, Mark Hasza, also approved hiring the law firm.

"I figured (Snyder) would do something like that because he needs the (chairman salary) to pay his bills," Oprisko said of Snyder's idea to hire an outside law firm. "I'll talk to the (city) council. We'll do what it takes to get (Snyder) off this board."

The on-record exchange between Oprisko and Snyder began when the mayor defended his use of a board-leased 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe, at a rate of $867 a month for five years. The agreement with Enterprise Fleet Management ultimately will save the board money in the long run, Snyder said.

Snyder dismissed criticism of his use of the vehicle as "commentary without fact and touted the importance of city leaders driving attractive, practical vehicles.

Oprisko described the lease as an "exorbitant" cost, and the exchange took off from there.

The men bounced across Snyder's indictment, the board's issue of $93,000 in checks for the federal investigation, the mayor's absence from Tuesday's city council meeting and Snyder's controversial trip to a mayor's conference and President Donald Trump's inauguration last month in Washington, D.C.

The board did complete some official business. City Engineer John Hannon, of Great Lakes Engineering, was awarded a raise of $15 an hour, raising his rate to $125 per hour for utility services work.

The new contract also gave raises to a project engineer, a senior designer and more staff.










Mayor's meeting absence brings critics, defenders
Chicago Tribune
February 09, 2017
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-portage-mayor-absent-st-0212-20170209-story.html


Residents voiced a mixed bag of reactions for the City Council and for embattled Mayor James Snyder, who skipped the Tuesday council meeting.

Snyder later said he was visiting a friend in a hospital during the meeting, but immediately after the meeting, one of his staffers passed out written statements on city letterhead to local media.

The residents' comments seemed to show a city increasingly rattled by the contentious relationship between the mayor, the council and Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham.

"I feel there's an injustice here tonight," complained resident Edna Maturkanich, a regular at council meetings. "It's like you're roasting the mayor, and he isn't even here. It's like you guys were having a field day tonight. I know James Snyder, and I know he's innocent."

The council suspended rules requiring a second reading of an ordinance and voted to strip Snyder of his position on the Portage Utility Services Board and the chairman's job he holds. A second ordinance eliminating the position's salaries was expected to be heard again Thursday night, after Councilman John Cannon, R- 4th, voted against suspending the rules.

Other residents criticized the mayor for not showing up and for recent controversial actions, including a trip to Washington, D.C. where the mayor took two police administrators for a conference and the inauguration of President Donald Trump, mostly on the taxpayers' dime.

Last November, Snyder was indicted on federal public corruption charges.

Snyder, who left last month's council meeting about five minutes after opening the meeting, did not notify Council President Mark Oprisko, D-at large, or any other officials of his absence, Oprisko said.

"He's the chairman of this board," Oprisko said. "He should've had enough respect to call me or someone else on this board to get out of their seat and take over the meeting."

Immediately after the meeting, a Snyder staffer passed out a signed, written statement from the mayor dated Feb. 7. Snyder accused the council of "behaving in a way of presumption of guilt, which is the opposite of what America, Indiana and any decent citizen believes."

In the statement, Snyder also wrote his administration has "saved the City millions of dollars in waste, fixed more roads, buildings and infrastructure than any administration and have rejuvenated the pride in Portage."

Stidham said the council's actions had little to do with the indictment "and everything to do with" the mayor's efforts to pay his legal fees with utility services board funds last year.

Snyder's prepared statement also bothered Stidham.

"The council meeting happens at same time forever and ever and ever," Stidham said. "(Snyder) came for five minutes last month and left, and this month he didn't even bother to show up. Yet, the rest of the city's eight elected officials made it a priority. He should've been here doing his job"

Cannon, the only Republican on the council, who describes himself as a longtime friend of the Republican mayor, called said he and his colleagues have "aged 20 years in five days."

"This has been a tough night for me, but some things have to be done, because the public trust us to do a job," Cannon said.










UPDATE: Portage council, mayor continue arguing 
NWI Times
February 08, 2017
http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:JxDF7CoBGVcJ:www.nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/update-portage-council-mayor-continue-arguing/article_455590fe-401e-525e-b26d-e91a520e6110.html+&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

PORTAGE — The City Council will meet in special session Thursday to complete what council President Mark Oprisko termed unfinished business regarding Mayor James Snyder.

The 8 p.m. meeting will be held at Woodland Park, 2100 Willowcreek Road.

The council is scheduled to vote on a proposed ordinance that deletes the $30,000 annual salary of the Utility Service Board chairman, a position that had been held by Snyder.

The council on Tuesday removed Snyder from that position.

Snyder said he plans to fight the city, noting the utility board voted 5-1 Wednesday to hire legal counsel to defend itself.

Snyder said state law protects him from the recent action by the council.

"My point is that there is a clear separation of power in the state constitution. They (the council) will be spending tens of thousands of dollars, and all they have to do is wait until my (federal) hearing is over," Snyder said.

Snyder was indicted in federal court in November on three counts including bribery and tax evasion. His trial is set for April 10.

The proposed ordinance to remove the salary attached to the position needs a second reading since it didn't receive unanimous approval when read on Tuesday, Oprisko said.

City Councilman John Cannon, R-4th, cast the only dissenting vote.

That change requires any future expenditures of the board to go before both the clerk-treasurer's office and the City Council, Oprisko said.

Oprisko said approval of the proposed companion ordinance will kill the $30,000 salary for the mayor.

"This (ordinance) will also delete the salary for any other board chairperson," Oprisko said.

The ordinance removing the mayor as Utility Service Board chairman was a way to put more checks and balances in place and to return finances back to taxpayers, Oprisko said.

Snyder has the option of vetoing both ordinances over the next 10 days, Oprisko said.

Council members gave two reasons for their actions regarding Snyder.

First, the mayor sought reimbursement for $93,000 of his personal legal fees prior to his indictment without seeking approval from the Utility Service Board.

Second, the council is also questioning reimbursement requests from Snyder after he took a recent trip to Washington, D.C., for a mayor's conference and to attend the presidential inauguration, taking two police administrators and his family.

Snyder traveled to D.C., on Jan. 16, to attend the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting and the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Council members, including Oprisko, have asked Snyder in recent days to step down as mayor.










Board votes to remove mayor from utility services board
Chicago Tribune
February 08, 2017
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-portage-city-council-st-0209-20170208-story.html


The Portage City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to strip Mayor James Snyder of his position as chairman of the Portage Utility Services Board and will try again to remove the position's $30,000 salary in a special meeting Thursday.

The vote, however, leaves Snyder with several options to protect his position or to demonstrate agreement with the council.

As mayor, he can sign the ordinance into law, veto it or let it pass by "pocket veto," or letting 10 days elapse without taking any action.

The first ordinance prohibiting the mayor from holding a spot on the seven-member board passed easily after the council unanimously agreed to suspend the rules requiring a second reading and approve the ordinance. Snyder did not attend the meeting.

In a procedural move, Councilman John Cannon, R-4th, the sole Republican on the panel, forced the council to hold a special meeting to reconsider the salary ordinance that deletes the utility board chairman's salary.

An Indiana law prohibits legislative bodies from stripping an another elected official's salary or reducing that salary in the same year as such a vote may be taken.

Cannon said he is against the salary ordinance change and wants more time to determine if it conflicts with state statute, but City Council President Mark Oprisko, D-at large, scheduled a special meeting Thursday night to try to get the ordinance passed.

"I think there may be some conflict with the state statute," Cannon said of the vote to delete the salary. "Some things came about in the last few days I want to look into. Now we're going to have a meeting Thursday knowing I'm going to be out of town."

Cannon, who described himself as a longtime friend of the Republican mayor's, reiterated his support for the ordinance removing the mayor from the board, calling it "a sense of duty, of doing the right thing."

Snyder came under fire last September when a utility services board employee sent $93,000 in checks to Portage-based law firm Dogan and Dogan and Winston and Strawn, a Chicago law firm, to pay for legal expenses related to a federal investigation of Snyder.

Both firms returned the payments, indicating they represented Snyder as an individual and not the utility services board.

Oprisko led the move to block any payments from the board to the law firms and threatened to order an investigation into the moves.

In November, Snyder was indicted on federal public corruption charges unrelated to anything with the utility services board.

In a written statement delivered to media immediately after Tuesday night's meeting, Snyder accused the council of "behaving in a way of presumption of guilt," which Oprisko denied.

"I'm not saying (Snyder's) guilty, because you're innocent until proven guilty," Oprisko said. "However, when you look at the (legal expenses) situation with the utility services board, with (Snyder) as the chairman taking it upon himself to send two checks worth almost $100,000, if he was in the private sector, he'd be fired."










Snyder removed as chair of Portage Utility Service Board
NWI Times
February 07, 2017
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/porter/snyder-removed-as-chair-of-portage-utility-service-board/article_99c4d9de-7a82-533a-bb51-0a7710e06d49.html

PORTAGE — The City Council on Tuesday removed Mayor James Snyder from his job as chairperson of the Utility Service Board.

The pay, which is $30,000, will go back to taxpayers, City Council President Mark Oprisko said.

In addition, the budget of the Utility Service Board was replaced with the name "finances" with any future expenditures having to go before the clerk-treasurer's office and the City Council.

Oprisko said the ordinance, which was unanimously approved by the council, was a way to put more checks and balances in place and to return finances back to taxpayers.

"Myself and the City Council will do whatever it takes. We have your backs," Oprisko said.

Snyder, who wasn't at the meeting because he was at a Chicago hospital visiting a friend, issued a statement through a staff member.

The statement was as follows: "I intend to stay high while others go low. The facts in Portage government are that we have saved the city millions of dollars in waste, fixed more roads, buildings and infrastructure than any administration and have rejuvenated the pride in Portage. Council members are focused on normal city operations that will be approved and substantiated by the State of Board of Accounts. The council is behaving in a way of presumption of guilt, which is the opposite of what American, Indiana and any decent citizen believes."

Council members, who were applauded several times for their measure, said the action was due to two events. First, the mayor sought reimbursement for $93,000 of his personal legal fees prior to his indictment without seeking approval from the Utility Service Board. Secondly, Snyder took a recent trip to Washington, D.C., for a mayor's conference and to attend the presidential inauguration, taking two police administrators and his family.

Snyder was indicted on three counts in federal court in November including bribery and tax evasion. His trial is set for April 10.

Snyder, along with his wife and four children, traveled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 16, to attend the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting and the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

In addition to the Snyders, Police Chief Troy Williams and Assistant Chief Ted Uzelac Jr. and Uzelac's son also attended the conference and inauguration.

In a written answer to Clerk-Treasurer Christopher Stidham, Snyder denied "ordering" the administrators to attend the conference and inauguration. He said he "granted them permission" based on the content of the conference. He also denied collecting any reimbursement from the Utility Services Board.

Although many of those residents who attended the council meeting applauded the efforts of officials, at least one resident, Edna Maturkanich, questioned why officials had gone around the mayor's back.

"I feel like you are roasting the mayor and he wasn't even here. Isn't a person considered innocent until he goes before a court of law?" Maturkanich asked.










PODCAST: Byline - Fixing corruption's mark on NWI
Kale Wilk, Digital Producer
February 06, 2017
http://www.nwitimes.com/digital/audio/byline/podcast-byline---fixing-corruption-s-mark-on-nwi/audio_0372c6a9-083c-571e-80c3-ad00e4a2e6fa.html



Northwest Indiana politics, particularly in Lake County, has a rough history. It's marked by its highs, but also by its lows as civic leaders go down in history and besmirch the Region's reputation. Although their trials haven't started, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder's recent indictments haven't helped the Region's perception. What is the fix for stopping the temptations in public corruption? Byline examines a mix of efforts at both the local and state levels as well as even the newspaper's role in making ethical decisions commonplace.










MARC CHASE: Distracting specter grows around Portage mayor
Marc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330
NWI Times
Feb 5, 2017
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/opinion/columnists/marc-chase/marc-chase-distracting-specter-grows-around-portage-mayor/article_f467452a-c13a-5ad0-8423-2338933dc9d5.html

Strong vision and hard, efficient work are the stuff of community growth and success — the qualities of solid leaders.

But those qualities can't elevate leaders — regardless of their past successes — beyond the specter of a felony indictment alleging personal enrichment and abuse of public trust.

Innocent or guilty, and he'll get his day in court at some point, Portage Mayor James Snyder is learning this social and legal truth the hard way.

The stifling stranglehold such accusations place on a leader continue to multiply in their effect on Snyder's ability to lead.

They will continue to do so until and unless he resigns or is exonerated of felonious wrongdoing.

It's a painful truth for many in Portage — and elsewhere in the Region — to consider given Snyder's many successes at the helm of the city's executive office.

Portions of our Region are blessed with an idyllic mix of industry, stunning natural lakefront and promising development.

In my 13-plus years living in Northwest Indiana, I've watched Portage become the epitome of all of these qualities.

Business and warehousing developments around the Bass Pro Shop off the interstate, along Central Avenue near City Hall and newer, cost-effective and aesthetically pleasing municipal buildings help define the Portage landscape.

The city's tax base, and therefore its residents, are the direct beneficiaries.

The Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk is a National Park Service facility made into an eye-popping recreational and natural wonder through the collective vision and funding of many entities.

Much of what we see in Portage is due, at least in part, to the strong vision of Mayor Snyder.

A desire to continue that vision is a major reason why Snyder says he won't resign office in the wake of the federal felony bribery indictment he faces.

Federal prosecutors allege he solicited self-enrichment through bribes paid by city towing contractors. Snyder also is accused of tax evasion.

Snyder continued to contend his innocence Friday when I met him for a tour of the city and an interview in his office.

Innocent or not — and I'm neither prosecutor nor judge — I've contended in the past that the shadow of the federal accusations are too great a distraction to city business. I've argued, as has The Times Editorial Board, that Snyder should step down and focus on his legal defense.

Evidence of this immense distraction grew evermore apparent earlier this week when controversy erupted over a recent taxpayer-funded trip Snyder and two top police officials took to Washington, D.C.

The primary purpose was Snyder's attendance at the United States Conference of Mayors, a staple and typically innocuous event attended by many mayors throughout the country.

Mayors and other municipal officials attend the conference to glean ideas of best practices they can then bring home with them.

Snyder told me he opted to bring police Chief Troy Williams and Assistant Chief Ted Uzelac Jr. with him because community policing topics were included on the conference agenda, and police acting as security for their respective mayors could attend the conference free of the $1,200 individual registration fee.

The conference was contiguous with President Donald Trump's inauguration, so Snyder and the two police officials attended that historic event as well.

None of the trip, on its face value, would have stirred much controversy had Snyder not been under the weight of a federal bribery indictment.

But he was and is.

Some Portage officials went on the attack last week, criticizing the mayor for seeking and receiving taxpayer reimbursement for a $539-per-night hotel suite, rather than a cheaper $429-per-night standard room, while he attended the conference.

Snyder said his staff booked the more expensive room because his wife and children traveled to D.C. with him, largely to witness the Trump inauguration.

It's a $110-per-night quibble that Snyder could easily have satisfied by knocking the difference off the amount he requested for reimbursement. After all, taxpayers shouldn't be expected to pick up the bill for the mayor's family to attend.

But he didn't. All told, Snyder was reimbursed $3,892.64 from city coffers, which included the cost of the nicer accommodations, the conference registration and valet parking.

It's not really the stuff of intense scandal, however. In fact, Snyder argues he could have charged the city a per diem for his meals but did not.

Portage Clerk-treasurer Chris Stidham also accused Snyder of taking along taxpayer-funded bodyguards by bringing along his police chief and assistant chief. Chief Williams and Assistant Chief Uzelac collectively rang up another $5,303.52 in hotel, travel and meal charges to be reimbursed by the city, documents provided by Snyder show.

Though they attended registration-free under the "security" clause of the event, it's easy to see why Stidham and other officials would get worked up over the city paying for non-mayors to attend a mayoral event.

Clearly, Snyder didn't need a security detail. The mayor, of course, argues his top cops benefited from connections made at the event and the topical nature of some of the event themes.

All of that may be true, just as Snyder may be innocent of the bribery charges he faces.

But he'll continue to face such intense scrutiny as long as he remains under indictment. This uncertain veil will choke out his ability to lead the way he otherwise could. It will continue to hang like an albatross around the necks of the mayor's staff and other city officials aligned with him.

Snyder acknowledged Friday the indictment is deeply affecting staff morale. How could it not?

Council members of both political parties recently implored the mayor to resign. Other entities have done so as well.

Regardless of the good he's done for Portage, it may be time for Snyder to listen.










Portage ordinance proposal targets salary of panel chair, currently held by Mayor Snyder
Post-Tribune
February 03, 2017 - 6:37PM
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-portage-new-ordinance-st-0206-20170203-story.html


The Portage City Council is expected to hear an ordinance proposal Tuesday that would strip the chairman of the city's Utility Services Board of the position's $30,000 salary.

Mayor James Snyder is the current chairman.

The proposed ordinances also name the city's clerk-treasurer as the treasurer of the board. The clerk-treasurer would manage board funds and the checkbook while paying out expenses as ordered by the board, according to the proposals.

The proposals come a few months after Snyder upset many city officials by ordering board staff to send payments to two legal firms representing Snyder in a federal investigation that resulted in a public corruption indictment Nov. 18.

Snyder said the ordinances are "below humanity," and the mayor said he hopes to reach resolution before the ordinances go from the council floor to a court room floor.

"You can't lower the mayor's salary because you can starve a man out," Snyder said. "It's just very low. All of the individuals behind this, when I'm found innocent, which will be very shortly, will probably wish they didn't go this route."

He said he has legal help studying state law and the ordinances. He also dismissed claims the ordinances had nothing to do with his federal indictment last November on public corruption charges.

Snyder is a member of the board and appoints four of the seven members, with the council appointing the rest. The board typically appoints the mayor as its chairman with a $30,000 salary.

"It's one of the steps I think is necessary to bring back some credence back to the utility services board," said Council President Mark Oprisko, who is the board's vice chair.

Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham said the proposed ordinances are a direct result of Snyder's efforts last September to get the board to pay $93,000 in legal fees.

Snyder had not consulted any other board members or discussed the payments publicly up to that point. Oprisko called the attempt "an injustice."

In September, the board sent a $6,100 check to Portage-based legal firm Dogan and Dogan and almost $87,400 to Tom Kirsch, an attorney with Winston and Strawn. Both firms returned the checks, indicating they could not accept the checks from the board because they were representing Snyder as an individual.

At the time, Oprisko intervened to stop any reimbursements or payments related to the expenses.

"That was a pretty big deal," Stidham said.

The board also paid Snyder extra money as compensation for several city staff members who did work for the utility board outside of their normal duties.

The board and the City of Portage are two separate entities, but the City Council passes ordinances that affect leadership and other key elements of the board.

Stidham said he believes the ordinances, if passed, will pass legal muster as they are directed toward the board chairperson as an appointed official.

State law prohibits legislative bodies from eliminating or significantly reducing elected officers' salaries, which are set locally by salary ordinances.










Mayor's Washington trip, security detail rile city officials
Post-Tribune
February 03, 2017
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-portage-mayor-inauguration-st-0205-20170203-story.html


When President Donald Trump was swearing the oath of office at last month's inauguration in Washington, Portage Mayor James Snyder was in attendance, along with his family and a security detail that included the police chief and assistant chief, records and interviews show.

Snyder, a Republican who's facing federal public corruption charges, capped off a week-long trip to a national mayor's conference in Washington D.C. by attending the inauguration. So far, the mayor has billed taxpayers at least $2,692 for travel and hotel, according to records and interviews.

The charges included a rented suite at the Capitol Hilton for $539 a night for four nights to accommodate his family, instead of the standard room rate of $429 a night, a difference of $110 without taxes and fees, records show. Police Chief Troy Williams and Assistant Chief Ted Uzelac also billed the city $429 per night for four and five nights respectively, according to records and interviews.

The Portage Utility Services Board, which Snyder chairs, reimbursed Snyder $2,692 to cover four out of the five nights he and his family spent at the hotel at the $539 a night rate. Snyder paid for the fifth night on his own.

"It's no problem taking your family, and it's no problem if they stay in the same hotel room, but the city shouldn't bear the additional expense," Portage Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham, a vocal opponent of the mayor's, said. "And, (staying for the inauguration), now it's gone from city business to personal business. Now, he was keeping security out there for his personal time, and that's where it really gets out of line."

A federal grand jury in November indicted Snyder on bribery and tax evasion charges.

Portage Council President Mark Oprisko and Councilman John Cannon, R-4th, recently visited Snyder in the mayor's office, where Oprisko asked Snyder to resign, claiming the mayor's federal indictment "cast a cloud" over the city, Oprisko said.

Snyder refused.

Stidham sent the City Council a letter criticizing Snyder for charging the city for the suite during the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting, which took place Jan. 16-19 in Washington, D.C. Stidham also criticized Snyder for billing taxpayers the costs surrounding the Jan. 20 inauguration. The letter also questioned Snyder's decision to take along Williams and Uzelac as security.

Snyder's wife and four children accompanied him on what he called "a historic trip." On his Facebook page, Snyder said the "scrutiny of this trip is unwarranted and completely riddled with 'alternative facts' to paint a picture that is not accurate."

Stidham, the city's chief financial officer, combed through receipts from the January trip in his office, expressing frustration and calling on the council to pass ordinances that further clamp down on spending by city officials.

Stidham, a Democrat, insists Snyder should reimburse the city for the difference in his family's suite rate and for all of the police leaders' hotel expenses, with the latter costs totaling about $5,300. He also called the extra day for the inauguration "the mayor's personal business."

Snyder, however, said he did not intend to reimburse the city for the difference between his family's suite rental rate and the standard rate or for the officers' stay. Instead, he refused to charge the city a per diem, which would've come out more than that difference, he said.

Snyder also said a state agency can review the trip and decide what's right or wrong.

"If the State Board of Accounts sees it as a thing to be dealt with, we'll deal with it," he said.

Williams said he and Uzelac were following orders in attending the conference and inauguration, and they stayed close to the mayor and his family after coming up before the trip with a detailed operations plan on what they would do in Washington.

Williams also used the conference as a way to improve police operations back home, he said.

"We decided if we're going be there in this security capacity, let's also use the opportunity to network and find out what else other communities are doing," Williams said. "I think if somebody has a question about something, it's fair to ask that. From mine and the assistant chief's position, we were going there as a security detail."

Williams claimed he and Uzelac came in handy protecting the mayor while heading to an inaugural ball. As they approached an opening between two blockades and portable fencing, protesters began to envelop them, causing Williams to get physical with two of them while Uzelac ushered the mayor and his wife to safety, Williams said.

In his letter to the City Council, Stidham, who was sworn in as clerk-treasurer in 2012, the same time Snyder ascended to the mayor's office, called on the body to pass a travel policy ordinance that prohibits city officials' "use of police officers as personal bodyguards while traveling on city business," bans hiring private security firms for those trips, and clearly outlines policies for family travel and for extending travel past city business.

"It's sad we're to this point, but let's have an ordinance that makes it crystal clear our stance on these situations," Stidham said.

Snyder said some of the criticism "may be heartfelt," but he also said some of the criticism, especially from Stidham, was politically motivated Stidham also works for the law firm Rhame and Elwood, which holds a number of contracts throughout the city and the Portage schools.

Snyder said the "spat" with Stidham will not get in the way of city work.

"Any self-serving criticism of the mayor is not good for Portage," Snyder said Friday. "It's not good for its staff. I'm going to get through all this and I'm going to be a better person when I'm through all this."










Portage ordinance proposal targets panel chair's salary
Post-Tribune
February 03, 2017
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-portage-new-ordinance-st-0206-20170203-story.html

The Portage City Council is expected to hear an ordinance proposal Tuesday that would strip the chairman of the city's Utility Services Board of the position's $30,000 salary.

Mayor James Snyder is the current chairman.

The proposed ordinances also name the city's clerk-treasurer as the treasurer of the board. The clerk-treasurer would manage board funds and the checkbook while paying out expenses as ordered by the board, according to the proposals.

The proposals come a few months after Snyder upset many city officials by ordering board staff to send payments to two legal firms representing Snyder in a federal investigation that resulted in a public corruption indictment Nov. 18.

Snyder said the ordinances are "below humanity," and the mayor said he hopes to reach resolution before the ordinances go from the council floor to a court room floor.

"You can't lower the mayor's salary because you can starve a man out," Snyder said. "It's just very low. All of the individuals behind this, when I'm found innocent, which will be very shortly, will probably wish they didn't go this route."

He said he has legal help studying state law and the ordinances. He also dismissed claims the ordinances had nothing to do with his federal indictment last November on public corruption charges.

Snyder is a member of the board and appoints four of the seven members, with the council appointing the rest. The board typically appoints the mayor as its chairman with a $30,000 salary.

"It's one of the steps I think is necessary to bring back some credence back to the utility services board," said Council President Mark Oprisko, who is the board's vice chair.

Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham said the proposed ordinances are a direct result of Snyder's efforts last September to get the board to pay $93,000 in legal fees.

Snyder had not consulted any other board members or discussed the payments publicly up to that point. Oprisko called the attempt "an injustice."

In September, the board sent a $6,100 check to Portage-based legal firm Dogan and Dogan and almost $87,400 to Tom Kirsch, an attorney with Winston and Strawn. Both firms returned the checks, indicating they could not accept the checks from the board because they were representing Snyder as an individual.

At the time, Oprisko intervened to stop any reimbursements or payments related to the expenses.

"That was a pretty big deal," Stidham said.

The board also paid Snyder extra money as compensation for several city staff members who did work for the utility board outside of their normal duties.

The board and the City of Portage are two separate entities, but the City Council passes ordinances that affect leadership and other key elements of the board.

Stidham said he believes the ordinances, if passed, will pass legal muster as they are directed toward the board chairperson as an appointed official.

State law prohibits legislative bodies from eliminating or significantly reducing elected officers' salaries, which are set locally by salary ordinances.










Portage officials scrutinize mayor's trip to conference, inauguration
Joyce Russell
NWI Times
Feb 1, 2017
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/portage-officials-scrutinize-mayor-s-trip-to-conference-inauguration/article_f7a2d3e4-ea9b-5227-bd2b-63bcc83bf6a0.html


PORTAGE — Portage officials are scrutinizing a trip Mayor James Snyder took recently to Washington, D.C.

Snyder, along with his wife and four children, traveled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 16, to attend the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting and the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

In addition to the Snyders, Police Chief Troy Williams and Assistant Chief Ted Uzelac Jr. and Uzelac's son also attended the conference and inauguration.

Clerk-treasurer Chris Stidham, in a letter to City Council President Mark Oprisko, said he has "grave concerns" about the trip.

Stidham accused Snyder of "ordering" Williams and Uzelac to attend the conference to act as Snyder and his family's "security detail."

"Why the mayor, who is not a national figure nor recognizable in a crowd in D.C., thinks he is entitled to taxpayer-funded bodyguards while he travels is beyond comprehension," said Stidham, adding he believes Snyder has a "lack of respect" for taxpayers' money. He is requesting Snyder reimburse the city the cost of the police administrators travel. He is also asking the City Council to tighten up its travel ordinance.

In addition, Stidham said Snyder upgraded his hotel room from a $429-a-night standard room to a $539-a-night suite and has received reimbursement from the Utility Services Board.

In a written answer to Stidham, Snyder denied "ordering" the administrators to attend the conference and inauguration. He said he "granted them permission" based on the content of the conference. He also denied collecting any reimbursement from the Utility Services Board.

Williams said he was told by the mayor that conference organizers were suggesting mayors bring their own security detail.

"On the surface, I didn't see any issues," said Williams, adding Uzelac traveled with the mayor's family, in a separate vehicle, on Monday and he drove to Washington on Tuesday. He said they attended the conference for free because they were working as the mayor's security detail. Williams said he and Uzelac attended several informative workshops ranging from social justice to the COPS grant program and he even spoke at one meeting hosted by Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.

Williams said they escorted the mayor and his family to both the inauguration on Friday, Jan. 20 and the inaugural ball later that night. During their entry into the gala, Williams said, they were confronted with protesters and he and Uzelac provided protection for the Snyders during the incident.

Williams called it a "working conference" in which he and Uzelac put together a security packet before the trip. He said a number of mayors had security details and others did not.

Snyder, who is awaiting trial on three felony charges in federal court, said he would contact the State Board of Accounts for their opinion on whether he can seek reimbursement for attending the inaugural activities.

City Council President Mark Oprisko said he believes it is "morally and ethically wrong" for Snyder to seek reimbursement for himself and his family to attend the inaugural festivities.

"It is sad he took two of our leaders off the street. That's just not right. If he had safety concerns, he shouldn't have taken his wife, his family, he shouldn't have gone," he said.

Oprisko said he is waiting to see the bills, but does not believe the city should pay for his or his family's attendance at any inaugural activities.

Attempts to reach Snyder on Wednesday for comment were unsuccessful.










Portage City Council calls for resignation of mayor
By - Associated Press
Washington Times
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/feb/1/portage-city-council-calls-for-resignation-of-mayo/

PORTAGE, Ind. (AP) - The Portage City Council is calling for the city’s mayor to resign after he was charged with tax evasion and bribery in November.

Council President Mark Oprisko and Councilman John Cannon, the council’s lone Republican, met Monday with Republican Mayor James Snyder, The (Northwest Indiana) Times (http://bit.ly/2jVpjCh ) reported.

Oprisko said he told the mayor that if he chooses not to resign, he should just collect his salary and let the city move forward. He said the council will try to remove him as chairman of the Utility Services Board regardless of his decision.

“I basically told him how I feel, as well as the others, that it is time to resign. The focus is now more on the indictment and the charges than the city,” Oprisko said.

Four out of the five other council members said they agree with the request. The fifth, Pat Clem, was out of town.

Oprisko said they want the mayor to resign for several reasons, including recent spending trends and the mayor’s attempt to pay $93,000 of his personal legal fees prior to his indictment without seeking approval from the Utility Services Board.










Portage officials ask for indicted mayor's resignation
Post-Tribune
January 31, 2017 - 11:01AM


Portage City Council President Mark Oprisko has joined a growing list of city officials calling for Mayor James Snyder to resign in light of his federal indictment in November on public corruption charges.

Oprisko also said the council may consider ordinances to neutralize Snyder as chairman of the Portage Utility Services Board.

"It's in the best interests of every official and every resident for (Snyder) to step aside," Oprisko said Monday. "We have great department heads. Let the city run. Let us run it so we don't have to keep hearing about the indictment."

In an e-mailed statement, Snyder remained defiant, citing his "American Civil Rights" and the presumption of innocence, while acknowledging the indictment "is weighing heavily on Portage."

"No Resigning!" Snyder responded when asked if was going to resign. He also said Portage residents continue "receiving the great services they have come to expect, and those services will continue because of the hard work of the public servants working."

Oprisko, D-at large, and Councilman John Cannon, R-4th, met with Snyder in City Hall. Oprisko also said he is "considering different options" to remove Snyder from his position as chairman of the Portage Utility Services Board or weaken him in that spot.

Cannon, who described the discussion with Snyder as "spirited," said he is a longtime friend of Snyder's, but the November indictment may be a factor in where the city goes from here. Cannon said he did not "directly ask the mayor" to step down.

"I think Council President Oprisko and myself, we have real concerns about our city and if there's something holding our city back from growing and holding back all of the wonderful things this mayor has done, then we have to address that," Cannon said. "(Snyder) may not be able to continue to do the wonderful things he's done if there's a cloud hanging over him."

In November, Snyder and John Cortina, owner of a towing company in the city, were indicted. Snyder was charged with one count of tax evasion and two counts of bribery.

In a final 2016 annual campaign finance report, Citizens for Snyder, the mayor's campaign committee, reported receiving $2,000 in direct support from Cortina and a $10,000 loan from the businessman.

On the Hammond courthouse steps Nov. 18, the day he was indicted, Snyder's attorney, Thomas Kirsch, indicated they could prove Snyder received a loan from Cortina, not a bribe.

The campaign finance report also showed Citizens for Snyder gave $6,300 to the Committee to Elect John Cannon between March and August last year for Cannon's failed run for county commissioner.

Cannon defended the contribution as part of his efforts and Snyder's efforts to give Portage residents more say at the county level.

"I'm assuming at some point in time I'll be put in same light as mayor because of that relationship and our party," Cannon said. "The perception may be we're connected at the hip, and that's the farthest thing from the truth.

"Campaigns are not about the person running. It's about what we're going to do to better the citizens of Portage."

The City Council agreed on asking Snyder to resign, Oprisko said, and one member, Collin Czilli, D-5th, in a separate statement, said Snyder is innocent until proven guilty, but "if Mayor Snyder truly believes in Portage's future success, it is incumbent on him to resign his office, effective immediately."

Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham called for Snyder's resignation earlier in January.

"I think it's a powerful message the president of the City Council has joined my previous call for Mayor Snyder to step down," Stidham said Monday. "My call was based on the fact this indictment was an enormous distraction."

Snyder seemed to shock city officials last September when he asked the utility board to pay for his more than $90,000 in legal fees, to that point, related to the federal investigation.

Oprisko, who is the vice chairman of the board, said he immediately sought to stop the board from paying the expenses,.

The council president said he is exploring ordinances to remove the mayor's office from the utility board seat or deny Snyder compensation.












Portage council call for mayor's resignation
Joyce Russell 
Jan 30, 2017 
NWI Times

PORTAGE — The City Council here has called for the resignation of Mayor James Snyder.

Council President Mark Oprisko, a Democrat, and Councilman John Cannon, the council's lone Republican, met with Snyder on Monday afternoon for more than an hour.

"I basically told him how I feel, as well as the others, that it is time to resign. The focus is now more on the indictment and the charges than the city," said Oprisko, adding he has had reports from employees that the mayor's legal status is impeding their jobs.

"I told him if you are not going to resign, stay home and collect your salary and let the city move forward," said Oprisko, adding that if he doesn't resign, the council will propose an ordinance to remove him as chairman of the Utility Services Board.

Snyder was indicted on three counts in federal court in November including bribery and tax evasion. His trial is set for April 10.

Oprisko said there are several reasons why they are calling for the mayor's resignation, including recent spending trends, the effort by the mayor to pay $93,000 of his personal legal fees prior to his indictment without seeking approval from the Utility Services Board and, most recently, his trip to Washington D.C. for a mayor's conference and to attend the presidential inauguration, taking two police administrators and his family.

Council members Sue Lynch, Liz Modesto, Scott Williams and Collin Czilli all said they agreed with Oprisko's and Cannon's request of the mayor. Member Pat Clem was out of the area.

"I am standing behind the city council members in asking him to resign," said Lynch. "If he truly loves the city, he needs to do what is best for the city."

"I am 100 percent in support of President Oprisko's decision to approach the mayor and ask him to step down," said Williams. "I believe the morale has been affected to prevent the city from operating properly and it is the time the council stepped forward and made a stand."

Modesto said "it is not just one thing, it is a combination of things" that caused her to agree to seek Snyder's resignation, citing recent issues with the mayor's spending.

"I still believe what I said in my statement of Nov. 18 to be true, Mayor Snyder is innocent until proven guilty and deserves his day in court," said Czilli. "However, after two months of consideration, I have reached the conclusion that if Mayor Snyder truly believes in Portage’s future success, it is incumbent on him to resign his office, effective immediately."

The council's call for Snyder's resignation follows that of Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham.

Snyder gave a statement to The Times via email saying "When I signed my oath of office there was no clause giving up my American Civil Rights, including my presumed innocence. My rights and my oath of office are no different than Councilman Oprisko or Councilman Cannon’s rights. They are correct that this is weighing heavily on Portage and we are operating well under these circumstances. Residents of Portage are receiving the great services they have come to expect and those services will continue because of the hard work of the public servants working. My dedication to working with other City elected officials has not feigned and together Portage will see more big things accomplished. Any rash decisions are ill advised and detrimental to the future of Portage."












Portage mayor raises, spends more than $136,000 in campaign funds
Joyce Russell 
NWI Times
January 24, 2017



PORTAGE — Mayor James Snyder's 2016 campaign spending doesn't pass the "stink test," according to two Hoosier political analysts.

Snyder, who was elected in 2015, raised in excess of $136,000 in campaign funding last year and spent it all in 2016, according to his campaign finance report.

Among the contributions to his campaign, outlined in the 2016 year-end report of receipts and expenditures of a political committee released Friday, was a $2,000 donation and $10,000 loan from his co-defendant in his federal bribery case.

John Cortina, who was indicted along with Snyder in November, has made donations to Citizens for Snyder for many years, said Snyder's campaign treasurer, Kenard Taylor. The donations support the Mayor's Roundtable, which brings other mayors to Portage for events. 

"This year he also lent the campaign $10,000," Taylor said.

Practice not unusual for larger cities

While 2016 was not a mayoral election year, and Snyder has said he will not seek a third term as mayor, Taylor said it is not unusual for some politicians to raise funds in an off year.

"You'll find it goes both ways through the state. He went out and raised money for other candidates. He wants to help people who will promote Portage, help people who can help his community," said Taylor, who prepares campaign finance reports for other candidates as well.

Andrew Downs, director of the Michael Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne, said it would not be uncommon for a politician to raise and spend money in an off-election year — had Snyder not announced he wasn't running for re-election. 

Usually, said Downs and Hoosier political analyst Brian Howey, that is saved for larger cities and higher state or federal offices.

And while some candidates raise funds on off years, Howey said he finds it unusual for a mayor of a city the size of Portage to do so.

Commingling accounts
Howey was more surprised by Snyder's use of campaign funds to pay personal expenses.

Those include paying his wife $12,000 for campaign management; $11,300 to Taylor for consulting and financial services; $8,300 in rent toward his campaign office, which is shared space with his personal mortgage company; $9,700 to his company SRC LLC for his campaign's share in office supplies, equipment or salaries; $5,000 to himself as a loan repayment and $3,851 to Google for advertisements and web promotion.

There also are campaign expenses involving Snyder's golf outing and additional fundraisers, Taylor said.

"I haven't heard of that kind of intermingle of funds since the 1996 Pence congressional campaign," Howey said. "It is highly irregular commingling personal and campaign accounts."

Downs said Snyder's expenses are likely legal, but "don't pass the stink test."

Snyder did donate $12,300 to various Republican candidates and to the county Republican organization. He also used $22,000 to pay attorney Thomas Kirsh, who is defending him in federal court.

That too is legal, Taylor said, because the investigation and indictment involves his position as mayor.

Downs was surprised that Snyder maintains a campaign office year-round and pays campaign workers, as well as rent. Downs said even Fort Wayne's mayor doesn't maintain such an office. Most candidates, particularly in a city the size of Portage, might have a storefront for a few months around the election and a cellphone for someone to take calls.

Remaining expenditures went to meals, travel, charitable donations and other incidentals.

As for donations, Snyder received 35 donations of $2,000 or more, many coming from companies that do business with the city, including the city engineer, city attorney and Allen's Lawn Care, which holds the city's landscaping contract; Holladay Properties, developers of AmeriPlex and the Founders Promenade development; Marina Shores at Dune Harbor, which received approval to offer the first residential tax abatements in the city; Midnight Blue Towing, which is on the city's towing list; the Pangere Corp., contractors for the new fire station, and SEH of Munster, which holds several design/engineering contracts with the city.

Snyder's committee ended the year more than $19,000 in debt, including the loan from Cortina and the remaining money owed himself. He did not return an email request for comment.












EDITORIAL: Buncich, Snyder selfishly hold posts
The Times Editorial Board  
Updated: January 16, 2017

The Times recently reported that Lake County Sheriff John Buncich sought a continuance in his federal criminal case in which the county's top lawman faces felony bribery charges.

In court filings, Buncich argued he needed more time to prepare his defense against the criminal indictment in Hammond federal court.

If Buncich would do the right thing and resign now, he would have more time to focus on his criminal charges, which will only cause further distractions and obstacles to the important business of serving as sheriff.

We've argued this before, but it's worth restating.

Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder, who faces a separate and unrelated federal bribery case, both should resign and stop hauling their constituents through the legal distractions and drama.

Both men face unrelated felony bribery charges related to towing contracts under the stewardship of their respective public offices.

It’s only going to get worse the longer they wait to step down.

One of Buncich’s chief deputies already has pleaded guilty in the scheme and pledged to aid federal prosecutors.

In the meantime, how many local and federal law enforcement agencies will want to continue partnering — or funding — an agency run by a leader facing federal felony charges?

The Lake County Sheriff's Department, like other local police agencies, frequently relies on federal funds for various law enforcement initiatives, including overtime money for special patrols.

It's hard to fathom any branch of the federal government looking favorably on granting money to a police agency whose leader is operating under such a dark shroud.

In both the case of Buncich and Snyder, abdicating office, guilty or not, is the right thing to do for both government reputations and taxpayers.

Mounting a defense against federal criminal charges will take immense time, effort and attention. It's impossible to conceive of there being much time left to focus on the important duties they were elected to execute.

Federal grand jury indictments accuse both Buncich and Snyder of illegally enriching themselves via their public offices. It's a clear allegation of greed infecting government.

If they're interested in showing their intentions are pure — which their pleas of not guilty portend — they'll take the selfless act of resigning.

Right now, they're showing nothing by selfishness in refusing to abdicate.

Nearly two months have passed since these charges were leveled. Constituents and fellow government leaders should apply more pressure for these men to do the right thing and step down.












EDITORIAL: Local party must break corruption's mold
The Times Editorial Board  
Updated Jan 13, 2017


Protecting taxpayer dollars and repairing the foundering reputation of some Region government institutions are more important than political allegiances.

It's a simple message every Northwest Indiana resident should be delivering to political leaders, some of whom perennially just don't seem to get it.

The Lake County Democratic Party, in particular, is at an important crossroads at which a change in leadership is likely imminent in 2017.

The destructive consequences of each and every county taxpayer and political leader not pushing for a change in direction for the county's majority party of power are clear.

For generations, political allegiances in some Region government bodies have contributed to a climate in which more than 60 public officials or their connected contractors have been convicted for felony crimes against taxpayers.

It's why the Lake County Democratic Party has a chairman, who also happens to be county Sheriff John Buncich, under federal indictment for allegedly accepting bribes in a towing contract scheme related to the sheriff's office.

Misplaced allegiances, a sickness really, are why Democratic Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington is feeling little to no party pressure to resign his post after pleading guilty last month to battering his wife.

The potential crossroads for a new direction for the county's party of power comes in the likelihood that Buncich will be forcibly removed from his government office in 2017 — if he doesn't resign of his own volition.

If he is convicted or pleads guilty in 2017 of the felony bribery charges, Indiana law will automatically revoke his position as sheriff.

It would seem, at that point, his party chairmanship would be untenable as well.

Now Lake County Democratic Party members must be pushing for a new direction.

In 2016, we were disheartened to learn of some new names being bandied about in political circles as potential future party chairmen.

One of those names, Michael Pannos, surfaced when Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. suggested he would like to see Pannos take the party's reins at some point.

Pannos was central to the corrupt East Chicago administration of former Mayor Robert Pastrick. Pannos was central to a civil lawsuit, which he settled out of court in 2014, that was filed by the Indiana attorney general's office in the last decade.

The lawsuit accused Pannos and his business of enriching themselves with millions of East Chicago taxpayer revenues siphoned to his private company with little taxpayer benefit to show for it.

If this is the type of leader top party officials turn to for potential leadership, our Region is doomed to continue experiencing a cycle of corruption that's long plagued Northwest Indiana's political reputation.

Talk of Pannos being a future party leader has died down. But who else will be considered as Buncich's successor?

With one voice, all Region residents and officials, Republican and Democrat, should be demanding a strong county Democratic Party leader bent on quashing corruption at its root.

This leader should not be a current officeholder like past chairmen. It must be someone who can focus on cleaning house and promoting candidates who stand for responsible government.

It must be someone who can apply the right pressure to oust or force resignations of officials who've admitted to crimes or otherwise sullied the reputations of their offices.

Republican officials, leaders and voters in Lake County should be part of the chorus. The Democratic Party continues holding majorities in county and municipal government offices and therefore holds sway over all people within its borders.

It's time for a healthy vetting and thorough considerations of the next Democratic party leader in Lake County, and the state party should be applying pressure as well.

If the Lake County Democratic Party truly concerns itself with the needs and well being of constituents, it will get serious about selecting a future chairman who won't become the next criminally indicted politico.












Sheriff needs more time to prepare bribery case
Bill Dolan 
NWI Times
Updated Jan 13, 2017  


HAMMOND — An attorney for Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is asking for more time to prepare for a trial on bribery charges.

Valparaiso defense attorney Bryan M. Truitt, who represents Sheriff John Buncich, said he has yet to receive any of the government's evidence, which includes more than 45 compact discs containing numerous video and audio recordings.

Truitt said Valparaiso lawyer Larry Rogers is only now joining the sheriff's defense team. He said it would take at least six months to get ready for trial.

U.S. Attorney David Capp has charged Buncich, Tim Downs, the sheriff's former second-in-command, and a Lake Station towing firm owner on allegations Buncich solicited thousands of dollars in bribes and campaign contributions from towing firms.

Buncich has pleaded not guilty. Downs pleaded guilty last month to soliciting political contributions from towing firms under Buncich's order and is expected to testify against Buncich at trial.

The court postponed a pre-trial hearing that was to have taken place Friday morning, but hasn't set deadlines for the case.

Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Magistrate Paul Cherry granted a request for more time by an attorney for Portage Mayor James Snyder, who is pleading not guilty to charges of soliciting bribes for towing and public works projects.

Snyder's trial now is scheduled to begin April 10 before U.S. District Court Judge Judge Rudy Lozano.













Portage mayor's trial delayed until April
Joyce Russell 
NWI Times
Updated Jan 11, 2017  


PORTAGE — Mayor James Snyder's federal trial on bribery and tax evasion charges has been postponed. The trial will now begin April 10.

Snyder's attorney filed a motion for a continuance last month saying his firm had not received discovery materials from the federal government as yet. That motion was unopposed by the federal prosecutors and granted this week by the courts.

Snyder was indicted on three separate charges in November following a more-than-two-year investigation by the FBI.

He was released on bond the same day. His trial, along with that of co-defendant John Cortina, had been scheduled to begin Jan. 23.












Officials dispute north county complex future
By Bob Kasarda 
NWI Times
Updated Jan 11, 2017  


PORTAGE — Porter County government is taking a close look at its north county government complex, which at nearly 40 years old is falling short of today's needs.

If it is determined a new building is needed for the courts and other government offices, it likely will be constructed at the same site south of U.S. 6 along the west side of Willowcreek Road, according to Porter County Commissioner Jeff Good, R-Center.

But Portage Mayor James Snyder said he would prefer to see a new county building sited farther north in the city's downtown area, between the new fire and police stations.

The downtown location would provide the city with a much-needed anchor for the downtown, while fueling economic development for the city and county, he said. Development occurred around the site of the current location, he said, but now that that has occurred, it would be a lost opportunity for the downtown to put a new building up at the same site.

Porter County Commissioner Jim Biggs, R-North, said he understands Snyder's point of view, but agrees that it makes more sense for the county as a whole to rebuild, if necessary, at the same site.

The county already owns the land, and it's more easily accessible than the downtown, he said. The current site is also where there is the most potential for growth, especially if Willowcreek Road is one day extended south to U.S. 30.

Snyder said the downtown location would be closer to the Duneland area and easily reached by the Indiana Toll Road.

The county could sell the valuable land that it now owns, and the city would be willing to look at all options to make the downtown site a reality, he said.












Push in Portage for transparency delayed
Michael Gonzalez
Post-Tribune
January 06, 2017

Proposed ordinances to make towing agreements and all other agreements subject to more scrutiny in Portage were delayed even as some city council members wanted them quickly passed in the wake of indictments of the mayor and a towing company owner.

Four council members tried to suspend the rules and get the measures passed on first reading, but Councilman John Cannon (D-4th) voted against rushing a final vote. He has said he is a life-long friend of the son of John Cortina, who was indicted in November along with Mayor James Snyder, and expects to be interviewed by federal authorities about the corruption charges.

"We need to have a little more discussion on this. It's not an emergency to get it done, we've waited all this time," Cannon said. "I believe the only reason it was brought up is because of other issues around the city."

When asked if those other issues were the indictments, Cannon said, "that could be part of it."

Snyder was charged with taking bribes from Cortina's towing company and with tax evasion. He opened the recent council meeting but left soon afterward, citing a scheduling conflict. Council President Mark Oprisko and member Elizabeth Modesto did not attend the meeting.

One proposal would move approval of towing agreements from the Portage police chief to the city's Board of Works. The agreements generally have no dollar amounts, as they are not contracts and require no city funds since drivers bear the costs of towing.

Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham said the towing measure would subject such agreements to more public scrutiny.

"It makes (towing agreements) more transparent and open to the public, given everything that's going on," he said.

Portage Police Chief Troy Williams agreed with the Board of Works having authority over approving towing agreements.

"Pretty much everything is the same, but (the ordinance) just adds another level of transparency," Williams said. "(The council) is leaving the managing and overseeing of towing agreements to the chief of the police department."

The council also discussed a second measure to have all agreements entered into by the city go to the Board of Works for approval, even if those agreements cost the city nothing. Such agreements include contracts, where city money is spent, and memoranda of understanding, or MOUs.

Councilman Collin Czilli (D-5th) tried to introduce an amendment to the proposed ordinance that would require the Board of Works, the Port Authority, the Parks and Recreation Departments and the Redevelopment Commission to notify the council of agreements and contracts they enter into, but he later withdrew it.

The two measures overlap and probably could be combined, Cannon said after the meeting.

The council tabled the city agreements policy ordinance for a February meeting.












Lake County sheriff seeks delay in corruption trial
POST-TRIBUNE NEWS 
Craig Lyons
January 05, 2017

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich asked a federal judge to delay his trial on corruption charges.

Buncich's attorney, Bryan Truitt, filed a motion in federal court Thursday that aims to move the sheriff's trial from Jan. 17 to April, according to court documents, and cited the potential for needing to review "voluminous" material, including more than 45 CDs of audio and video recordings.

Truitt, in his motion, said that Buncich's defense team has yet to receive discovery material from federal authorities and would not be able to prepare for a January trial. Without being prepared, Buncich would not receive a fair trial, Truitt said.

"The government represents that the discovery is massive and the defense would not be able to sort through it all by Jan. 17, 2017, even if the same were received today," Truitt wrote.

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment Nov. 18 alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and Downs allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty during their initial appearances in November.

Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Buncich to solicit brides from tow truck operators for favorable treatment. In addition, Downs, in the agreement, said he submitted his resignation from the Lake County Sheriff's Office.

As a part of the plea agreement, Downs would cooperate with federal authorities and provide any information relative to the commission of any crime.

During Downs' plea hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said authorities have a series of recordings between "Individual A," Downs and Szarmach that reportedly detail the scheme to solicit and collect bribes in exchange for towing jobs.

As Buncich seeks to have his trial delayed, a federal judge agreed to move the trials of two Porter county men charged with corruption.

On Wednesday, Judge Paul Cherry granted Portage Mayor James Synder and John Cortina, of Kustom Auto Body in Portage, a continuance for their trials, which were set for January. Trials are now set to begin April 10, according to court documents.

Snyder and Cortina were charged with allegedly violating a federal bribery statute. Capp said the mayor solicited money from Cortina and "Individual A" and gave them a towing contract for Portage.

Snyder received an additional bribery indictment for alleged accepting $13,000 in connection with a Board of Works contract, and allegedly obstructing Internal Revenue laws.












Lake Sheriff could lose towing authority amid scandal 
Bill Dolan 
January 05, 2017
NWI Times

CROWN POINT — The Lake County Council is preparing to take towing away from the scandal-ridden Sheriff's Department.

The County Council announced Thursday at its first workshop meeting of 2017 that it is preparing an ordinance to be read as early as Tuesday removing from Sheriff John Buncich the authority to hire towing firms county police use to remove cars from public streets.

The ordinance would transfer that power to the Lake County Board of Commissioners.

County Councilman Dan Dernulc, R-Highland, said, "We are doing this because of the things that have been happening."

That is a reference to the federal investigation into towing bribery that became public Nov. 10 when the FBI and state police raided the Sheriff's Department for towing records.

A week later, U.S. Attorney David Capp charged Buncich, Tim Downs, the sheriff's second in command, and a Lake Station towing firm owner on allegations Buncich solicited bribes and campaign contributions.

The government alleges Buncich personally chose which towing firms were on the department's approved list and gave the more lucrative assignment to the firms that gave him the most money.

Buncich has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. Downs pleaded guilty last month to soliciting political contributions from towing firms under Buncich's order.

Ray Szarmach, the council's attorney, said the commissioners used to control towing contracts until the council changed the rules 17 years ago and gave it to the sheriff.

Buncich didn't attend the workshop meeting and couldn't be reached Thursday for comment.

Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, said Thursday, "I welcome this." He said the commissioners will be preparing specifications similar to those used by state police to ensure only the most qualified towing firms work for the county.

The ordinance states a qualified towing firm must be open for business 24 hours a day and carry at least $1 million in liability insurance.

"We may want them to have a certain number of trucks or have been in business for a certain length of time," Repay said.

Repay said he would expect commissioners to debate and hire towing firms at public meetings. Buncich had named approved towing firms without any public input.

The ordinance also will take from the sheriff's department the $50 "franchise fee" towing firms pay to the county for each vehicle they remove. The sheriff said in the past he has been using those fees, which have brought in between $160,000 and $200,000 a year to pay the salaries of some county police officers.

The ordinance would direct the fees to the county's general fund, where most of the county's money is held.

The Portage City Council is looking at measures to make the process of choosing towing firms for their community more transparent.

The U.S. attorney also charged Portage Mayor James E. Snyder late last year with soliciting and receiving $12,000 in bribes in exchange for a towing contract with the city of Portage. Snyder is pleading not guilty.












Portage looking to toughen towing regulations
Joyce Russell
January 04, 2017
NWI Times
PORTAGE — The City Council is looking at two ordinances aimed at making city business more transparent.

One is aimed at tightening regulations regarding the use of towing companies and was suggested by Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham following the November indictment of Mayor James Snyder. One count of the federal indictment involves bribery and a local tow company.

"This whole thing originated with an email I sent to the council and (Police Chief) Troy (Williams) seeking clarification of the city's current tow policy," Stidham said. "At the December council meeting I asked the council to draft a stronger ordinance addressing this issue.

"The whole goal is to simply make the process public. Currently, it is all the discretion of the chief of police. I didn't even know what tow companies were on the list prior to the indictments. So at the very least with the new ordinance people will know when the tow companies change," Stidham said.

The present tow policy was developed by former Police Chief Mark Becker and modeled after the one used by the Porter County Sheriff's Department. It was maintained when Troy Williams was named chief five years ago.

Basically, the policy sets forth a procedure to get on the city's towing list and lists various requirements of a towing company and sets fees the towing company can collect. The city does not collect fees from the towing company. If the company meets the requirements, it is signed by the police chief.

The proposed ordinance, which was introduced Tuesday night at a council meeting, would require the agreements between the police chief and towing company to also be approved by the Board of Works. Snyder was present at the beginning of the council meeting, but excused himself due to a previous engagement and left before discussion on the proposed ordinance began.

The ordinance passed first reading, with Councilman John Cannon, R-4th, voting against it.

"We need more discussion on it. There is no emergency. We need to discuss it in front of a full council," Cannon said. Council members Mark Oprisko and Liz Modesto were absent.

The second ordinance, which was suggested by Oprisko, would require all agreements, contracts, memorandums of understanding, pacts or commitments except those made by the Parks and Recreation Board, Port Authority Board or Redevelopment Commission to also be approved by the Board of Works.

Councilman Colin Czilli introduced an amendment to the ordinance which would require copies of contracts from the four boards to be presented to the City Council for review.

After discussion the council tabled the ordinance, saying members needed greater clarification on documents included in the approval and review process.












EDITORIAL: Resolve to push out corruption, promote civility
The Times Editorial Board
Updated Jan 1, 2017
Looking ahead with hope is one of the greatest opportunities a new year provides.

If 2016 is any indication, the Region has much to look forward to.

Here are a number of things Northwest Indiana, its leaders and citizens should resolve to work toward or realize in 2017:

Losing the chip
Our Region is notorious for its "us against them" mentality when it comes to relations with Indianapolis, state leaders and just about any other neighboring state or region.

Let 2017 be the year when the collective chip on our shoulders diminishes.

Northwest Indiana enjoys the economic and social benefits of a world-class city to our north with a far more attractive tax rate than Chicago — or our Illinois neighbors as a whole.

The Region hotel industry is booming, home construction is strong and our opportunities for economic growth remain within reach.

We enjoy one of the most beautiful freshwater coastlines in the world, with all of the recreational and natural resource benefits.

Region leaders from Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties are beginning to click with the important notion of our connected borders, economies and the need to share resources and ideas.

We have nothing about which to feel inferior. Lose the chip.

Clean government house
Despite the growing number of Region positives, a strong negative remains in some government leaders who believe public service is synonymous with self-enrichment.

Region leaders and residents should resolve to press for the resignations of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder in 2017.

Both men face felony criminal charges in Hammond federal court in separate bribery schemes.

Guilty or not — and both will have their days in court — Buncich and Snyder should be pressured to resign by fellow public officials and party leaders.

The shroud of their criminal cases will continue to damage the reputations of their respective political offices and constituencies.

Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to battering his wife, also should be pressed to resign.

Washington pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery count, thus avoiding trial on the original felonies he faced in Porter County Criminal Court.

But our elected leaders shouldn't have the repugnant embarrassment of a battery conviction looming over local government.

Washington remaining on the council continues to send a message that battering women holds little consequence.

Commuter rail
The economic benefits of expanding the South Shore commuter rail line have been demonstrated time and again.

We know commuter rail expansion attracts young professionals and their families to communities. It also further connects existing residents with the jobs and social opportunities afforded by Chicago.

Communities not already fully on board with expanding the line to Dyer and double-tracking the Region line for speedier commutes should punch their tickets in 2017.

Civility Counts
This is a no-brainer.

Mocking people, calling them names or degrading them is bad social and political policy and shows poor character.

The Community Civility Counts initiative began as a partnership between the Gary Chamber of Commerce and The Times and has grown to a nationally recognized movement.

Resolve to strive for more civility in 2017.

It's a smarter, kinder and more thoughtful way of conducting ourselves.













Mixed year for GOP in Porter, LaPorte counties
Bob Kasarda bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345  
NWI Times
December 29, 2016






It was a mixed year for Republicans in Porter and LaPorte counties.

While the GOP reclaimed control of the Porter County Council and the LaPorte County Board of Commissioners during the fall general election, they also saw one of their own — Portage Mayor James Snyder — indicted on federal bribery and obstruction charges.

Snyder, who has pleaded not guilty, said in a guest column in The Times earlier this month, "People who know me well, and even many who know me just in passing, are confident that there is no way the accusations leveled at me are true."

Nearly two weeks after Snyder was indicted, the FBI returned to interview Portage Police Chief Troy Williams, who said no members of his department were mentioned as being the subject of the continued investigation.

Porter County Republican Chairman Mike Simpson said Snyder is presumed innocent.

"I think he's done a marvelous job as mayor," Simpson said.

He said it's been an exceptional year for Republicans at the local, state and national levels, and that means exciting things are ahead at the county level.

"I think we're bringing a lot to the table in financial management and fiscal responsibility," Simpson said.

Dems lose council seat
Republicans won back control of the Porter County Council in November with the victory of newcomer Jeff Larson over Democrat incumbent Bob Poparad.

Republicans will have 4-3 control on the council come Jan. 1 and the advantage of Republicans maintaining a 2-1 majority on the Porter County Board of Commissioners.

Republican County Councilman Jim Biggs, who was elected to return as commissioner after being away for 16 years, said residents can expect to see some positive changes.

Biggs defeated Jeff Chidester, who heads up the county Democratic Party, to step into the post being vacated by fellow Republican John Evans.

Chidester said Hillary Clinton's big loss in Indiana had a trickle down effect on races statewide, including his own.

But he said Democrats lost only one seat at the county level (Poparad) and picked up a seat in the Statehouse.

"Overall, it's not as gloomy as some may think," he said.

County Commissioner Evans is retiring at the end of the year after 40 years of service to county government in that post and with the coroner's office.

Just a day after his peers bid him a fond farewell earlier this month, federal officials declined to say whether Evans remains a target of a criminal investigation.

The inquiry came from the Porter County Council after Evans asked to be reimbursed for $5,000 in legal fees associated with the investigation. The council was advised by its attorney that the law allows for elected officials to be reimbursed, but only if it is confirmed the investigation is over and no indictment is coming.

Changes in LaPorte County
Changes also appear to be in store in LaPorte County after Republicans took control of the LaPorte County Board of Commissioners.

Voters chose former County Councilman Richard Mrozinski, who recently switched from Democrat to Republican, over incumbent Democratic Commissioner David Decker.

Incumbent Democrat Dr. Vidya Kora was re-elected.

Decker was defeated just days after he was arrested and charged with leaving the scene of an accident for a fender bender in a county annex parking lot.

Decker felt what he called the “Trump Factor” had more to do with his defeat than his arrest.

LaPorte County Democratic Chairman John Jones said the two major parties have volleyed control of the commissioners' office back and forth every few years.

Jones voiced confidence in Mrozinski, with whom he had once served on the County Council.

"He was a good councilman then, and I expect he will bring good leadership to the commissioners as well," he said.

Shaw Friedman, once chairman of the LaPorte County Democratic Party, appears on his way out as county attorney, a position he’s held for the past four years.

Mrozinski has said he will propose a salary for the position and bidding out the job, a move he believes will save the county as much as $100,000 or more each year. Until now, the commissioners have made the appointment and the attorney was paid on an hourly basis.

Mike Gonder, the chairman of the LaPorte County Republican Party, was selected at a party caucus earlier this month to fill a vacancy on the board of commissioners.

Gonder will serve the remaining two years of the term of Mike Bohacek, a Republican from Michiana Shores recently elected to the state Senate.












County assessor Jon Snyder cries foul over location of tax hearing
Bob Kasarda bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345
Updated Dec 28, 2016
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/county-assessor-cries-foul-over-location-of-tax-hearing/article_dc725e43-7fa6-5c0f-ac78-9f5f5f9fefd6.html

VALPARAISO — Porter County Assessor Jon Snyder has taken legal action in hopes of stopping the state from making the unusual move of holding a hearing in Indianapolis for a Hebron apartment complex seeking to retain its tax exempt status.

"They've always been held up here," Snyder said of the hearings before the Indiana Board of Tax Review.

Why this one is being handled differently, he could not say and officials with the tax review board were not readily available Tuesday for comment.

Snyder, through attorney John Bushemi, filed a motion seeking to move the Jan. 18 hearing from the Indiana Government Center South in Indianapolis to the Porter County Administration Center in Valparaiso.

The hearing was triggered when the owners of the Misty Glen apartment complex in Hebron appealed the 2013 decision by the Porter County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals to withdraw the unit's tax exempt status. The three-member board agreed that the owners, Hebron-Vision LLC, failed to show it qualifies for the breaks through charitable efforts.

Snyder's motion says the rules of procedure "permit the hearing before an administrative law judge to be held in the county in which the property subject to the appeal is located, which in this case is Porter County."

Snyder said Tuesday, "In the spirit of transparency the taxpayers of Hebron should have the opportunity to attend this appeal hearing so that they can better understand how their tax bill is impacted by tax exemptions."

The nearly 11-year-old Hebron-Vision LLC company is listed with the state as being based in Indianapolis. A telephone message left for the registered agent was not immediately returned.

The five-building, 80-apartment complex at 99 Misty Lane was granted tax exempt status in 2009 by the Indiana Board of Tax Review.

"The taxpayers need to understand why, if they do it again," Snyder said.

Hebron-Vision LLC argues in its appeal the property is used to provide "safe, decent and affordable housing in a charitable manner for ... low-income and very low-income individuals and families."

"Through those acts, a benefit inures to the public sufficient to justify the loss of tax revenue," according to the appeal

Board of appeals member Nicholas Sommer had said the tax exempt status was pulled because there was no evidence presented during the March 2013 hearing of charitable or educational efforts on behalf of the apartment operators.

Hebron-Vision, which purchased the complex in September 2007, argued at the time it received the exemption that it offers services to tenants such as newsletters, referral programs, holiday parties, access to office equipment and free blood pressure screenings.

Sommer said the rental rates are compatible with the Hebron market and not significantly better than competing units, he said.

Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals member Joe Wszolek said the operators evict residents who are unable to pay their rent.

Sommer said the evidence also showed Misty Glen is generating a profit, which is not being kept in Porter County.

Sandy Bickel, an Indianapolis attorney representing Hebron-Vision, said at the time the affordable housing provided at the complex probably will be lost if the tax exemption is removed.

She said it is very unusual for a county to initiate an effort like this to remove tax exemption granted by the state.












Feds won't confirm if Evans is still under investigation
By Bob Kasarda bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345
Dec 21, 2016
NWI Times
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/feds-won-t-confirm-if-evans-is-still-under-investigation/article_295e665e-a52b-5177-8cc2-e497c121b878.html


VALPARAISO — Federal officials will not say whether Porter County Board of Commissioners President John Evans remains a target of an investigation.

The Porter County Council inquired about the status of the case after Evans, a Republican, approached the council earlier this month and asked to be reimbursed for $5,000 in legal fees associated with the investigation.

The law allows for elected officials to be reimbursed, but only if it is confirmed the investigation is over and no indictment is coming, Council Attorney Harold Harper has said.

Harper confirmed Wednesday that he spoke with David Capp, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Indiana, who said a letter to the council will be forthcoming.

When contacted by Wednesday by The Times for comment, Evans said, "It is my understanding and confirmed by my attorney at the outset of the investigation that I was indeed the target. What they are not confirming is whether or not the investigation is over, but then again I'm told they never do."

Porter County Council President Dan Whitten said Wednesday he has seen this type of confirmation for clients he has represented in his private legal practice.

Evans is entitled to the reimbursement, he said, but not until there is confirmation the investigation is over.

 "At this point, we are sort of in a holding pattern," he said.

Evans, whose term as a commissioner expires at the year's end, was honored Tuesday for 40 years of service to county government in that department and with the coroner's office.

State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, presented Evans with Distinguished Hoosier recognition.

Republican Portage Mayor James Snyder was indicted last month on federal counts of felony bribery, extortion and tax dodging, which carry long prison terms if he is convicted. He pleaded not guilty.

Snyder requested reimbursement of his legal fees prior to his indictment.

The Porter County Council will not meet again unit January.













Evans closes out 40-year career with strike of gavel
Amy Lavalley
Post-Tribune
December 20, 2016 - 4:21PM
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-porter-commissioners-meet-st-1222-20161220-story.html

Board of Commissioners President John Evans said at the end of Tuesday's meeting that commissioners meetings throughout the year are recessed and it's only the last one of the year that's adjourned.

"Today," he said, gavel in hand, which he gave a loud thud, "we stand adjourned."

Dozens of department heads, fellow elected officials and supporters applauded and gave him a standing ovation.

After 40 years serving the county, including time in the coroner's office, as that office's chief deputy, and then as coroner, before Evans, R-North, was elected to four consecutive terms as a commissioner, Evans' career in public service came to an end with his last commissioners meeting.

He chose not to seek re-election; Jim Biggs, a Republican who represents District 1 on the County Council, won election to Evans' spot.

Well-wishers streamed through the meeting, thanking Evans after he conducted routine business for contracts, resolutions and other matters.

"I want to take a moment to thank you," said facilities director Matt Stechly, who was hired shortly after the start of the year, adding he'd appeared before the commissioners and the County Council numerous times. "Your leadership has been outstanding. You've allowed us to do a lot. It's been a tough year but you have a lot to be proud of."

State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, presented Evans with a Distinguished Hoosier Award from Gov. Mike Pence. The plaque notes the honor is bestowed on individuals who "distinguish themselves through significant contributions to their communities," among other characteristics.

"It's a privilege to be before you today with mixed emotions. It's a lot of years you've been here and served our community well," Soliday said, joking that the only thing he would hold against Evans is that he and the late Ralph Ayres convinced him to run for office. "We're very, very proud of the work you've done here."

Evans, who owns and managed Edmonds and Evans Funeral Homes in Portage and Chesterton, announced in February he would not seek another term. At the time, he said he wanted to devote more time to his wife, Laurie Wehner-Evans, and noted the county's sound financial footing after significant budget challenges.

"I didn't think this day would ever get here," he said, thanking the people of Porter County and adding he saw people in the crowd he saw his first day with the county.

He said he's been overwhelmed the past couple of days by messages from supporters.

"You just show up and do what's right and people appreciate it," he said.












John Evans brings 40 years of county service to an end
By Bob Kasarda bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345
December 20, 2016
NWI Times
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/john-evans-brings-years-of-county-service-to-an-end/article_f2fa0873-97b1-5458-886f-15874ade254b.html

VALPARAISO — John Evans, Porter County Board of Commissioners president, slammed down the gavel Tuesday afternoon, bringing an end not only to the group's last business meeting of the year, but also to four decades of service to county government.

"I didn't think this day would ever get here," Evans said.

Looking out on those who attended the meeting for business or simply to say goodbye, Evans reflected on how many of the faces were the same when he first took over as commissioner 16 years ago.

The funeral director and owner of the Edmonds & Evans Funeral Home and Heritage Cemetery had earlier been associated with the county coroner's office for 25 years. The Republican held the elected post of coroner for four terms.

"This is a guy who has never lost an election," Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, said when presenting Evans with a plaque of appreciation.

Evans also was presented Tuesday with a Distinguished Hoosier recognition from state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso.

"Indiana treasures individuals who give their time and talents out of an abiding sense of responsibility, commitment and concern for others," the plaque reads.

Soliday joked that he was not holding it against Evans that he and former state Rep. Ralph Ayres, R-Chesterton, had talked him into running for his Statehouse seat.

"We're very, very proud of the work you've done," Soliday said.

Earlier, during the business portion of the meeting, Mike Anton, who is the servicing agent for the county's health insurance plan, lauded Evans.

"It's been a pleasure to work with you," he said.

Evans said he has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of well-wishes he has received over the last several days. He read a short writing that spoke about doing good in the face of opposition and said that had been his intention.













EDITORIAL: E.C. lead crisis shows cost of corruption
The Times Editorial Board  
Updated - December 19, 2016 - 12:00PM

A history of public corruption paved the way to East Chicago's lead contamination crisis, and now real lives are on the line.

Northwest Indiana is no stranger to kickbacks, bribes and political corruption convictions.

More than 60 public officials or their allies and preferred contractors have been convicted of various corruption charges in U.S. District Court in Hammond since the 1980s.

Right now, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder face federal charges for bribery in separate towing schemes. Many more have been convicted of other public corruption crimes over the years.

In most of these cases, the crimes impacted taxpayers' wallets, often including the misuse of public funds or property for the personal gain of others.

Those elements were present in spades during the creation of East Chicago's West Calumet Housing Complex during the 1970s, as shown by the reporting of Times reporters Sarah Reese and Lauren Cross last week.

Resulting court testimony revealed the authority's director took more than $100,000 in kickbacks for helping steer various contracts related to the low-income housing project to friends and associates.

One of the alleged bribes was for demolishing a shuttered lead factory at the site.

It's unclear whether the bad actors associated with the complex's creation knew of the potential health risks.

But the stark reality in 2016, more than 40 years later, is a low-income housing complex that has exposed hundreds of residents, many of them children, to unsafe lead levels for decades.

The crisis has been well documented in The Times dating back to summer months.

The area is now seen as an imminent health emergency. More than 1,000 residents are being relocated, and untold health damage already has been done.

The history of the West Calumet neighborhood's creation through the fire and anvil of corruption reminds us all of an unacceptable price tag connected to unscrupulous, political greed.

The U.S. attorney's office in Hammond must continue to hunt down and weed out such elements that persist in today's political landscape.

Voters must demand, with a new and unified voice, the resignation of all who are implicated in such schemes.

Tax dollars and public resources aren't the only things at risk. Human well-being can hang in the balance.

The Times Editorial Board
Members of The Times Editorial Board are Publisher Christopher T. White, Editorial Page Editor Marc Chase, Editor Bob Heisse, Politics/History Editor Doug Ross and Managing Editor Erin Orr.












I “Woefully” Broke the Law: LC Police Chief Tim Downs
The Northwest Indiana Gazette
Ken Davidson
December 17, 2016
http://nwigazette.com/2016/12/woefully-broke-law-lc-police-chief-tim-downs/

Lake County Police Chief Tim Downs became the latest in a long line of Sheriff’s officials to stand in front of a judge and admit to breaking the laws they are sworn to uphold. For his part, Downs placed the blame on Lake County’s top cop, Sheriff John Buncich. Downs said he was ordered to solicit towing companies for campaign contributions in exchange for county work. In short, he was the bagman for bribes. Downs admitted that he solicited these contributions during regular working hours, using a county provided vehicle. In fact, the charge for which he plead guilty involves wire fraud-receiving a pay check via direct deposit while not working.

The Campaign Finance:
The plea agreement mentions three specific dates-April 8, 2014, October 21, 2014 and June 3, 2015. Campaign finance reports filed by Sheriff John Buncich show no contributions on April 8, 2014. Midnight Blue Towing in Crown Point and Stan’s Auto Body Shop and Towing in St. John each appear on the campaign finance report on April 30, 2014 with a $1,000.00 contribution. On October 21, 2014 the campaign finance report shows two contributions, one from Assistant Police Chief Daniel Murchek in the amount of $200.00 and another from an individual not involved in towing. No contributions are shown on June 3, 2015 and shows only one towing related contribution on June 29, 2015. That contribution was from Z’s Incorporated, in Gary in the amount of $1,000.00

It is important to note that contributions do not equate to alleged bribes. In fact, the indictment clearly states that some contributions were listed on the campaign finance report and some were not. Buncich reported raising approximately $170,000 in 2014 and $72,000 in 2015. Notably, Buncich was re-elected in 2014 and could not run for Sheriff again. The question seems to be not only why would he be raising such a large amount of money, but more important, why would anyone be giving that much money to someone who could not run again? This is not unusual in Lake County politics but never seems to garner the attention of local or federal prosecutors.

History of Corruption:
The Lake County Sheriff’s Department has a long history of corruption in its upper ranks. Under former Sheriff Roy Dominguez, officers were selling machine gun parts out of the county building and he didn’t notice. In 2011, Lake County Officers Joseph Kumstar, Ronald Slusser and Joseph Kabella were convicted of selling barrels of guns and gun sights which were for use by the military and police only. No one has ever traced any of those gun parts and we don’t know if they ended up on the streets of Lake County or elsewhere. Again, Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter was eerily silent during the prosecution. Dominguez maintains to this day that he knew nothing about the gun-running operation which happened on his watch.

Former Lake County Police Chief Mike Mokol was convicted of taking bribes in 1991 and former Sheriff Rudy Bartolomei was similarly convicted. Bartolomei ultimately entered the witness protection program and helped to convict 18 other politicians and crony contractors.

Where do we go from here?
It is very likely that more Lake County Sheriff’s Police Officers will be indicted, or at the very least implicated, in the towing for bribes scandal. According to the plea agreement, Downs visited towing companies to collect bribes while being paid by the taxpayers. Sources close to the investigation indicate that he did not do this alone. If someone else was in the car with Downs, is that person cooperating or will that person be indicted? Is it possible the person was in the car and did nothing illegal?

We have three towing operators involved so far and we know there were at least 12 companies that did towing for the county. Will we see more indictments of towing operators? What about other contractors? Did the pay to play scheme only apply to towing company operators or did some of the other county contractors provide illegal kickbacks to the Sheriff? If the investigation broadens to other contractors, is it possible that the feds will begin to look at contributions to other local politicians? What about Mayors who had similar relationships with towing companies?

2017 is certain to be an interesting year in Lake County, Indiana.













Sheriff's top commander pleads in bribery case
Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328  
Updated - December 17, 2016 - 12:30AM 
NWI Times



HAMMOND — The sheriff's Chief of Police is resigning and pleaded guilty Friday afternoon to his role in the Lake County Sheriff Department towing bribery scandal.

Timothy Downs, 65, admitted to cheating the public of honest government services by using his authority within the Lake County Sheriff's Department to do political fundraising for Sheriff John Buncich while he was on duty and using his publicly provided police car.

Downs said he knew what he was doing was prohibited by county government directives, but did so under orders of Buncich.

"I did wrong, and I want to clear it up," he told U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano during a nearly two-hour hearing.

Downs admits he has previously been helping investigators and will cooperate in any future prosecutions in return for the government's promise to recommend he receive the minimum possible prison time under federal sentencing guidelines.

U.S. Attorney David Capp disclosed last month Scott Jurgensen, owner of Merrillville-based Samson’s Towing, also has been cooperating with his office as a witness to payments made to Buncich.

Valparaiso defense attorney Bryan M. Truitt, who represents Buncich, said Friday his client disagrees with the allegations contained in the plea agreement.

"Sheriff Buncich is very proud of his honest public service and his good works, and is completely innocent," Truitt said.

Downs' plea hearing comes only two weeks after the government arrested Buncich, 70, Downs and William "Willie" Szarmach, who operates CSA Towing, of Lake Station.

All three pleaded not guilty at the time to an indictment alleging they took part in the exchange of tens of thousands of dollars in illicit payments between February 2014, and last month, to enrich the sheriff and the Buncich Boosters campaign committee.

It was disclosed for the first time that some of the political contributions went to the Lake County Democratic Central Committee, which assists a number of Democratic candidates.

Buncich is chairman of the Lake County Democratic party and oversees the central committee's financial transactions.

Downs will remain free on bond. His sentencing was scheduled for March 16, 2017, but could be delayed until after all the trials in the case are finished to ensure his continued cooperation.

Downs, who had served as Buncich's second-in-command since 2011, said he soon became aware the sheriff was using his control over the department's tow list to extract political contributions and cash bribe payments in exchange for favorable treatment for certain Lake County towing firms.

Buying more tickets assured more business
Downs said the more fundraising tickets a firm bought, the more lucrative business they could expect from county police.

Downs said he sold the tickets during regular business hours using his government-provided sheriff's vehicle.

He said he didn't keep any of the money himself, but instead turned over more than $22,000 in cash and checks to Buncich and kept track of who bought tickets, and how many.

"Oftentimes, the owners of these companies did not even want the fundraising tickets or take physical possession of them, but simply wanted to make sure that the sheriff knew that they had contributed to his fundraiser," Downs said.

Downs said he later learned that many of the cash payments weren't recorded on the sheriff's campaign finance report as required by law.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson indicated a lot of the evidence against Downs was collected by Jurgensen, who recorded conversations among Downs, Szarmach and himself.

Benson recited evidence from the recordings that Downs promised Jurgensen and Szarmach a bigger share of the "heavies," a reference to towing tractor trailers stopped on Cline Avenue and found in violation of state weight restrictions.

Benson said the towing firms wanted assurances from Downs there would be enough trucks stopped and towed to make a larger profit for the towing firms.

Benson said Downs is overheard saying, "Don't worry. We are going to take care of you." One of the tow truck drivers said, "One every week would be fine." Downs replied, "We can pump that up."

Benson said towing firms that wouldn't return Downs' telephone calls about fundraising ticket sales were struck off the sheriff's list.

The conversations took place in fall 2014 when Buncich and a number of county and municipal officials were running for re-election.












Lake sheriff's 2nd-in-command pleads guilty to wire fraud
The Associated Press
Posted: Dec. 16, 2016 7:00 am 
Updated: Dec. 16, 2016 9:01 pm
Herald - WHIG

HAMMOND, Ind. (AP) — The second-in-command at the Lake County Sheriff's Department pleaded guilty to wire fraud Friday in a bribery case in which the sheriff and a tow truck operator also are charged.

Chief of Police Timothy Downs admitted using his position to solicit campaign donations from tow truck operators in exchange for giving them towing contracts.

"I did wrong. I want to clear it up," Downs told U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano.

Downs, 65, also resigned Friday from the sheriff's department, ending a tenure of more than 37 years, according to court documents.

Downs said he performed political fundraising while on duty and while using his publicly provided police car on the orders of Sheriff John Buncich.

Buncich attorney Bryan Truitt said his client disagrees with the allegations contained in the plea agreement.

"Sheriff Buncich is very proud of his honest public service and his good works, and is completely innocent," Truitt said.

Buncich, Downs and William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station were named in a multicount indictment last month alleging the sheriff accepted more than $32,000 in bribes for towing contracts. All three were charged with wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also were charged with bribery. Buncich and Szarmach have pleaded not guilty.

Downs said he sold fundraiser tickets to tow truck operators and would meet with them to make those transactions.

"The more they bought, the better they were treated," Downs said.

Downs said he has been helping investigators and will cooperate in any future prosecutions in return for the government's promise to recommend he receive the minimum possible prison time under federal sentencing guidelines. Downs also could face up to 20 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine for the crime, said Lozano, who took the plea agreement under advisement.












Lake County chief pleads guilty to corruption charge
Chicago Post-Tribune
Craig Lyons
December 16, 2016 - 5:32PM



Judge Rudy Lozano had a question for Lake County Sheriff's Department's chief of police Friday as Timothy Downs pleaded guilty to a wire fraud charge: "Why?"

"I did wrong. I want to clear it up," said Downs, during a court hearing at U.S. District Court in Hammond. "I'm in fact guilty."

Downs, 65, pleaded guilty to a count of honest service wire fraud, using his position at the Sheriff's Department to solicit campaign donations from tow truck operators in a scheme to give more territory to those companies in exchange for the money, according to court documents.

Downs resigned Friday from the Lake County Sheriff's Department, ending a more than 37-year career with that agency, court documents said.

U.S. Attorney David Capp announced charges against Downs, Sheriff John Buncich and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing, at a Nov. 18 press conference.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach were named in the multi-count indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three were charged with wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach were also charged with bribery.

Buncich, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and Downs allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in the 14-page indictment.

Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges during their initial appearances.

Downs said he sold fundraiser tickets to tow truck operators and would meet with them to make those transactions.

"The more they bought, the better they were treated," Downs said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said authorities could prove Downs' role in a series of transactions with tow truck operators, and "Individual A" provided them with a series of meetings between himself, Downs and, on occasion, Szarmach.

Benson said, on one occasion, Downs met with "Individual A" to collect money -- $2,000 in checks and $500 in cash.

As a part of the plea agreement, taken under consideration by Lozano, Downs would cooperate with federal authorities and provide any information relative to the commission of any crime.

"Is that what you want to do?" Lozano asked.

"Absolutely, your honor," Downs said.

Downs could face up to 20 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine for the crime, Lozano said. The judge acknowledged that the U.S. attorney could seek a lower sentence based on Downs' compliance with the terms of the agreement, though that would ultimately be Lozano's decision.

"Even though I knew it was in violation of the law to accept direct cash payments or campaign contributions in exchange for favorable towing contract consideration, I did so to continue receiving my salary as chief of police for the Lake County Sheriff's Department," Downs said in court documents.













Portage mayor files for continuance in federal case
Joyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 548-4352  
Updated - December 16, 2016 - 3:30PM


HAMMOND — Portage Mayor James Snyder is seeking a continuance in his federal corruption case.

In a motion filed this week, Snyder's attorney, Thomas Kirsch, asked the court to continue the deadline to file pretrial motions for 90 days or until March 16, 2017. Kirsch said they have not received discovery materials from the federal government as of this week. In addition, Kirsch writes that he has a previously set trial beginning Jan. 30.

The motion is not being opposed by federal attorneys. A hearing has not yet been set by the court.

Snyder was indicted Nov. 18 on bribery and tax evasion charges. He was released on bond the same day. His trial, along with that of co-defendant John Cortina, had been scheduled to begin Jan. 23.













UPDATE: Sheriff's top commander to plead in bribery case
NWI Times
Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328  
Updated - December 16, 2016 - 1:00PM

HAMMOND — The sheriff's Chief of Police is resigning and pleading guilty in the Lake County Sheriff Department towing bribery scandal.

Timothy Downs, 65, is admitting in a nine-page statement filed in U.S. District Court that he defrauded the public of honest government services by doing political fund-raising for Sheriff John Buncich on public time, in his publicly provided police car.

Downs states he knew doing so was prohibited by county government directives, but did so under orders by Buncich.

Down admits he has previously been helping investigators and will cooperate in any future prosecutions in return for the government's promise to recommend he receive the minimum possible prison time under federal sentencing guidelines.

U.S. Attorney David Capp disclosed last month Scott Jurgensen, owner of Merrillville-based Samson’s Towing, also has been cooperating with his office as a witness to payments made to Buncich.

Valparaiso defense attorney Bryan M. Truitt, who represents Buncich, said Friday, his client disagrees with the allegations contained in the plea agreement.

"Sheriff Buncich is very proud of his honest public service and his good works and is completely innocent," Truitt said.

Downs is scheduled appear as early as this afternoon in U.S. District Court to ask a judge to accept the plea bargain.

It comes only two weeks after the government arrested Buncich, 70, Downs and William "Willie" Szarmach, who operates CSA Towing, of Lake Station.

All three pleaded at the time to an indictment alleging they took part in the exchange of $34,500 in illicit cash payments between February 2014, and last month to enrich the sheriff and his Buncich Booster's campaign committee.

All three are free on bond awaiting trial, now scheduled to begin next month.

Downs, who served as Buncich's second-in-command since 2011, said he "became aware that the sheriff was using his control over the Sheriff's Department's tow list to extract political contributions and cash bribe payments in exchange for favorable treatment for certain Lake County towing firms."

He states the sheriff had exclusive control to determine which towing firms would remove vehicles from public roads and streets. He said between 10 and 12 towing companies were on the sheriff's list of approved towing firms.

Downs' statement continues, "As time progressed under the sheriff, it became apparent that in order to get on the Lake County tow list, stay on the list or obtain additional towing areas, a tow company owner had to contribute to the sheriff's fund-raisers.

"Although I did not want to sell the fund-raising tickets, or collect the proceeds for these tickets, the sheriff directly ordered me to engage in these activities, even though they were in direct contravention of county policy directives prohibiting such activity.

"I sold the tickets during regular business hours using my government-provided sheriff's vehicle. After getting this money, I would deliver the checks or cash to the sheriff and provide the information to him regarding who bought tickets and how many tickets were purchased by each company," it states.

The agreement mentions two contributions made in April and October of 2014 and a third in June of 2015. "I gave these checks and cash payments to the sheriff knowing that the payments were obtained with the expectation of favorable treatment regarding towing for Lake County.

"Often times, the owners of these companies did not even want the fund-raising tickets or take physical possession of them, but simply wanted to make sure that the sheriff knew that they had contributed to his fund-raiser."

Downs said he later learned that many of the cash payments weren't recorded on the sheriff's campaign finance report as required by law.












Sheriff's No. 2 takes plea deal, agrees to testify
NWI Times
Updated - December 16, 2016 -11:00AM
HAMMOND — The Lake County sheriff's second-in-command, Timothy Downs, was cooperating with federal officials before they indicted him, Sheriff John Buncich and a towing operating last month on corruption charges.

A plea agreement says Downs resigned Thursday from the Sheriff's Department after attorneys filed the document in U.S. District Court.

In the plea agreement, Downs says Buncich ordered him to sell campaign fundraising tickets to towing companies and collect cash or checks from some of the owners.

Downs knew such activities were illegal, but did it to continue receiving his salary from the department, court records say.

As part of his plea deal, Downs agreed to testify during any grand jury or judicial proceedings.












Man released on bond in public corruption case
Ed Bierschenk edwin.bierschenk@nwi.com, (219) 933-4195  
Updated - December 16, 2016 - 11:00AM
NWI Times
HAMMOND — A towing firm operator, accused of paying bribes to Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and his second-in-command, was released on bond Monday.

William "Willie" Szarmach, operator of CSA Towing of Lake Station, was released on $300,000 bond secured by property he owns. He also must surrender a Lake County Sheriff's badge along with his passport and cannot have any firearms at his residence. Various law enforcement agencies issue honorary badges, although the practice can be controversial.

"The badge may be evidence in this case," Assistant U.S. District Attorney Philip Benson told U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Cherry at Monday's detention hearing for Szarmach.

Cherry also said that Szarmach is restricted to travel within the Northern District of Indiana and Illinois and is to have no contact with potential victims or witnesses in the case. He left the federal courthouse in Hammond shortly after the hearing.

Buncich and Timothy Downs, chief of police for the sheriff's department, are accused of wire fraud and receiving $34,500 in illicit cash payments. Szarmach, Buncich and Downs pleaded not guilty last month to the government charges.

Last month's indictment alleges that between February 2014 and October of this year Buncich set in motion a scheme to enrich himself and Buncich Boosters, his political campaign committee. The government contends that Buncich accepted bribes allegedly from towing firms for cash and campaign contributions, although he didn't record all those contributions in his campaign finance reports as required by state law. The government said Downs collected some of the alleged bribes for Buncich.

According to the indictment, Buncich's campaign reports don't mention $12,000 in donations Szarmach and his towing firm allegedly made to Buncich.

Both Downs and Buncich were released on bond last month. 












Sheriff's No. 2 takes plea deal, agrees to testify
NWI Times
Updated - December 16, 2016 - 9:30AM
http://www.nwitimes.com/sheriff-s-no-takes-plea-deal-agrees-to-testify/article_549c18ae-12e8-5658-94c8-5f2ee414538c.html



HAMMOND — The Lake County sheriff's second-in-command, Timothy Downs, was cooperating with federal officials before they indicted him, Sheriff John Buncich and a towing operating last month on corruption charges.

A plea agreement says Downs resigned Thursday from the Sheriff's Department after attorneys filed the document in U.S. District Court.

In the plea agreement, Downs says Buncich ordered him to sell campaign fundraising tickets to towing companies and collect cash or checks from some of the owners.

Downs knew such activities were illegal, but did it to continue receiving his salary from the department, court records say.

As part of his plea deal, Downs agreed to testify during any grand jury or judicial proceedings.

Check back at nwi.com for updates on this developing story.













Lake County chief to plead guilty to bribery charge
Chicago Post Tribune
Craig Lyons
December 16, 2016 - 8:24AM
A northwest Indiana police chief pleaded guilty Thursday to accepting bribes in a towing scheme and resigned his position with the county.

Lake County Chief of Police Timothy Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Sheriff John Buncich to solicit brides from tow truck operators for favorable treatment.

In addition, Downs, in the agreement, said he submitted his resignation from the Lake County Sheriff's Department.

Downs said he sold fundraising tickets to tow truck operators, according to court documents, and took both cash payments and checks from the businesses.

"Even though I knew it was in violation of the law to accept direct cash payments or campaign contributions in exchange for favorable towing contract consideration, I did so to continue receiving my salary as chief of police for the Lake County Sheriff's Department," Downs said in court documents.

On Nov. 18, U.S. Attorney David Capp announced charges against Buncich, Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach were named in the multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three were charged with wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach were also charged with bribery.

Buncich, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and Downs allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in the 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges during their initial appearances.











LC Police Chief Downs to Plead Guilty
The Northwest Indiana Gazette
Ken Davidson
December 16, 2016
http://nwigazette.com/2016/12/lc-police-chief/

“The government acknowledges that I have furnished pre-indictment cooperation with the investigation of this case”-Plea Agreement signed by Lake County Police Chief Timothy Downs

December 15, 2016-Lake County Police Chief Timothy Downs has agreed to plead guilty to one count of honest services wire fraud in connection with the Sheriff’s towing scandal. Downs was charge along with Sheriff/Democratic Party Chair John Buncich in a multi-count indictment on November 17, 2016. The timing of the agreement is a surprise, but most surprising is a statement that Downs was working with federal officials prior to the charges in this case. “The government acknowledges that I have furnished pre-indictment cooperation with the investigation of this case.”

Downs provides details as to the towing for cash scandal the Government has alleged:
"At all times between approximately February of 2014, and continuing through August of 2015, I knew the following to be true:
Between the above dates, I served as the Chief of Police for the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff John Buncich appointed me to the position when he took office in 2011. I continually served in that position until the filing of this plea agreement. Upon the filing of this plea agreement, I am tendering my resignation to the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.

In my capacity as Chief of Police, I became aware that the Sheriff was using his control over the Sheriff’s Department tow list to extract political contributions and cash bribe payments in exchange for favorable treatment for certain Lake County towing firms. Pursuant to a County ordinance, the Sheriff had exclusive control and authority to determine who provided towing services for Lake County when County Police officers needed to tow a vehicle. Under the Sheriff, the Lake County tow list contained between approximately 10 to 12 tow firms. Each tow firm operated in a specific region of Lake County, and was obligated by contract to pay certain fees to the County for each tow provided at the request of the Sheriff’s officers.

As time progressed under the Sheriff, it became apparent that in order to get on the Lake County tow list, stay on the list, or obtain additional towing area, a tow company owner had to contribute to the Sheriff’s fundraisers. I was directed by the Sheriff to sell campaign fundraising tickets to the various towing companies working for Lake County. As part of this process, I would go to meet the various owners of these tow companies, deliver the tickets, and collect either cash or checks from some of the owners. Although I did not want to sell the fundraiser tickets, or collect the proceeds for these tickets, the Sheriff directly ordered me to engage in these activities, even though they were in direct contravention of County policy directives prohibiting such activity. Some of the tow owners paid the Sheriff directly. I sold these tickets during regular business hours using my government provided Sheriff’s vehicle. After getting this money, I would deliver the checks or cash to the Sheriff and provide information to him regarding who bought tickets and how many tickets were purchased by each company. Often times the owners of these companies did not even want the fundraiser tickets or take physical possession of them, but simply wanted to make sure that the Sheriff knew that they had contributed to his fundraiser.

Specifically, on or about April 8, 2014, October 21, 2014, and June 3, 2015, I obtained political contributions in the form of checks, and/or additional cash payments, in exchange for specific current or future favorable consideration regarding towing contracts for the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. I gave these checks and cash payments to the Sheriff knowing that the payments were obtained with the expectation of favorable treatment regarding towing for Lake County.

Even though I knew it was in violation of the law to accept direct cash payments or campaign contributions in exchange for favorable towing contract consideration, I did so to continue receiving my salary as Chief of Police for the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. I continued to receive my Lake County Sheriff’s Department salary while accepting these bribe payments, even though at times, rather than enforcing the law I was breaking the law. I later came to learn that many of the cash payments I gave to the Sheriff were not recorded on his campaign finance report as required by law.

I further acknowledge that I was accepting bribe payments in the form of campaign contributions or cash, and giving these payments to the Sheriff,during the time period listed in Counts 1-3 of the indictment, while I was being paid my Lake County Sheriff’s Department salary via electronic direct deposit.

The plea agreement must be accepted by the Court and is contingent on Downs’ continued cooperation. The charge of Honest Services Wire Fraud carries a term of up to 20 years in prison. According to the Agreement, the parties agree that the sentencing range pursuant to federal guidelines will apply. Without cooperation, the guidelines would provide a sentence in the range of 41-51 months. Based on the severity of the offense, it is likely that Downs will still see significant incarceration even with cooperation.












Lake sheriff's 2nd-in-command pleads guilty to wire fraud
The Associated Press
Posted: Dec. 16, 2016 7:00 am 
Updated: Dec. 16, 2016 9:01 pm
Herald - WHIG

HAMMOND, Ind. (AP) — The second-in-command at the Lake County Sheriff's Department pleaded guilty to wire fraud Friday in a bribery case in which the sheriff and a tow truck operator also are charged.

Chief of Police Timothy Downs admitted using his position to solicit campaign donations from tow truck operators in exchange for giving them towing contracts.

"I did wrong. I want to clear it up," Downs told U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano.

Downs, 65, also resigned Friday from the sheriff's department, ending a tenure of more than 37 years, according to court documents.

Downs said he performed political fundraising while on duty and while using his publicly provided police car on the orders of Sheriff John Buncich.

Buncich attorney Bryan Truitt said his client disagrees with the allegations contained in the plea agreement.

"Sheriff Buncich is very proud of his honest public service and his good works, and is completely innocent," Truitt said.

Buncich, Downs and William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station were named in a multicount indictment last month alleging the sheriff accepted more than $32,000 in bribes for towing contracts. All three were charged with wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also were charged with bribery. Buncich and Szarmach have pleaded not guilty.

Downs said he sold fundraiser tickets to tow truck operators and would meet with them to make those transactions.

"The more they bought, the better they were treated," Downs said.

Downs said he has been helping investigators and will cooperate in any future prosecutions in return for the government's promise to recommend he receive the minimum possible prison time under federal sentencing guidelines. Downs also could face up to 20 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine for the crime, said Lozano, who took the plea agreement under advisement.












GUEST COMMENTARY: Snyder should resign for good of Portage
Chris Stidham - Portage Clerk-Treasurer
Dec 15, 2016
NWI Times
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/opinion/columnists/guest-commentary/guest-commentary-snyder-should-resign-for-good-of-portage/article_77331fc1-6ece-56e9-900d-77194e9c9806.html


I write this as a fellow elected official and constituent of Portage Mayor Jim Snyder. Much has been said by residents and elected leaders alike about his recent indictment. Not wanting to respond in knee-jerk fashion, I have tried to be more deliberate in my response.

As an attorney, I believe absolutely that Jim Snyder is innocent until proven guilty. But I also know that a grand jury of at least 16 everyday citizens found there was enough evidence to justify that the accusations are probably true. That's what the federal grand jury said when it returned three indictments against Snyder.

I have spent countless hours since Snyder's indictment reflecting on the best way to keep Portage moving forward. This is a serious and solemn matter, which deserves thoughtful and careful consideration. I've taken a look at all sides of the issue, including Jim Snyder's, in reaching a sincere conclusion.

As elected officials, we are specially entrusted as the people's representatives. That means we are held to a higher standard than the average citizen. Our job is a position of trust and confidence like few others. When an indictment brings that confidence into question, it creates serious concerns as to the ability of that official to continue serving the people.

The question of Jim Snyder's tenure as mayor is not a question of his guilt. Nor is it about "piling on" or scoring political points. It's not even about what's best for him; it's actually about what's best for Portage.

So what is best for Portage? A mayor distracted by a federal indictment? A mayor distracted by the trial of his life? A mayor distracted by constant questions about ethics? Where any deal, purchase, or agreement made by the mayor is looked at with suspicion? Where the CEO of a potential new employer wonders if they should sit across the negotiation table with an indicted mayor?

Simply put, whatever you believe about the nature of the FBI's years long investigation or resulting indictment, it is a dark cloud that looms over every aspect of this government. And whether we like to admit it or not, the cloud brings devastating repercussions for the city and its progress. And that cloud hangs over Portage because of Snyder.

Only when the cloud is removed can the city begin healing. Only then can the public's faith in government be restored. Only then can that next new business looking at Portage have faith and confidence in its potential new home. Most importantly, only then can we know, without doubt, that our highest elected leader is above reproach.

There's no doubt that some great things have happened in Portage in the last five years. That's a testament to the city's leadership team and the amazing city employees who work so hard every day. And if we could only live in our past successes, then that might be enough to sustain our future. But instead we must always look to tomorrow and how we can make each new day better than the last.

Certainly, putting on a brave face and carrying on as mayor is what's best for Snyder. Sadly, my heart tells me it's not what's best for Portage. Snyder should resign as mayor so the heavy weight of his indictment no longer hangs on this great city.

Chris Stidham is clerk-treasurer for the city of Portage. The opinions are the writer's.












Critic calls sheriff's towing policy racial
Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328
Dec 15, 2016
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/critic-calls-sheriff-s-towing-policy-racial/article_6b4d8b56-779f-54f0-b209-c2f4b9ddad01.html

GARY — City and county officials are debating whether the sheriff has any business towing residents' cars from this city's streets.

The U.S. Attorney's office is charging Lake County Sheriff John Buncich with soliciting bribes and campaign contributions from towing firms that removed cars for county police.

Buncich, who is pleading not guilty, is alleged to have awarded two bribe-paying towing firms a lucrative share in removing from Gary streets vehicles in violation of city ordinances, a job typically done by city police.

"I'm offended," Councilwoman LaVetta Sparks-Wade, D-6th, said in talking about county police targeting her impoverished constituents. "This looks like racial profiling." Gary is 90 percent black.

Lalosa Burns, a spokeswoman for Mayor Karen Freeman Wilson, said the Lake County Sheriff's Department has "the authority to tow," and the city had a memorandum of understanding with the sheriff about towing.

City council members Herb Smith, D-at large, and Ragen Hatcher, D-at large, who took office earlier this year and are rewriting the city's towing ordinances, expressed surprise that towing companies not authorized by city police were working city streets for county police.

"No one ever told me that," Smith said earlier this month. Hatcher said she was told only city police and private Gary firms were involved in towing.

Gary City Court Judge Deidre L. Monroe said her court wasn't connected to any towing by the sheriff's department.

Lake County Attorney John Dull said the sheriff can enforce state laws anywhere in the county.

County ordinance gives sheriff towing discretion?

The indictment, made public last month, alleges a county ordinance gives Buncich "exclusive control and authority to determine who provided towing services when officers working for the sheriff had the need to tow a vehicle."

It states Buncich's tow list contained between 10 and 12 firms at various times. Each firm operated in a specific region of the county.

U.S. Attorney David Capp alleges William "Willie" Szarmach, who operates CSA Towing, of Lake Station, and Scott Jurgensen, owner of Merrillville-based Samson’s Towing, made payments to Buncich and received a larger share of work in Gary and elsewhere, removing semi-tractor trailers.

Szarmach faces criminal charges in the case, but Jurgensen isn't accused of wrongdoing. The U.S. Attorney's office said he is a cooperating witness.

The indictment alleges bribes and campaign contributions, including $6,000 on or about April 22 this year. It states that within a week of the payment, Buncich "directed others within the Sheriff's Department to enforce ordinance violations in the city of Gary."

"After the original officer assigned to ordinance violations in Gary was injured, and Szarmach and (Jurgensen) began complaining about a decline in ordinance towing in Gary, Buncich assigned another Lake County patrol officer to enforce ordinance violations in Gary," the indictment said.

The sheriff's department hasn't responded to Times requests for: its general towing policies, district towing maps, district towing logs, a list of the sheriff's authorized towing companies, phone and dispatch call data for those towing companies, emails and any other electronic communications related to Lake County towing from 2010 to the present.

Lake County Councilman Kyle Allen, who was serving on the Gary City Council until earlier this year, said, "The sheriff would help the city police department with patrolling in Glen Park, Calumet Township, Ridge Road and the general area around (Indiana University Northwest) to supplement patrol responsibilities for the city police department."

Change in policy coming?

Sparks-Wade, whose district includes the city's Glen Park section, said although city officials appreciate the added presence of the sheriff's department when homicides were surging in the past, "I believe our police department is capable of doing the job to keep us safe."

She said county police "are pulling people over, and sometimes they don't get their car back. I had one constituent tell me they didn't know where their car was, and they couldn't afford the $75 the sheriff's department imposed on them to grant a release to the car and tell them where it was," she said.

The Lake County Council imposes a $75 fee on car owners and a $50 fee on towing firms for each car ordered removed by county police.

The fees collected across the county, which amounted to about $200,000 last year and at least $160,000 this year, support county police salaries. The amount of fees collected in Gary isn't known.

Allen said, "You could get pulled over by the Gary police Department and they could call a tow truck, too. I think that was the only reason the sheriff started towing cars, because he was assisting Gary police department with patrol.

"Nothing wrong with that, especially when you invite them in. Gary citizens pay taxes to county government, so they should derive some benefit from them if the benefit is public safety and the public good.

"I don't have a problem with any sheriff doing that as long as what is being done, is proper, legal and ethical," Allen said.

Sparks-Wade said she wants to review the memorandum of understanding behind the city's invitation to the sheriff.

"I heard there was one under (former) police Chief Wade Ingram and the sheriff," she said. But no one among the city's corporation counsel and Chief Larry McKinley and the Board of Works can find a written memorandum.

Sparks-Wade said, "My concern is Wade Ingram has been gone for nearly two years, so it should have been revisited with the new chief.

"Our police department is totally capable of writing ordinance violations and determining whether a car needs to be towed," she said. "Those fees and records need to be kept to ensure the city of Gary is receiving the fees they are due."













County aims to give sheriff's tow contract authority the hook
Chicago Post-Tribune
Craig Lyons
December 13, 2016 - 5:35PM

The Lake County Council could soon move authority over towing contracts away from the Sheriff's Department.

Councilman David Hamm, D-1st, said an amendment to the towing ordinance would strip authority over Lake County's towing contracts from the sheriff and give that to the County Commission.

The county's move to take more control over the towing contracts follows the Nov. 18 indictments against Sheriff John Buncich and Chief of Police Timothy Downs, the department's top ranking officials, for allegedly taking bribes from tow operators.

"It's my intention to remove the towing from the sheriff and give that responsibility to the commissioners," Hamm said.

The Sheriff's Department did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Buncich, Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

Buncich, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach have all pleaded not guilty.

The county previously amended the tow ordinance, giving the Sheriff's Department the authority to select the roster of tow operators and collect the fees. The County Commissioners simply signed off on the contract based on the sheriff's recommendation.

"It's going to be more or less like it was done in the past," said Commissioner Mike Repay, D-3rd. The commissioners would likely determine a set of minimum qualifications for tow operators and evaluate how to distribute territory throughout Lake County, Repay said, but the logistics will have to be worked out later.

Hamm said the money from the towing fees, based on the ordinance revision, would go into the general fund and be under the supervision of the seven councilors and three commissioners.

St. John resident Joe Hero said he'd encourage the council to amend the ordinance to get more control and accountability over the income from tow jobs.

"You have no control over this," Hero said.

Right now, Hero said the county has private contractors collecting the fees, Hero said, and no control on how that's being paid to the county. He said the county should create a tracking system to monitor tow jobs.

"In light of what happened, that is something we will be doing," said Councilor Dan Dernulc, R-4th.

VALPARAISO — A fraud prevention effort put in place by the Porter County Clerk's office paid off to the tune of more than $7,000 Wednesday.

Deputy Clerk Jacalyne Haney said the office caught five fraudulent checks written to the same person using numbers from the office's bank account.

The fraudulent checks were discovered during a regular evaluation done by Chase Bank, she said.

Porter County Clerk Karen Martin put the system in place to protect tax dollars following earlier fraud attempts.

The bad checks were reported Wednesday to police.












County Council to ask status of FBI investigations
Jeff Schultz
Chesterton Tribune
December 07, 2016
http://chestertontribune.com/Porter%20County/county_council_to_ask_status_of.htm

The Porter County Council on Tuesday tabled a request by County Commissioner John Evans, R-North, to be reimbursed $5,000 on legal fees he has incurred since the Federal Burau of Investigation has been looking at activities in Porter County Government.

The request appeared on the agenda as one in the series that the Commissioners submitted to the Council along with budget transfers for internet and telephone service fees, employee longevity and jail security payments.

Evans’ request specifically asks the Council’s approval to transfer $5,000 from salaries in the Commissioner’s General Fund budget to contractual services for legal fees.

Evans was not present during the meeting but had asked County Attorney Scott McClure to be there for the request. He told the Chesterton Tribune after the meeting that he earlier had contacted the Council’s attorney Harold Harper asking if he could make the request under Indiana Code 36-1-17-3.

Harper agreed that the law states that a public official “who is the target of a grand jury investigation may apply to the fiscal body of the unit or municipal corporation for reimbursement of reasonable and customarily charged expense incurred by the officer or employee resulting from the grand jury investigation, if the grand jury fails to indict the officer or employee and the acts investigated by grand jury within the scope of the official duties of the officer or employee.”

Evans said he had no further comment other than what is stated in the law.

Upon learning of the request, County Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, asked that Harper see what role the Council has and contact the FBI to see if it is done investigating Evans.

“I think we need to know if the investigation is closed,” Whitten said and requested to table Evan’s request to the Council’s next regular meeting in January.

The FBI has made no recent indictments in Porter County Government. It did announce indictments last month for Portage Mayor James Snyder, as well as Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, on bribery charges and added that their investigations in Lake and Porter counties are continuing.

The Tribune has reported on several instances where the FBI has sought documents that are under the purview of the County Commissioners such as a wellness contract with Porter Health Systems signed in 2012 and other information regarding the County employee health care plan.

Observers also reported seeing FBI agents enter the Commissioners’ office one morning in June 2015 but no Commissioner would confirm or deny the reports.

Harper said he will attempt to get an answer from the FBI but wasn’t sure when it would respond.

McClure said he does not believe Evans has been reimbursed for any other legal fees. Any invoice would have to go through the County Auditor’s office, he said.

County Auditor Vicki Urbanik said the last reimbursement she knows of made to Evans was for lodging at a conference in 2013.

Evans will be ending his tenure as a county commissioner at the end of this month after not seeking reelection this year.

Rivas calls on mayor to resign
Meanwhile, Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, made a statement at the start of the Council’s regular meeting giving his opinion that Snyder should resign his office as the mayor of Portage.

Rivas represents Portage in his Council district and said it appears Snyder “has broken the public’s trust” after being indicted by the FBI on Nov. 17.

Snyder was charged with two violations of a federal bribery statute and a third charge alleging a scheme to obstruct Internal Revenue Laws. Rivas said he sympathizes with the residents of Portage who now have to endure “what could be a long, drawn-out trial.”

Having Snyder under indictment could make it difficult for him and other City officials to work on future projects with the County, Rivas said and gave various examples like remedying drainage issues on Willowcreek Rd., rebuilding the North County Complex and providing a place to bring animals with the new “no-kill” County Animal Shelter.

Snyder pled not guilty in federal court to all counts against him and has made statements to the press that he intends to fight the charges.












Portage Council addresses 'elephant in the room'
Phil Wieland Times Correspondent 
December 07, 2016 - 12:00PM


PORTAGE — After dealing with a series of updates to its ordinances, the City Council got down to what Councilman Mark Oprisko called “the elephant in the room.”

The “elephant” referred to federal charges against Mayor James Snyder for allegedly accepting bribes from a towing company. The charges were announced the Friday before Thanksgiving.

“There’s a dark cloud in the city as long as this continues," Clerk-treasurer Christopher Stidham said. "I remain focused on moving forward. That begins with a review of all our processes to be sure we are as transparent as possible. The council and Mark Oprisko and I have been working to improve the transparency as to the towing.”

“It’s been a tough month," Oprisko said. "I’ve exhausted a lot of hours talking to people in the city and outside. No one here has missed a beat at city hall during this period.”

Snyder hired attorneys Dogan and Dogan, of Portage, to advise him during the investigation, and Oprisko said the city should probably take the firm off the city payroll during this time as it could be a conflict of interest. Snyder promised to look at the issue and give him an answer soon.

Oprisko also asked City Attorney Gregg Sobkowski to provide a summary of all the litigation involving current and past employees as to what the claims are, when they were filed, what law firm is handling each one for the city and the amount of money the city has paid.

Joking that the request should probably take only a couple of days to complete, Oprisko added, “I just want to see where we’re at with these. There could be a conflict, and it should be addressed.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, one resident called on the mayor to resign so the city could move on. Snyder then asked, “Does anyone else want to address the elephant in the room?”

Resident Robert Cook said, “The city has never looked better, and it is going in the right direction. The mayor is innocent until proven guilty, and to ask him to resign is just wrong.”

Snyder said, “You can imagine the toll this has taken on me and my family. I think you all know we’ve been as open as we can be (about the investigation). I’m at a severe disadvantage when I do that because everything I say can used against me in court.”

He praised the staff for continuing to do its work for the city, adding, “We will get through this and, when it is done, we will be better for it. The support I’m getting from the residents is very humbling. The negativity has been very small.”

Councilwoman Elizabeth Modesto thanked Snyder for his leadership and said, “I agree we will get through this no matter what the outcome.”












Commissioner Evans seeking reimbursement for fed investigation
Bob Kasarda bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345 
John Scheibel john.scheibel@nwi.com, (219) 548-4358 
UPDATED - December 06, 2016 - 10:30PM


VALPARAISO — The long-brewing federal investigation into various local units of government boiled over Tuesday among officials in Porter County.

The Porter County Council tabled a request Tuesday night from Porter County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, to be reimbursed $5,000 for his legal costs associated with the investigation.

Earlier in the day, Porter County Councilman Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, issued a statement calling on Portage Mayor James Snyder to resign following his indictment last month on federal public corruption charges.

Snyder wrote a guest column that appeared in Tuesday's issue of The Times maintaining his innocence.

"My conduct has never violated the law," he wrote.

Porter County Council President Dan Whitten, D-at-large, said he learned about Evans' request after noticing the unspecified item on Tuesday's council meeting agenda.

Whitten said he spoke with council attorney Harold Harper, who confirmed that the law allows Evans and other elected officials to request reimbursement. The county has the option of paying as long as it's confirmed the investigation is over and no indictment is coming, he said.

Whitten asked Harper to inquire about the status of the investigation with federal officials and report back to the group in January. Evans, who did not seek re-election, leaves office at the end of this month.

Evans, who had attended another county government meeting immediately prior to the council's session Tuesday night, did not stick around to watch the fate of his request.

When contacted following the council meeting, he referred to the state code involving reimbursements.

In response to a question from Rivas, Commissioner attorney Scott McClure, who represented Evans during the council meeting, said he did not believe the commissioners have provided any reimbursement on their own to Evans.

A call to step down
Rivas kicked off Tuesday's council meeting by reading the statement he released earlier in the day calling on Snyder to step down.

Rivas said Snyder has "broken the public's trust."

He cites several ongoing projects, such as drainage issues along Willowcreek Road, consideration of a new North County Government Complex, allowing Portage to bring their stray animals to the new Porter County Animal Shelter and a new public radio system — between the county and the city — as reasons for Snyder to resign.

"There’s a lot going on that we need to partner with the city. ... I don’t know how anyone can do that with a guy under indictment," Rivas said.

"I think we pride ourselves on quality of life, good government, and this flies in the face of it," Rivas said.

Snyder was charged last month before U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Cherry on counts of felony bribery, extortion and tax dodging, which carry long prison terms if he is convicted. He pleaded not guilty.

Whitten said Snyder, like all citizens, deserves his day in court, and he hopes the allegations are not true.

But, if the allegations are true, and only Snyder knows for certain, he should resign, Whitten said.

Whitten said elected officials are trusted by the public to conduct the public's business.

"If you're committing public corruption, you betray that trust, and you should resign," Whitten said.

Portage City Council President Mark Oprisko, D-at large, said he has and will continue to work with Rivas and Whitten on issues like the North County Complex and animal shelter.

"I won’t let (the) mayor's indictment get in the way of our dialogue with the county," Oprisko said.

Oprisko called the indictment an "unfortunate situation," but said Snyder deserves his day in court.

"I’m just trying to move the city forward as best we can," Oprisko said. "I’m not going to drop the ball with county.”

Porter County Republican Chairman Michael Simpson said Snyder deserves his day in court and should remain in office.

"I see no reason for Mayor Snyder to resign," Simpson said.

"I don’t know why the County Council can’t work with Mayor Snyder," he said, suggesting Rivas concentrate his efforts on council financial issues instead of Snyder's legal problems.

Portage City Councilman John Cannon, R-4th, said he disagrees with Rivas' idea that it will be difficult to work with the city on these ongoing projects.

He said members of the City Council and County Council need to worry about the residents of Portage, "and to do the best we can for them."

Cannon declined to comment on whether Snyder should resign.

Snyder did not respond to a request for comment for this story.













UPDATE: Porter County councilman calls for Portage mayor to resign
Bob Kasarda bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345 
John Scheibel john.scheibel@nwi.com, (219) 548-4358 
UPDATED - December 06, 2016 - 7:00PM




PORTAGE — A member of the Porter County Council has called on Portage Mayor James Snyder to resign following his indictment on federal public corruption charges.

Jeremy Rivas released a statement Tuesday calling for Snyder to step down.

Snyder was charged last month before U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Cherry on counts of felony bribery, extortion and tax dodging, which carry long prison terms if he is convicted. He pleaded not guilty.

Rivas, D-2nd, said in his statement that Snyder has "broken the public's trust."

He cites several ongoing projects, such as drainage issues along Willowcreek Road, consideration of a new North County Government Complex, allowing Portage to bring their stray animals to the new Porter County Animal Shelter and a new public radio system — between the county and the city — as reasons for Snyder to resign.

"There’s a lot going on that we need to partner with the city. ... I don’t know how anyone can do that with a guy under indictment," Rivas said.

"I think we pride ourselves on quality of life, good government, and this flies in the face of it," Rivas said.

Porter County Council President Dan Whitten, D-at-large, said Snyder, like all citizens, deserves his day in court, and he hopes the allegations are not true.

But, if they allegations are true, and only Snyder knows for certain, he should resign, Whitten said.

Whitten said elected officials are trusted by the public to conduct the public's business.

"If you're committing public corruption, you betray that trust, and you should resign," Whitten said.

Whitten said if someone is under federal indictment it makes it more difficult to have a bond of trust.

"I'm not going to say we're not going to do things to benefit the city of Portage, but we may have to change the way we do it," Whitten said. "We may have to work directly with the City Council."

Portage City Council President Mark Oprisko, D-at large, said he has and will continue to work with Rivas and Whitten on issues like the North County Complex and animal shelter.

"I won’t let (the) mayor's indictment get in the way of our dialogue with the county," Oprisko said.

Oprisko called the indictment an "unfortunate situation," but said Snyder deserves his day in court.

"I’m just trying to move the city forward as best we can," Oprisko said. "I’m not going to drop the ball with county.”

But Porter County Republican Chairman Michael Simpson said Snyder deserves his day in court and should remain in office.











GUEST COMMENTARY: I didn't break the law, will fight federal charges
James Snyder 
NWI Times
UPDATED - December 06, 2016 - 3:45PM


You can only imagine that the federal cloud of investigation I have been dealing with the last 2 1/2 years has been overwhelming. However, the investigation has not slowed the huge strides Portage has been making.

Most communities are devastated by such actions, but Portage has continued to thrive because many staff and residents work as normal and believe in my innocence.

Portage leaders, myself included, have striven to comply with the relentless investigation that has engulfed nearly every facet of the city and has touched my church, my wife and family, my supporters, my private business and just about any area of my life you can imagine.

Government agents have sifted through hundreds of thousands of documents, including city and personal emails, to find something they could call “breaking the law.” Even my pastor has been interviewed, and my tithes and offerings have been scrutinized.

This investigation has cost the federal government hundreds of thousands of dollars and will probably eclipse the $1 million mark in federal taxpayer resources.

Public corruption is serious, and as the mayor you have elected and entrusted to lead Portage, I believe that wholeheartedly. People who know me well, and even many who know me just in passing, are confident that there is no way the accusations levied at me are true.

It is important for Portage residents to know that concluding this matter will take some time and that I intend to fight — in every way — to protect my family, my name and the city I love.

My conduct has never violated the law.

Because Portage’s success is not because of any one person, the city will continue to see unparalleled success while we are under this dark cloud. I have the best staff a mayor could ask for, and I and Portage residents owe them a debt of gratitude.

The government’s allegations against me are only one side of the story.

I have no intention to quit and subvert democracy and the Constitution by which we all are governed. Thank you for your overwhelming support and prayers. Through all this, I still have faith in the system, a fair trial and the goodness of our God.

We all say we believe in “innocent until proven guilty.” There has never been a time in my life that I have clung to and believed that more than today.

James Snyder is the mayor of Portage. The opinions are the writer's.












Jeremy Rivas statement on James Snyder
December 06, 2016 - 3:30PM














Councilman to indicted Portage mayor: Resign
Amy Lavalley
Post-Tribune
December 06, 2016 - 11:37AM


A Porter County official is calling for Portage Mayor James Snyder to resign in light of the federal indictment recently filed against him.

In a statement released Tuesday, Porter County Councilman Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, whose district includes Portage, said the indictment could interfere with Snyder's ability to do business with the county on a number of fronts, including joining in on the county's new animal shelter, drainage issues on Willowcreek Road, consideration of building a new North County Government Complex, and upgrading the public safety radio system.

"Having a mayor under federal indictment for bribery and other charges makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for other elected officials and businesses to do business with him," Rivas wrote.

Snyder, who was indicted Nov. 18, has pleaded not guilty. He is charged with alleged bribery involving a towing contract for the city, and for allegedly obstructing tax laws by impeding the government collection of personal and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business.

Snyder did not respond Tuesday to an email requesting comment.

In his statement, Rivas said, "If James Snyder truly cares for the residents of this great city, then he should step aside and immediately resign, focus on his family and trial, and allow the healing to begin."

Rivas said he released the statement, which he expected to present Tuesday evening to the County Council, because he represents the citizens of Portage.

"I was elected by the residents of Portage and I just think I'm giving them a voice," he said.

Portage currently has its own animal control officers and takes its animals to the Hobart Humane Society, the only city in the county without a contract with the county's animal shelter.

Despite months of negotiations, Portage has yet to sign a contract with the county to use the new shelter, which is scheduled to open June 1.

Snyder also has requested that county officials consider building a county annex along Central Avenue in the city's new downtown area.

"It's not been easy before this indictment to deal with him and this isn't going to help matters," Rivas said.












Man released on bond in public corruption case
Ed Bierschenk edwin.bierschenk@nwi.com, (219) 933-4195
December 05, 2016  
Updated - December 16, 2016 - 11:00AM
NWI Times

HAMMOND — A towing firm operator, accused of paying bribes to Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and his second-in-command, was released on bond Monday.

William "Willie" Szarmach, operator of CSA Towing of Lake Station, was released on $300,000 bond secured by property he owns. He also must surrender a Lake County Sheriff's badge along with his passport and cannot have any firearms at his residence. Various law enforcement agencies issue honorary badges, although the practice can be controversial.

"The badge may be evidence in this case," Assistant U.S. District Attorney Philip Benson told U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Cherry at Monday's detention hearing for Szarmach.

Cherry also said that Szarmach is restricted to travel within the Northern District of Indiana and Illinois and is to have no contact with potential victims or witnesses in the case. He left the federal courthouse in Hammond shortly after the hearing.

Buncich and Timothy Downs, chief of police for the sheriff's department, are accused of wire fraud and receiving $34,500 in illicit cash payments. Szarmach, Buncich and Downs pleaded not guilty last month to the government charges.

Last month's indictment alleges that between February 2014 and October of this year Buncich set in motion a scheme to enrich himself and Buncich Boosters, his political campaign committee. The government contends that Buncich accepted bribes allegedly from towing firms for cash and campaign contributions, although he didn't record all those contributions in his campaign finance reports as required by state law. The government said Downs collected some of the alleged bribes for Buncich.

According to the indictment, Buncich's campaign reports don't mention $12,000 in donations Szarmach and his towing firm allegedly made to Buncich.

Both Downs and Buncich were released on bond last month. 













Editorial: Indicted 3 need to take leaves of absence
Post-Tribune Editorial Board
Post-Tribune
December 02, 2016 - 10:47PM


The Constitution implicitly guards against government abusing citizens with the power of courts by guaranteeing presumption of innocence.

It's an old Common Law standard and not a figurative protection.

Evidence is tested and judged in open court proceedings before citizens are held accountable. Guilt must be proved, not assumed. Not every country grants this protection. In some nations — China, for example — the defendant must prove innocence.

For all those reasons, the three Lake County senior public officials indicted in November for public corruption and bribery cannot only post bond and be released from jail but also keep functioning in their careers.

Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs and Portage Mayor James Snyder are free to conduct their lives until a court says otherwise.

But for the good of those they have sworn to serve, all three should step away from their jobs and take a leave of absence. At the very least, they should turn the authority of enforcing the law and managing a city over to others until charges are proved or disproved.

Such a move does not require they admit guilt, but only acknowledges that leadership imposes higher duties of service.

Besides the law, implicit common sense and human nature standards apply. Those who come before all three on official business – professional colleagues or average residents - have reason to doubt them. Citizens have some right assume their servants are focused on the job, not preparing their court defense.

We do not presume the three are guilty but we do know they have damaged reputations.

Pretending as if nothing has happened that changes the nature of their jobs would be ridiculous. A sheriff and chief deputy cannot inspire confidence in the officers they lead. They cannot stand before their officers, look them in the eye and challenge their pride in upholding the law.

A mayor charged with corruption cannot address civic issues and conflicts by claiming the higher moral ground of leadership.

Both the sheriff's department and Portage city government have business to conduct and issues to resolve. Much of that management can't be put aside in the months while Buncich, Downs and Snyder prepare to defend themselves in court.

The only rational solution is for all three to step down momentarily, keep their pay and titles, but turn over duties to others who have the skill and focus to perform them.













FBI agents return to Portage to interview official
Joyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 548-4352
Updated - December 01, 2016 - 6:00PM
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/fbi-agents-return-to-portage-to-interview-official/article_fe764701-8ecf-58a3-9188-0693e8e8d0fe.html


PORTAGE — Nearly two weeks after Mayor James Snyder was indicted on bribery and obstruction charges, the FBI returned to interview at least one city official.

"Two agents with the local FBI office briefly stopped by the police department this morning to meet with me," Police Chief Troy Williams said in a written statement after being asked by The Times.

"Given the seriousness of their current investigation, I fully expected that they would come by at some point. I cannot expound on all details of our meeting, but they did not serve any subpoenas, search warrants or indictments.

"Additionally, no members of the police department were mentioned as being the subject of their investigation," Williams said.

Snyder pleaded not guilty Nov. 18 to felony bribery, extortion and tax dodging counts, which carry the potential for long prison terms if he is convicted. His trial is expected to begin Jan. 23.

The charges came after more than two years of investigation by the FBI.












Federal Agents Interview Portage Police Chief
Indiana 105.5 FM
December 01, 2016 - 5:37PM
FM 105 - Indiana
http://indiana105.com/region-news/federal-agents-interview-portage-police-chief/

In Portage, FBI agents briefly stopped by the police department to speak with Police Chief Troy Williams.  The Times reports the visit comes after Portage Mayor James Snyder was indicted for violation of the federal bribery statute and obstruction of internal revenue laws.  His trial is anticipated to begin in January.

According to the article, Chief Williams stated that while he could not discuss the details of the meeting he did say that no subpoenas, search warrants or indictments were served, and that no police department members were mentioned as being part of the investigation.













Portage Indiana Police -  11/29/16
NWI CopBlock
Published on Nov 30, 2016
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLlb1qkQGYY

video

PORTAGE INDIANA 11/29/2016 - Keith Hughes, employee at the Portage, Indiana police department was filmed trespassing on private property by a citizen who was on his way to work at a local steel mill. The purpose of his trespassing was to lay the ground work for the theft of property from a Portage resident, and to drum up illegal business for the contracted towing company. The same towing company that bribed the mayor (who is now under federal indictment) and continues to fleece the citizenry in collusion with the criminal police.

The video clearly shows Hughes marking the vehicle as abandoned even though it is clearly parked in the owner’s driveway at the time. Furthermore, Hughes made no attempt to verify if the vehicle is ”mechanically inoperable”, which is needed to meet the legal definition of abandoned.

We would like to remind Keith Hughes that you cannot protect the citizens property by stealing it. We would also like to take this opportunity to encourage him to seek an honest line of work.













EDITORIAL: Buncich, Snyder, Downs must resign
The Times Editorial Board  
Updated - November 28, 2016


Sheriff John Buncich is a chief Lake County lawman now facing federal bribery charges. His deputy and second in command, Timothy Downs, is charged in the same scheme.

Portage Mayor James Snyder is the elected executive leader of a Porter County's largest city and is charged with felony violations of public trust.

All three men, charged in separate cases and indictments, owe it to their constituents to resign now.

Buncich also should immediately relinquish his post as Lake County Democratic Party chairman. Remaining in the post as the federal case unfolds will only continue to undermine his local party's reputation, already hobbled by the past felony convictions of a host of politicians affiliated with local Democrats.

Some lawyers and old-guard political figures may argue that the felony bribery charges all three men face are merely accusations — that they're all entitled to a trial by a federal jury of their peers.

That argument discounts the distraction that mounting a legal defense against federal felony charges will be to performing crucial duties of public service.

It also ignores the untenable reality of public officials trying to serve or govern when federal grand juries have found alleged evidence of violating public trust.

We all must consider the substance of the felony accusations while weighing an undeniable truth about nearly all public corruption indictments we've seen arise from the Hammond-based U.S. attorney's office.

In nearly every case for decades, indictments of Region political officials have led to convictions. That's because the U.S. attorney and federal investigators don't tend to pursue cases unless there's solid evidence of a crime.

Buncich and Downs are accused of wire fraud and receiving $34,500 in illicit bribes from a towing contractor conducting business for the county.

In a separate case, Snyder is charged with soliciting and receiving $12,000 in bribes in exchange for a towing contract with the city of Portage and soliciting $13,000 in bribes to influence public contracts and a Portage construction contract.

Snyder also is accused of obstructing the IRS from collecting unpaid taxes from his private mortgage business.

It's true Buncich, Downs and Snyder all are entitled to their days in court.

But that doesn't mean they should drag voters and taxpayers along with them.

If they opt to challenge these charges, as it appears they will, they'll need to focus on their legal defenses.

If they already intend to plead guilty, they're just unfairly delaying the inevitable by not resigning now.

In either scenario, Region residents will be getting short shrift.

If any of these men truly believes in public service, they must relinquish their offices without delay.












A county government history of bribery
Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328  
Nov 27, 2016 
NWI Times






CROWN POINT — Once upon a time, Lake County had a sheriff indicted for mail fraud.

Last week, it was Sheriff John Buncich, who has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in January on allegations he solicited and received bribes from towing firms doing business with his department.

Three decades ago, it was Rudy Bartolomei, for wide-ranging bribery solicitation.

Bartolomei, better known to his friends as Rudy Bart, cooperated with federal investigators who sent many other high-ranking county government officials to prison under Operation Lights Out.

Bartolomei’s whereabouts have been unknown since he entered the federal witness protection program in 1986 at age 62, although the rumor among political circles is that he died years ago.

But between 1976 when he was first elected a Lake County commissioner and 1985 when he resigned as sheriff following a guilty plea in U.S. District Court, he was one of the best known and most powerful politicians in Lake County.

In his younger days, he helped his mother run the family’s grocery store in Gary’s Glen Park section. He became a Democratic precinct committeeman and worked eight years in the county assessor’s office.

‘Helping people’
A Times story about the new commissioner portrayed him as having a handshake and a warm greeting for the common man. He told a Times reporter, “I’m really excited about helping people, now. Most of the time, it is people asking for help, and you do your best to help them.”

He had a jar of licorice on his desk for his many visitors.

Years later, his other side was revealed in court testimony about forcing county employees to buy political fundraising tickets and shaking down those who wanted business with the county.

A federal court document recounts Bartolomei meeting a then-up-and-coming politician, Frank A. J. Stodola, who had just been elected county commissioner in 1980 and wanted to know if rumors about county government graft were true.

It states, “Stodola approached Commissioner Rudy Bartolomei on several occasions and asked Bartolomei where the commissioners made their money.”

Bartolomei answered that the cleaning service for the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point inflated its bills to the county to cover the bribes paid all three members of the Board of Commissioners at that time.

Moving up
Bartolomei saw his opportunity to become the county’s chief law enforcement officer in 1983 when Sheriff Chris Anton died in office. A caucus of the county’s Democratic precinct committee members picked Bartolomei over Anton’s widow, Anna, to replace him.

A Times reporter asked him after his victory celebration about reports the FBI was looking into him. Bartolomei denied knowing anything about it.

Shortly after becoming sheriff, court documents state Bartolomei began offering protection to the owners of video poker machines, which were illegal at the time, but popping up at local taverns.

Bartolomei and other county police officials promised protection for those willing to pay, not knowing one of their petitioners was wearing a wire and recording conversations for the FBI.

A second federal investigation focused on Bartolomei’s stolen gun collection. U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents raided a safe in the Sheriff’s Department and seized 50 weapons and an unregistered .38-caliber handgun silencer.

After months of speculation, a federal grand jury returned a 15-count indictment against Bartolomei March 1, 1985, accusing him of:

Ordering five county employees in 1980 to assemble political signs for his re-election at public expense

Ordering three county employees in 1981 to do repair work on his summer cottage on Lake Michigan

Paying his housemaid with $2,300 from federal revenue sharing funds belonging to the county

Extorting political contributions from employees, including $650 from a heavy-equipment operator who asked Bartolomei for a raise

Bartolomei pleaded not guilty, blamed the allegations on political enemies and disgruntled county employees and wouldn’t compromise his ability to remain sheriff.

Six months later, he pleaded guilty to two felony counts, received a 28-month sentence, and was shackled and marched out of a federal courtroom.

Two months later, he was briefing federal investigators and a grand jury on the web of public corruption over which he and his fellow county officials had presided.

He would return to the federal courthouse over the years to testify as the government’s star witness, helping win convictions against a number of officials, including: County Assessor Michael Jankovich, county Commissioners Noah Atterson Spann and Frank A.J. Stodola and Michael Mokol Sr., chief of police under Bartolomei.

To protect his new identity outside the courthouse, he wore a Halloween mask resembling Skeletor, a character from the Masters of the Universe cartoons.











RICH JAMES: South county names emerge in sheriff discussion
Rich James 
November 26, 2016
NWI Times

Long before a federal indictment rattled the political power structure in Lake County a week ago, the 2018 campaign for sheriff was well under way.

The indictment of Sheriff John Buncich shocked many, including myself. He has been a strong sheriff since starting his second stint as the county’s top cop in 2011.

But the very sound of the word indictment does crazy things to those in political circles. It’s like a shark sensing blood in the water.

Lake County Auditor John Petalas was a calming voice last week when he said, “Everybody who knows him is holding back to see what has really happened.”

When it comes to the 2018 Democratic primary for sheriff, no one is holding back — at least privately.

The indictment has jump-started the inevitable. There are two possible paths for who becomes the next sheriff.

If a vacancy occurs, the county’s precinct committeemen and vice committeemen will select the next sheriff.

If nothing happens until the 2018 primary, Democratic voters will decide. Republicans, who haven’t won a countywide office for almost 70 years, need not apply.

Speculation is all over the board, including the return of former Sheriff Roy Dominguez.

That’s not going to happen in that Dominguez left office under a cloud when his second in command, Joe Kumstar, and other cops were indicted and convicted on gun-dealing charges.

There are two guys wishing the best for Buncich but are in the midst of running sheriff campaigns for 2018.

One is former county Councilman Thomas O’Donnell, who was planning to run for sheriff. But those plans were derailed earlier this year.

In its quest to win back the Indiana House, state Democrats convinced O’Donnell, a Dyer resident, to make a second bid for state representative against Rep. Hal Slager.

O’Donnell narrowly lost to Slager in 2012. With a loose cannon like Donald Trump heading the ballot, Democrats thought down-ballot races were ripe for picking. It was pretty good logic at the time.

O'Donnell lost, and there is a feeling now on the part of some that the party owes him its backing if he runs for sheriff. He told some that if he lost to Slager, he would be a sheriff candidate.

Then there is Schererville Police Chief David Dowling, who has been campaigning for sheriff for a good while.

He has campaign cards that read, “Responsible leadership. Quality policing.” It’s hard to argue with that. Dowling is a solid guy.

Whether it’s O’Donnell or Dowling, it would be the first time the county has picked a sheriff with roots in south county. It would signal a shift in the political power structure.













Officer praised in probe of graft
Help led to charges in Hammond area
November 25, 2016 1:01 AM
The Journal Gazette

HAMMOND – A retired police officer was instrumental in an investigation that led to charges alleging that a northwestern Indiana sheriff, his top deputy and a mayor collected bribes in return for contracts for towing and other services, a federal prosecutor said.

United States Attorney David Capp said the voluntary cooperation and assistance of Scott Jurgenson, owner of Samson’s Towing of Merrillville, helped investigators uncover the alleged corruption, The (Northwest Indiana) Times reported.

Capp said Jurgenson spent 22 years as an officer with the Merrillville Police Department before retiring.

The indictments announced Nov. 18 name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and two owners of local tow companies – William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station and John Cortina of Kustom Auto Body in Portage.

Prosecutors allege that between February 2014 and October 2016, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach worked to enrich Buncich and his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters, through towing contracts.

Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000, often collected by Downs, in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County, prosecutors said. Buncich, who is chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party, was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015.

Snyder, a Republican in his second term as Portage’s mayor, is accused of soliciting and receiving bribes to receive contracts and obstructing the IRS from collecting unpaid taxes from his private mortgage business.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach all face wire fraud charges, while Buncich and Szarmach are also charged with bribery.

Cortina is accused of making illegal payments to Snyder and the unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage, located in neighboring Porter County.

Capp declined to immediately identify the unnamed individual, saying the federal investigation is still ongoing.

Buncich, Downs, Snyder and Cortina are free on bond awaiting trial, now set to begin in January. Szarmach remains in federal detention.












Feds: Retired officer was crucial in Indiana bribery probe
Updated November 25, 2016 - 1:00AM
The Daily Progress

HAMMOND, Ind. (AP) — A federal prosecutor says a retired police officer was instrumental in an investigation that led to bribery charges against a northwestern Indiana sheriff, his top deputy and a mayor.

U.S. Attorney David Capp says Scott Jurgenson's voluntary cooperation and assistance helped federal investigators uncover the alleged corruption.

The (Northwest Indiana) Times reports (http://bit.ly/2fcdZTN ) that Jurgenson served 22 years as an officer with the Merrillville Police Department. He's now owner of Samson's Towing of Merrillville.

The indictments announced Nov. 18 name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs and Portage Mayor James Snyder. They allegedly collected bribes in return for contracts for towing and other services.

Tow company owners William Szarmach and John Cortina were also indicted. They are accused of making payments in exchange for contracts.














Prosecutor: Retired officer crucial in Indiana bribery probe
Thursday, November 24, 2016
Washington Times

HAMMOND, Ind. (AP) - A retired police officer was instrumental in an investigation that led to charges alleging that a northwestern Indiana sheriff, his top deputy and a mayor collected bribes in return for contracts for towing and other services, a federal prosecutor said.

United States Attorney David Capp said the voluntary cooperation and assistance of Scott Jurgenson, owner of Samson’s Towing of Merrillville, helped investigators uncover the alleged corruption, The (Northwest Indiana) Times reported (http://bit.ly/2fcdZTN ).

Capp said Jurgenson spent 22 years as an officer with the Merrillville Police Department before retiring.

The indictments announced Nov. 18 name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and two owners of local tow companies - William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station and John Cortina of Kustom Auto Body in Portage.

Prosecutors allege that between February 2014 and October 2016, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach worked to enrich Buncich and his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters, through towing contracts.

Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000, often collected by Downs, in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County, prosecutors said. Buncich, who is chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party, was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015.












Prosecutor: Retired officer crucial in Indiana bribery probe
Updated: 11/24/2016 1:43 PM
Daily Herald

HAMMOND, Ind. -- A retired police officer was instrumental in an investigation that led to charges alleging that a northwestern Indiana sheriff, his top deputy and a mayor collected bribes in return for contracts for towing and other services, a federal prosecutor said.

United States Attorney David Capp said the voluntary cooperation and assistance of Scott Jurgenson, owner of Samson's Towing of Merrillville, helped investigators uncover the alleged corruption, The (Northwest Indiana) Times reported (http://bit.ly/2fcdZTN ).

Capp said Jurgenson spent 22 years as an officer with the Merrillville Police Department before retiring.

The indictments announced Nov. 18 name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and two owners of local tow companies - William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station and John Cortina of Kustom Auto Body in Portage.

Prosecutors allege that between February 2014 and October 2016, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach worked to enrich Buncich and his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters, through towing contracts.

Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000, often collected by Downs, in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County, prosecutors said. Buncich, who is chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party, was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015.

Snyder, a Republican in his second term as Portage's mayor, is accused of soliciting and receiving bribes to receive contracts and obstructing the IRS from collecting unpaid taxes from his private mortgage business.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach all face wire fraud charges, while Buncich and Szarmach are also charged with bribery.

Cortina is accused of making illegal payments to Snyder and the unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage, located in neighboring Porter County.

Capp declined to immediately identify the unnamed individual, saying the federal investigation is still ongoing.

Buncich, Downs, Snyder and Cortina are free on bond awaiting trial, now set to begin in January. Szarmach remains in federal detention.

Information from: The Times, http://www.nwitimes.com
















Portage Mayor Snyder indicted on bribery, tax charges
Joyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 548-4352  
UPDATED - November 23, 2016

PORTAGE — Mayor James Snyder has been indicted in federal court in Hammond on bribery and obstruction charges.

U.S. District Attorney David Capp announced the indictments in a press conference Friday morning.

While the charges were being read from the federal courthouse in Hammond, Snyder met with city department heads and employees at his home.

U.S. marshals escorted Snyder, 38, into court about 3:30 p.m. Friday. He flashed smiles at his lawyers, Thomas Kirsch and Thomas Dogan.

He pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Cherry to felony bribery, extortion and tax dodging counts, which carry long prison terms if he is convicted.

He was freed on a $20,000 recognizance bond, but has to surrender his passport and firearms he owns. When the judge asked Snyder if he has a passport, Snyder smiled and said, “We’ve been looking for it since 7 a.m.”

Snyder’s administrative assistant, Amanda Lakie, said he would not be making a statement and directed The Times to Snyder’s attorney. Lakie said Snyder met with employees to encourage them to continue their work for the city.

“Mayor James Snyder has been under investigation for nearly two and half years and today was indicted on three counts,” said Snyder’s attorney, Tom Kirsch, of Chicago. “Mayor Snyder believed that this extremely lengthy federal investigation had been concluded without charges being sought. Today’s indictment comes as a complete surprise. This is particularly so because these charges are meritless. Mayor Snyder has always been cooperative with federal agents throughout the relentless investigation. Mayor Snyder looks forward to fighting these charges in a court of law and to complete vindication. Mayor Snyder and his family are grateful for the outpouring of support they have received from residents, friends, and family and asks that they continue to believe in him through this time.”

Federal authorities arrested and arraigned John Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body, 5409 U.S. 6, Portage, earlier Friday. He is pleading not guilty to his role in the scheme and is also free on bond.

Cherry set their trial to begin the week of Jan. 23, although the date could change if the defense needs more time to prepare.

The charges
The first charge names Snyder and Cortina.

Snyder and Cortina are both charged with a violation of the federal bribery statute. Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totaling $12,000 from Cortina, in exchange for a towing contract in the city of Portage, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice. Cortina is charged with corruptly offering those checks to Snyder.

Cortina’s business was raided last week by Indiana State Police and U.S. Treasury Department agents. Cortina told The Times then that his business was not the subject of the raid, that a towing company which leases property from Cortina was being investigated.

Snyder is also charged with a second violation of the federal bribery statute. That count alleges that between Jan. 1, 2012 and Jan. 10, 2014, Snyder corruptly solicited and agreed to accept a bank check in the amount of $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and other consideration, stated the release.

The final charge against Snyder alleges obstruction of the internal revenue laws. This count sets forth an alleged scheme, undertaken by Snyder between January 2010 and April 2013, to obstruct and impede the Internal Revenue Service’s collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC. Snyder is alleged to have diverted funds away from FFTM to a sole proprietorship he created, and submitted three forms to the IRS which failed to disclose, among other things, the existence of the sole proprietorship and its bank account – all during a time when the IRS was attempting to collect the aforementioned tax debt.

Lengthy investigation
The indictment comes after more than two years of investigation by the FBI into the city and Snyder and less than two months after Snyder attempted to get the city’s Utility Service Board to pay some $93,000 in legal fees involving the investigation.

In September, Snyder had two checks cut by the department and sent to two legal firms without approval by the board. The legal firms allegedly returned the checks because they were not from Snyder directly. The funds were returned to the department and Mark Oprisko, City Council president and utility board vice chairman, called for an investigation by an independent attorney into the claims.

While state law allows Snyder to request the reimbursement it can only be done if he was cleared of the investigation and there were no impending indictments.

Reactions
Oprisko said he had the “wind knocked out of me” when he heard about the indictments and was “disheartened,” thinking that the investigation was over a couple of months ago.

“It is a black eye to the city. The investigation is what it is. He is innocent until proven guilty. He still has a job to do. He has to pick it up and move forward,” Oprisko said, adding the same is true for city employees and other elected officials. “Our job is to serve the citizens of Portage, and we will continue to do that.”

“While this is a sad day for the city of Portage, Jim Snyder deserves his day in court,” said Portage Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham. “However, I am focused on ensuring myself and the City Council continue to lead Portage forward despite the mayor’s troubles. Now, more than ever, Portage needs good leaders. We are more than any one person and the issues of one won’t derail our progress.”

“Today’s indictment issued by the United States Attorney in connection to Portage Mayor James Snyder is deeply concerning,” said Portage Councilman Collin Czilli in a written statement, promising residents that city business will continue unimpeded. “However, like any other individual, Mayor Snyder deserves his day in court and the right to defend himself. As a city Councilman, I am of the mindset that we must allow the judicial process to continue and to not interfere in that process for political purposes.”

“These investigations are not over. Our public corruption team will continue its work, particularly into the towing contracts in both Lake and Porter counties,” Capp said in the press release.

Anyone with information related to these public corruption charges is encouraged to call the FBI at (219) 769-3719.

Times reporter Bill Dolan contributed to this story.













Feds: Former cop helped break bribery schemes
Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328
November 23, 2016
NWI Times



CROWN POINT — Federal authorities are crediting a retired Merrillville police officer with coming forward to expose an alleged bribes-for-towing scheme that has engulfed the Lake County Sheriff’s Department and Portage City Hall.

United States Attorney David Capp said the voluntary cooperation and assistance of Scott Jurgenson, owner of Samson’s Towing of Merrillville, has been instrumental in helping federal investigators uncover corruption in the awarding of towing contracts.

He said Jurgenson was a 22-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department.

Last Friday, the government charged Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Timothy Downs, the sheriff’s second-in-command, and Portage Mayor James E. Snyder.

Buncich and Downs are accused of wire fraud and receiving $34,500 in illicit cash payments.

The government charged William “Willie” Szarmach, operator of CSA Towing of Lake Station, with paying bribes to Buncich and Downs.

The government charged Snyder with soliciting and receiving $12,000 in bribes in exchange for a towing contract with the city of Portage.

Snyder also is charged with soliciting and accepting $13,000 in bribes to influence public contracts and a construction project in Portage, and obstructing the IRS from collecting unpaid taxes from Snyder’s private mortgage business.

The government charged John Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body of Portage, with making illegal payments to Snyder.

Buncich, Downs, Snyder and Cortina are free on bond awaiting trial, now set to begin in January.

Szarmach has been in federal detention since his arrest Friday. He appeared Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Hammond to try to win pre-trial freedom too, but the matter was delayed.

Jurgenson is ‘Individual A’
The U.S. attorney identified Jurgenson’s role in the federal investigation, following a Times review of Buncich’s campaign finance records indicating Jurgenson’s towing firm was at the center of the wide-ranging bribery investigation.

Last week’s indictments mention an “Individual A” who gave Buncich and Downs $19,500 in contributions to Buncich Boosters, the sheriff’s campaign election committee.

Capp declined to immediately identify Individual A, saying the federal investigation into corrupt towing would continue.

Earlier this week, The Times obtained a 2014 campaign finance report Buncich had filed with the Lake County Voter Registration and Elections Board. Earlier this month, federal authorities subpoenaed that report along with others of Buncich dating back to 2008.

Last week’s indictments state Individual A wrote a $2,000 check to Buncich’s campaign on April 8, 2014.

Buncich’s 2014 campaign finance report states Jurgenson’s Samson Towing was the only donor to make a donation of that amount on that day.

Jurgenson could not be reached for comment.

Buncich reported receiving more than 460 donations totaling $222,000 in 2014 and 2015 from a multitude of individuals, corporations and labor organizations.

Contributions missing
But those reports don’t mention $12,000 in donations Szarmach and his towing firm allegedly made to Buncich, according to last week’s indictment.

The government is alleging Buncich hid towing-related payments from the public to cover up the bribery, and that he was illegally fundraising on government time, a prohibited activity under county government rules.

County police order thousands of cars towed annually from public streets for a variety of violations.

County government gives the sheriff exclusive authority to pick which towing firms can remove cars and charge the owners hundreds in towing and storage fees.

Buncich has used as many as a dozen towing firms, the government alleges.

The indictments state Jurgenson’s Samson Towing and Szarmach’s CSA Towing won an increasing share of the county’s towing business with their payments to Buncich and his campaign.

Last week’s indictments allege Portage Mayor Snyder accepted two bank checks of $10,000 and $2,000 earlier this year from Cortina and Jurgenson to win towing contracts for Cortina’s and Jurgenson’s firms.












Portage's Willowcreek Road Bridge needs repairs
Joyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 548-4352
Nov 22, 2016
NWI Times
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/portage-s-willowcreek-road-bridge-needs-repairs/article_00150dd6-9f8f-5486-95ea-ecbf7df1d1c8.html

PORTAGE — Board of works officials on Tuesday approved a contract with consultant RQAW to design necessary repairs to the Willowcreek Road Bridge over the Indiana Toll Road.

Mayor James Snyder said the city just learned the bridge was its responsibility thanks to a document approved in 1988 by the board.

Sandy McDaniel, Department of Community Development project manager, said the city apparently took over responsibility for the bridge when Willowcreek Road was widened. It was only recently when the city asked its paving contractor to look at some areas needing repair that the bridge's condition was pointed out to the city.

While the bridge is safe to drive, McDaniel said, it needs repairs soon. The estimated cost of the project is $690,000. The city will pay the full cost of design at $58,600 and 20 percent of the construction costs, or about $138,000.

McDaniel said the city hopes to begin repairs sometime next year.

"We are working to get it off our hands," said Snyder, adding the city has had a "strong conversation" with the Indiana Department of Transportation about taking over responsibility of the bridge and paving Willowcreek Road between U.S. 6 and U.S. 20.

"We hope to have it resolved by the end of the year," Snyder said.












Lake sheriff shelters behind his badge for now
NWI Times
Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328
November 21, 2016
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/crime-and-court/article_022ed922-5aff-5cf6-9553-0b3258813866.html#_=_

CROWN POINT — John Buncich remained Lake County’s top cop and Democratic party boss Monday as rumors about whether he would resign swirled around his office in the wake of his Friday bribery indictment.

Mark Back, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department, denied a report early Monday that the sheriff was planning a news conference. He stated, “There have been no changes to Sheriff’s Department administration.”

Party officials said Monday Buncich hasn’t indicated he would step down as chairman before a previously scheduled caucus in early March to elect the next county chairman.

Buncich didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said, “Should he step down as sheriff? Yes, but being realistic, this is his job and how he pays his bills. I don’t understand why (Buncich) would want to be chairman, anymore.”

“John has ruined the Lake County Democratic party. We were improving our reputation statewide, and this has set it back a decade. This guy can’t do his job as chairman, but will he resign? I’m not sure,” McDermott said.

Buncich has been the county’s highest elected law enforcement official from 1994 to 2002, and again from 2010 to the present. He has been party chairman June 2014.

Buncich, 70, and Timothy Downs, 65, Buncich’s handpicked chief of police, are accused of wire fraud. Buncich is additionally charged with receiving bribes.

U.S. Attorney David Capp and federal investigators allege Buncich received more than $30,000 in bribes between February 2014 and last month from towing companies wanting the sheriff’s permission to remove cars from public streets. The sheriff receives an annual salary of $143,926.32.

Both were arrested and released on bond Friday after entering not guilty pleas. Their trial is tentatively scheduled to begin Jan. 17 and could last for up to three weeks.

McDermott Jr., who clashed earlier this year with Buncich over party matters, said he has spoken with the Democratic state chairman and local elected officials about handing party affairs over to the party’s vice chairwoman, Lake County Treasurer Peggy Katona.

Lake County election officials said that if Buncich resigned as sheriff, state election laws would require a caucus of more than 1,000 Democratic precinct committee members to meet within 30 days to elect the next sheriff to serve the remainder of Buncich’s term.

Lake Elections Director Michelle Fajman and Jim Wieser, an attorney for the county elections board, said judicial vacancies are filled by a governor’s appointment, but sheriff is considered a local office to be filled by the party of the departed officeholder.

Lake Councilman Dan Dernulc, the Lake County Republican chairman, said Monday, “We are held to higher standards, and we should be, by people. When that trust is broken, it really puts a taint on all politicians. I’m not trying to say the sheriff is guilty. I don’t know, but this is another slap in the face for Lake County.”

Lake Auditor John Petalas, a longtime supporter of Buncich, said, “The vultures started circling the building minutes after that FBI raid (Nov. 10), which came out of left field. John has been a policeman for 45 years and done a lot of good things. Everybody who knows him is holding back to see what has really happened.”













January trials set for Lake, Porter officials
Chicago Tribune
November 21, 2016 - 8:11PM



A federal judge tentatively set January trial dates for the Lake and Porter county officials indicted Friday on a series of public corruption charges.

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, chief of police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, are tentatively set for trial on Jan. 17, according to court records. Portage Mayor James Snyder and John Cortina, of Kustom Auto Body in Portage, are tentatively set for trial on Jan. 23, court records show.

Buncich, Downs, Szarmach, Snyder and Cortina all pleaded not guilty during their initial appearances Friday.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach are named in a multi-count indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Paul Stracci, of Stracci Criminal Defense, who is representing Buncich, had no comment on the tentative scheduling of the trial.

Snyder and Cortina, named in a separate indictment, were charged with bribery. Capp said the mayor solicited money from Cortina and "Individual A" and gave them a towing contract for Portage.

Snyder allegedly accepted $13,000 in connection with a Board of Works contract and obstructed tax laws for by impeding the government's collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC.

Snyder declined to comment after his hearing, but his lead attorney, Thomas Kirsch, of the law firm Winston and Strawn, said they were surprised by the indictment, "particularly so because these charges are meritless."













Indictments outline alleged public corruption in Lake, Porter counties
Craig Lyons, Carrie Napoleon and Michael Gonzalez
Post-Tribune
November 19, 2016 - 7:08PM




This past April, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich went into a Gary towing operator's vehicle and fetched a $3,500 cash bribe from the front seat, a payment federal court records claim was part of a larger scheme to steer towing business to companies based on cash payments and campaign contributions to the sheriff.

Within a week of the payment, which also included $2,500 from another towing operator, Buncich directed the sheriff's department to enforce Gary's ordinance violations, according to court records.

Later, after an officer assigned to enforcing ordinance violations in Gary was injured, two towing operators involved in the bribery scheme complained about a subsequent dip in the city's tow business, court records say. Buncich responded by assigning another Lake County patrol officer to enforce ordinance violations in Gary, according to a federal indictment announced Friday against the sheriff, his second-in-command and a towing operator.

"This is a sad day for the citizens of Northwest Indiana," U.S. Attorney David Capp said at a Friday press conference.

The indictments announced Friday unveiled startling public corruption allegations that included charges against Buncich and, in a separate case, Portage Mayor James Snyder. While the investigations in Lake and Porter counties were separate, both involved allegedly soliciting and accepting money from towing company operators.

In addition to Buncich and Snyder, Capp announced indictments against Timothy Downs, chief of the Lake County Sheriff's Department police; William Szarmach, of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station; and John Cortina, of Kustom Auto Body in Portage.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach are named in the multicount indictment alleging the illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and in donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

Buncich, Downs, Szarmach and Cortina were all arrested and taken into custody Friday morning, Capp said, adding that he's asked that Szarmach remain in federal detention.

Buncich and Downs each were each released on $20,000 unsecured bonds.

Snyder surrendered to federal authorities Friday afternoon, officials said. He was released on a $20,000 unsecured bond. If he attends all of his hearings, Snyder will owe no money. If he misses any, he will have to pay the $20,000 and faces arrest. Snyder also was ordered to turn over his passport and any firearms to federal authorities.

Buncich, a Democrat, was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015. Snyder, a Republican, was elected to his second term as mayor in 2015.

"The citizens of the region are tired of this," Capp said.


Lake County allegations
The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as Individual A, an unidentified towing operator who was working with investigators, according to the indictment.

Individual A voluntarily offered to provide information to federal authorities, Capp said, adding that the decision by Individual A to step forward was critical for the investigation.

While Buncich's office had the authority to determine what towing operators were awarded contracts, according to Lake County ordinance, the county commissioners ultimately approved the sheriff's recommendations.

According to the indictment, Buncich's office had a list of up to a dozen towing companies used to handle tows in different parts of Lake County. But from February 2014 to October 2016, according to the indictment, Buncich used his power and authority as sheriff to steer towing business to firms based on their cash payments and campaign contributions.

Certain towing companies on the towing list saw an increase or drop in business based on their cash payments and campaign contributions, the indictment alleges. Certain towing firms were allowed to remain on the towing list based on the level of campaign fundraising tickets they bought, the indictment said.

Szarmach and Individual A were awarded towing operations in Gary, the indictment said.

Buncich and Downs allegedly collected money from Szarmach and Individual A, the indictment said.

In July, the indictment said, Individual A handed Buncich $2,500 in cash, which he pocketed. That same person handed Buncich a $7,500 cash payment, which he put in his right rear pocket, the indictment said.

Between July and August, Buncich also accepted $3,500 in cash and checks from Szarmach, the indictment alleges.

Both Szarmach and Individual A got "a larger share of towing involving large semi-tractor trailers, ordinance towing in the City of Gary, towing in other Lake County municipalities and towing for other entities," the indictment said.


Portage mayor
Snyder and Cortina, named in a separate indictment, were charged with bribery. Capp said the mayor solicited money from Cortina and Individual A and gave them a towing contract for Portage.

According to the indictment, Cortina paid Snyder $12,000 in exchange for a towing contract between him, Individual A and the City of Portage.

Snyder also allegedly accepted $13,000 in connection with a Board of Works contract and obstructed tax laws by impeding the government's collection of tens of thousands of dollars in personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC.

Snyder declined to comment after his hearing, but his lead attorney, Thomas Kirsch, of the law firm Winston and Strawn, said they were surprised by the indictment, "particularly so because these charges are meritless."

A woman who answered the phone Friday afternoon at Cortina's body shop, 5409 U.S. Highway 6, Portage, promptly hung up when asked for comment on the indictments. The business was the site of a raid by officials with the U.S. Department of Treasury on Nov. 10, the same day of a sweep of several Lake County offices.

According to online campaign finance reports, Cortina donated thousands of dollars to Snyder's campaigns.


Local reaction
Buncich's office on Friday released a statement that said services will go uninterrupted at the department.

"The Sheriff's Department is continuing to run as normal. There has been no disruption of any operations. The proud men and women of the Lake County Indiana Sheriff's Department continue to serve and protect our citizens," Buncich said.

Dan Murchek, deputy chief of police for the sheriff's department, declined to comment on the charges or the investigation. He said in his position as deputy chief he is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the sheriff's department and providing the services the public needs and that will not change.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, a former Indiana attorney general, said she has always believed a person is innocent until proven guilty. But she called the indictments a sad day from a personal standpoint, from a professional standpoint and a political standpoint. She described both Buncich and Snyder as friends.

"It shows the U.S. Attorney is not targeting one group over another," Freeman-Wilson said of the cross-party charges.

Buncich also is Lake County's Democratic Party chairman. His Republican Party counterpart, Chairman Dan Dernulc, said he was "extremely disappointed, even upset."

Dernulc said he has had a good working relationship with Buncich despite not always agreeing.

"As elected officials and appointed officials, we really have to always be above. People look up to us. This is another black eye in Lake County," Dernulc said.

Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay said the charges undermine both the hard, honest work most police officers do, and the work by outside contractors who are playing by the rules.

"I'm disappointed. It's a mark on the county. It's a mark on county government. It's unfortunate and sad. I'm mad. I'm just kind of conflicted on the whole thing. There is a range of different emotions. It is not a great day in Lake County," Repay said.

"We have a great city, and we're going to continue to move forward," Portage City Council President Mark Oprisko said. "It's a sad day for me, and I'm beside myself. In 28 years on the council, I've never dealt with anything like this, but the mayor has a very good staff, and he does care about the citizens of Portage.

"(Snyder) needs to keep his head up and keep leading."

FBI agent Jay Abbott said that when the public trust is betrayed, it erodes the trust in public institutions that people rely on.

"When these types of cases occur, it's a tragedy," Abbott said. "It's a tragedy for law enforcement, and it's a tragedy for the community."

Capp said the investigations into corruption related to towing contracts in Northwest Indiana continue and more charges are anticipated.

"You know who you are, and we know, currently, who some of you are," Capp said. "And we are coming after you. And if any of you want to try to help yourself, time is running short."

Michael Gonzalez and Carrie Napoleon are freelance reporters for the Post-Tribune. The Associated Press contributed.















Local politicians react to federal corruption indictments of Lake, Porter officials
Carrie Napoleon and Michael Gonzalez
Post-Tribune
November 19, 2016 - 4:53PM


Following a series of corruption indictments against elected leaders in Lake and Porter counties, other officials decried the situation but called for unity moving forward.

U.S. Attorney David Capp Friday announced indictments against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Timothy Downs, the sheriff's second-in-command; Portage Mayor James Snyder, William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station and John Cortina of Kustom Auto in Portage.

While the investigations in Lake and Porter counties were separate, both involved allegedly soliciting and accepting money from tow company operators. Buncich, Downs and Szarmach are named in multicount indictments alleging deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., a Democrat, said the situation is disappointing and makes the entire party look bad. Buncich is chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party.

"I feel bad for everybody involved, including the residents. It's bad for the residents. It's bad for the sheriff. It's bad for Mayor Snyder," McDermott said.


Disbelief and disappointment
Lake County politicians on Friday were reacting with stunned disbelief and disappointment as news of political corruption charges against the county's top cop and Democratic Party leader made the rounds.

McDermott said he is unsure what the sheriff plans to do regarding his role as chair of the Lake County's Democratic Central Committee, the post held by McDermott until he resigned. But, he said he thought Buncich should step down. McDermott was replaced by Buncich.

McDermott said the party has an already scheduled reorganization meeting in March when the election for the party's chairman takes place. If Buncich does step down, he would like to see vice chair Peggy Katona fill the slot until March when a new election can take place.

"Hopefully John does what's right for the party," McDermott said.

Jim Wieser, election board attorney and former officeholder, said while there are mechanisms in place in the state party's bylaws to remove a party official from a position before a conviction, any speculation on whether that may happen is premature. Buncich will have the option to resign from his post as party chair.

Wieser agreed with McDermott that given the timing of the holidays and the fact the reorganization meeting is in March, if Buncich does step down it may make sense to wait until March to elect a new leader.

Commissioner Michael Repay, D-Hammond, said he is not asking the sheriff to step down from either of his posts, but if he does step down from the party chairmanship, Repay said he would like to see a replacement selected before March.

"I'm not asking for him to step down. He has rights as an accused person. He has a right to defend himself any way he can," Repay said.

Whoever is in charge of Lake's Democratic Party has their work cut out for them in the wake of the Nov. 8 general election, and the charges against Buncich will only make it more difficult.

"The next county chair will have a lot of work to do rebuilding the reputation of the party. The next chairman would have had a lot of work. This just makes it all the more difficult. In my opinion, we should start fresh sooner rather than later," Repay said.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she is hopeful the county's Democrats can move forward as a party and as elected officials.

"It's just very unfortunate. It certainly requires us to regroup," Freeman-Wilson said. "We always know people are quick to point to Lake County as corrupt, as being a certain way. It is important in a time like this to be unified. I think we have to be focused collectively on rebuilding the party, repairing any negative damage that people may have inflicted and let folks understand that this is about individuals, not about an entire party."


City to move forward in wake of charges
Portage city officials on Friday were quick to assure citizens they had strong leadership in place, even as Snyder was indicted on federal bribery accusations and charges he tried to dodge paying payroll taxes to the IRS.

"We have a great city, and we're going to continue to move forward," City Council President Mark Oprisko said. "It's a sad day for me, and I'm beside myself. In 28 years on the council, I've never dealt with anything like this, but the mayor has a very good staff, and he does care about the citizens of Portage.

"(Snyder) needs to keep his head up and keep leading."

Snyder has declined to comment on the indictment or the 2 1/2 -year investigation leading up to the charges, but Oprisko said the mayor told him he would not be charged.

The investigation is one reason Oprisko said he blocked $93,000 in payments of legal fees to law firms that did work on Snyder's behalf during the investigation.

That determination to prevent the payments until there was more information on the legal fees is one example of Portage's leadership and another reason citizens can turn to city officials, Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham said.

"We have eight other elected officials who are leaders," Stidham said. "Portage can rest assured the city is in good hands, even with this cloud hanging over the mayor."

Portage Township Trustee Brendan Clancy, a Democrat who ran against Snyder in last year's municipal election, called for community unity in the wake of the charges.

"The mayor's innocent until proven guilty," Clancy said. "We have to let the judicial process take its course. No matter what happens, we have to come together as a city."

Snyder's indictment came after federal officials made multiple trips to Porter County government offices, as well as investigating the Portage mayor, who is a Republican.

Mike Simpson, chair of the county's Republican Party, said he was "shocked" because he's known Snyder for a long time, and "I have a great deal of respect for him."

Whether Snyder, who was re-elected to a second term as mayor last year, should step aside to focus on his legal issues remains to be seen, he said.

"It's way too early to suggest or consider something like that," Simpson said. "Any citizen, no matter their political persuasion, is innocent until proven guilty."

The county's Republican party can resolve the matter once Snyder's case has made its way through the court system, Simpson said.

"What James chooses to do, as the officer, is up to him" Simpson said. "This is extremely disconcerting no matter what, but I also believe everybody, including Buncich, deserves their day in court."

Carrie Napoleon and Michael Gonzalez are freelance reporters for the Post-Tribune. Staff reporter Craig Lyons contributed.












NW Indiana sheriff, mayor, other officials charged with bribery
November 19, 2016 - 2:38PM
Updated: November 19, 2016 - 2:42PM
WGN News - Chicago
http://wgntv.com/2016/11/19/indiana-sheriff-mayor-other-officials-charged-with-bribery/

HAMMOND, Ind. — A federal grand jury has indicted a northwestern Indiana sheriff, his top deputy and a mayor, accusing them of collecting bribes for contracts for towing and other services.

The indictments announced Friday name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and tow company owners William Szarmach of Lake Station and John Cortina of Portage.

The FBI last week raided Buncich's offices in Crown Point, Indiana, 45 miles southeast of Chicago.

Prosecutors say Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County.

Snyder is accused of receiving $12,000 from Cortina and the same unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage. He's also charged with receiving $13,000 for other city contracts or projects.













NW Indiana sheriff, mayor, other officials charged with bribery - Video
November 19, 2016 - 2:38PM
Updated: November 19, 2016 - 2:42PM
WGN News - Chicago
http://wgntv.com/2016/11/19/indiana-sheriff-mayor-other-officials-charged-with-bribery/















Portage Mayor Snyder indicted on bribery, tax charges
Joyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 548-4352    
November 19, 2016 - 1:00AM


PORTAGE — Mayor James Snyder has been indicted in federal court in Hammond on bribery and obstruction charges.

U.S. District Attorney David Capp announced the indictments in a press conference Friday morning.

While the charges were being read from the federal courthouse in Hammond, Snyder met with city department heads and employees at his home.

U.S. marshals escorted Snyder, 38, into court about 3:30 p.m. Friday. He flashed smiles at his lawyers, Thomas Kirsch and Thomas Dogan.

He pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Cherry to felony bribery, extortion and tax dodging counts, which carry long prison terms if he is convicted.

He was freed on a $20,000 recognizance bond, but has to surrender his passport and firearms he owns. When the judge asked Snyder if he has a passport, Snyder smiled and said, “We’ve been looking for it since 7 a.m.”

Snyder’s administrative assistant, Amanda Lakie, said he would not be making a statement and directed The Times to Snyder’s attorney. Lakie said Snyder met with employees to encourage them to continue their work for the city.

“Mayor James Snyder has been under investigation for nearly two and half years and today was indicted on three counts,” said Snyder’s attorney, Tom Kirsch, of Chicago. “Mayor Snyder believed that this extremely lengthy federal investigation had been concluded without charges being sought. Today’s indictment comes as a complete surprise. This is particularly so because these charges are meritless. Mayor Snyder has always been cooperative with federal agents throughout the relentless investigation. Mayor Snyder looks forward to fighting these charges in a court of law and to complete vindication. Mayor Snyder and his family are grateful for the outpouring of support they have received from residents, friends, and family and asks that they continue to believe in him through this time.”

Federal authorities arrested and arraigned John Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body, 5409 U.S. 6, Portage, earlier Friday. He is pleading not guilty to his role in the scheme and is also free on bond.

Cherry set their trial to begin the week of Jan. 23, although the date could change if the defense needs more time to prepare.

The charges
The first charge names Snyder and Cortina.

Snyder and Cortina are both charged with a violation of the federal bribery statute. Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totaling $12,000 from Cortina, in exchange for a towing contract in the city of Portage, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice. Cortina is charged with corruptly offering those checks to Snyder.

Cortina’s business was raided last week by Indiana State Police and U.S. Treasury Department agents. Cortina told The Times then that his business was not the subject of the raid, that a towing company which leases property from Cortina was being investigated.

Snyder is also charged with a second violation of the federal bribery statute. That count alleges that between Jan. 1, 2012 and Jan. 10, 2014, Snyder corruptly solicited and agreed to accept a bank check in the amount of $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and other consideration, stated the release.

The final charge against Snyder alleges obstruction of the internal revenue laws. This count sets forth an alleged scheme, undertaken by Snyder between January 2010 and April 2013, to obstruct and impede the Internal Revenue Service’s collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC. Snyder is alleged to have diverted funds away from FFTM to a sole proprietorship he created, and submitted three forms to the IRS which failed to disclose, among other things, the existence of the sole proprietorship and its bank account – all during a time when the IRS was attempting to collect the aforementioned tax debt.

Lengthy investigation
The indictment comes after more than two years of investigation by the FBI into the city and Snyder and less than two months after Snyder attempted to get the city’s Utility Service Board to pay some $93,000 in legal fees involving the investigation.

In September, Snyder had two checks cut by the department and sent to two legal firms without approval by the board. The legal firms allegedly returned the checks because they were not from Snyder directly. The funds were returned to the department and Mark Oprisko, City Council president and utility board vice chairman, called for an investigation by an independent attorney into the claims.

While state law allows Snyder to request the reimbursement it can only be done if he was cleared of the investigation and there were no impending indictments.

Reactions
Oprisko said he had the “wind knocked out of me” when he heard about the indictments and was “disheartened,” thinking that the investigation was over a couple of months ago.

“It is a black eye to the city. The investigation is what it is. He is innocent until proven guilty. He still has a job to do. He has to pick it up and move forward,” Oprisko said, adding the same is true for city employees and other elected officials. “Our job is to serve the citizens of Portage, and we will continue to do that.”

“While this is a sad day for the city of Portage, Jim Snyder deserves his day in court,” said Portage Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham. “However, I am focused on ensuring myself and the City Council continue to lead Portage forward despite the mayor’s troubles. Now, more than ever, Portage needs good leaders. We are more than any one person and the issues of one won’t derail our progress.”

“Today’s indictment issued by the United States Attorney in connection to Portage Mayor James Snyder is deeply concerning,” said Portage Councilman Collin Czilli in a written statement, promising residents that city business will continue unimpeded. “However, like any other individual, Mayor Snyder deserves his day in court and the right to defend himself. As a city Councilman, I am of the mindset that we must allow the judicial process to continue and to not interfere in that process for political purposes.”

“These investigations are not over. Our public corruption team will continue its work, particularly into the towing contracts in both Lake and Porter counties,” Capp said in the press release.

Anyone with information related to these public corruption charges is encouraged to call the FBI at (219) 769-3719.












Buncich: Still handling day-to-day operations for Lake County
NWI Times
November 18, 2016

The Lake County Sheriff's Department is still under the command of Sheriff John Buncich and his staff, a release from the department stated Friday afternoon.

Buncich and Chief Deputy Sheriff Tim Downs were charged with mail fraud, and Buncich was also charged with receiving a bribe, by federal authorities Friday.

The release stated that the administrative staff, led by Buncich, and the command staff continues to handle day-to-day operations of the Uniform Patrol, Criminal Investigations, Civil, Staff Services, and Corrections divisions.

"The Sheriff's Department is continuing to run as normal," Buncich was quoted in the release. "There has been no disruption of any operations. The proud men and women of the Lake County Indiana Sheriff's Department continue to serve and protect our citizens."
HAMMOND — A U.S. attorney indicted Lake County Sheriff John Buncich Friday on public corruption charges.

Buncich and Tim Downs, Buncich’s chief of police and second in command, are charged with wire fraud. Buncich also is charged with receiving bribes. They face prison terms of up to 20 years if convicted.

U.S. marshals arrested and escorted Buncich and Downs into a federal courtroom about 10:30 a.m. Buncich initially appeared nervous, but later regained his composure and winked at two supporters in the audience. The rest of the courtroom was filled with federal agents and media.

Buncich, 70, Downs, 65, and William “Willie” Szarmach pleaded not guilty to a five-count indictment alleging they deprived the public of honest government services. A judge magistrate ordered them to surrender their passports and personal firearms. They are free on bond.

Buncich is accused of receiving more than $30,000 in bribes from towing firms wanting work from county police. Szarmach owns and operates CSA Towing in Lake Station.

Authorities arrested Szarmach Friday in Hobart. The government asked for him to be detained pending trial, which is now set for Jan. 17, but could be delayed. Szarmach will appear in a detention hearing Tuesday.

The indictment alleges that between February 2014 and last month Buncich set in motion a scheme to enrich himself and Buncich Boosters, his political campaign committee.

The government alleges the sheriff has sole authority in Lake County to designate towing companies his officers can use to remove cars from the public streets. County records indicate that between 10 and 12 firms removed thousands of vehicles in the past two years.

The government claims Buncich accepted bribes allegedly from towing firms for cash and campaign contributions, although he didn’t record all those contributions in his campaign finance reports, as state law requires.

The government said Downs collected some of the bribes for Buncich. Sometimes Buncich is alleged to have personally grabbed the cash and put it in his pocket.

Firms that paid bribes got on the sheriff’s approved towing list and received a larger district in which they could collect large fees from people seeking to recover their towed vehicles.

The indictment lists seven bribes over the last two years, the last being $7,500 paid Sept. 2.

The government alleges bribes were paid by Szarmach and an unidentified firm, referred to in the indictment as “Individual A” that U.S. Attorney David Capp said was the whistleblower who started the multi-year investigation rolling.

Capp warned that he expects that investigation to continue and more are likely to be charged. “We are coming after you. Time is running short.”

Buncich is the county’s highest elected law enforcement official as well as the chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party.

He gave no indication he is stepping down as the county’s top cop or as party boss. Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington, who has been a sharp critic of Buncich, said Friday night he isn’t calling for Buncich’s removal at this time. “I believe the party will come together and be stronger.”












Lake County Sheriff, Portage Mayor Indicted On Public Corruption Charges
TV News
November 18, 2016


video

The U.S. Attorney's office announced public corruption indictments Friday against officials in both Lake and Porter counties in northwest Indiana.












Lake County sheriff, Portage mayor indicted on bribery charges
November 10, 2016 - 12:44PM
Updated: November 18, 2016 - 9:50PM
Fox 32 Chicago News
http://www.fox32chicago.com/news/local/216728220-story



SUN-TIMES MEDIA WIRE - Several northwest Indiana public officials, including Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder, were indicted Friday on federal bribery charges involving towing contracts.

One indictment named Buncich and his Chief Deputy Timothy Downs in connection with a scheme to exchange money for county towing contracts, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office. The indictment also named William Szarmach, owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, Indiana. They are charged with deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money.

Prosecutors allege that between February 2014 and October 2016, Downs collected multiple payments from Szarmach and the owner of another towing company in exchange for towing business in Lake County and the city of Gary. The scheme allegedly benefited Buncich personally, as well as his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters.

Buncich was also charged individually with violating a federal bribery statute, according to prosecutors. He is accused of having solicited, demanded and received more than $25,000 in cash and another $7,000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions in regard to towing contracts.

In a statement released Friday afternoon following the indictments, the sheriff’s office did not comment on the charges, saying only that Buncich and his administrative and command staff continue to oversee day-to-day operations for the department’s criminal investigations, patrol, civil, staff services, and corrections divisions.

“The Sheriff’s Department is continuing to run as normal,” Buncich said in the statement. “There has been no disruption of any operations. The proud men and women of the Lake County Indiana Sheriff’s Department continue to serve and protect our citizens.”

A second indictment was returned against Snyder and John Cortina, who owns and operates Kustom Auto Body in Portage, prosecutors said. Both men are charged with violating a federal bribery statute.

Snyder allegedly solicited and received two checks totaling $12,000 from Cortina and the owner of another towing company in exchange for towing contracts in Portage, prosecutors said. Snyder is also charged with a second bribery violation for allegedly soliciting and accepting a $13,000 bank check in January 2014 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts and a Portage Redevelopment Commission project.

The same towing company owner voluntarily came forward and cooperated with federal authorities in both investigations, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

A third charge against Snyder claims he obstructed attempts by the IRS to collect personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC, prosecutors said. He allegedly diverted funds from his company to a sole proprietorship, then submitted forms to the IRS that did not disclose the existence of the proprietorship or its bank account.

“These investigations are not over,” U.S. Attorney David Capp said in the statement. “Our public corruption team will continue its work, particularly into the towing contracts in both Lake and Porter counties.”

The investigations were conducted by the FBI and IRS with assistance from Indiana State Police.













Lake County Sheriff, Portage Mayor Indicted On Public Corruption Charges
By Diane Pathieu and Stacey Baca
Friday, November 18, 2016 - 04:57PM
ABC News- Chicago
http://abc7chicago.com/news/northwest-indiana-officials-indicted-on-public-corruption-charges-/1614075/

CROWN POINT, Ind. (WLS) -- The U.S. Attorney's office announced public corruption indictments Friday against officials in both Lake and Porter counties in northwest Indiana. 

Indictments name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and tow company owners William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station and John Cortina of Kustom Auto Body in Portage, U.S. Attorney David Capp said at a news conference.

Last week, state police assisted the FBI as they executed a search warrant at the Lake County Sheriff's office in Crown Point.




The indictment alleges that between February 2014 and October 2016, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach worked to enrich Buncich and his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters, through towing contracts.

Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000, often collected by Downs, in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County, prosecutors said. The three men face wire fraud charges, and Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

The alleged scheme unraveled when another owner of a tow truck business, known as Individual A, went to the feds.

"It's because of his efforts that we have been able to get into the inner workings of this illegal scheme," Capp said.

Individual A also helped the feds snag Portage Mayor James Snyder in a similar towing scheme, involving Kustom Auto Body in Portage. Snyder is also facing tax evasion charges.

Snyder, named in a separate indictment, is accused of receiving $12,000 from Cortina and the same unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage, located in neighboring Porter County. He's also accused of accepting $13,000 for other city contracts or projects from 2013 to 2014. He's faces a charge of obstructing tax laws for impeding the government's collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC.

Buncich, Downs, Szarmach and Cortina were all arrested and taken into custody Friday morning, Capp said. Snyder was to surrender to federal authorities later, officials said.

"To those others out there in law enforcement or in elected positions who have been engaging in conduct similar to that announced today regarding towing contracts. You know who you are and we know currently who some of them are and we are coming after you," Capp said.

Buncich is the chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party and was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015. Snyder, a Republican, was elected to his second term as mayor in 2015.

Snyder's attorney, Thomas Kirsch, issued a statement saying the mayor's indictment "comes as a complete surprise."

"Mayor Snyder looks forward to fighting these charges in a court of law and to complete vindication," the statement said.
Federal authorities said they expect more charges to follow. Anyone with information related to these public corruption charges is encouraged to call the FBI at 219-769-3719.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.













UPDATE: Portage Mayor Snyder indicted on bribery, tax charges
Joyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 548-4352  
November 18, 2016 - 3:20PM


PORTAGE — Mayor James Snyder has been indicted in federal court in Hammond on bribery and obstruction charges.

U.S. District Attorney David Capp announced the indictments in a press conference Friday morning.

While the charges were being read from the federal courthouse in Hammond, Snyder met with city department heads and employees at his home.

His administrative assistant, Amanda Lakie, said Snyder would not be making a statement and directed The Times to Snyder's attorney. Lakie said Snyder met with employees to encourage them to continue their work for the city.

"Mayor James Snyder has been under investigation for nearly two and half years and today was indicted on three counts. Mayor Snyder believed that this extremely lengthy federal investigation had been concluded without charges being sought. Today's indictment comes as a complete surprise. This is particularly so because these charges are meritless. Mayor Snyder has always been cooperative with federal agents throughout the relentless investigation. Mayor Snyder looks forward to fighting these charges in a court of law and to complete vindication. Mayor Snyder and his family are grateful for the outpouring of support they have received from residents, friends, and family and asks that they continue to believe in him through this time," said Snyder's attorney, Tom Kirsch, of Chicago. 

The charges
The first charge names Snyder and John Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body, 5409 U.S. 6, Portage.

Snyder and Cortina are both charged with a violation of the federal bribery statute.  Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totaling $12,000 from Cortina, in exchange for a towing contract in the city of Portage, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice.  Cortina is charged with corruptly offering those checks to Snyder.

Cortina's business was raided last week by Indiana State Police and U.S. Treasury Department agents. Cortina told The Times then that his business was not the subject of the raid, that a towing company which leases property from Cortina was being investigated.

Snyder is also charged with a second violation of the federal bribery statute.  That count alleges that between Jan. 1, 2012 and Jan. 10, 2014, Snyder corruptly solicited and agreed to accept a bank check in the amount of $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and other consideration, stated the release.

The final charge against Snyder alleges obstruction of the internal revenue laws. This count sets forth an alleged scheme, undertaken by Snyder between January 2010 and April 2013, to obstruct and impede the Internal Revenue Service’s collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC. Snyder is alleged to have diverted funds away from FFTM to a sole proprietorship he created, and submitted three forms to the IRS which failed to disclose, among other things, the existence of the sole proprietorship and its bank account – all during a time when the IRS was attempting to collect the aforementioned tax debt. 

The indictment comes after more than two years of investigation by the FBI into the city and Snyder and less than two months after Snyder attempted to get the city's Utility Service Board to pay some $93,000 in legal fees involving the investigation.

In September, Snyder had two checks cut by the department and sent to two legal firms without approval by the board. The legal firms allegedly returned the checks because they were not from Snyder directly. The funds were returned to the department and Mark Oprisko, City Council president and utility board vice chairman, called for an investigation by an independent attorney into the claims.

While state law allows Snyder to request the reimbursement it can only be done if he was cleared of the investigation and there were no impending indictments.

Reactions
Oprisko said he had the "wind knocked out of me" when he heard about the indictments and was "disheartened," thinking that the investigation was over a couple of months ago.

"It is a black eye to the city. The investigation is what it is. He is innocent until proven guilty. He still has a job to do. He has to pick it up and move forward," Oprisko said, adding the same is true for city employees and other elected officials. "Our job is to serve the citizens of Portage, and we will continue to do that."

"While this is a sad day for the city of Portage, Jim Snyder deserves his day in court," said Portage Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham. "However, I am focused on ensuring myself and the City Council continue to lead Portage forward despite the mayor's troubles. Now, more than ever, Portage needs good leaders. We are more than any one person and the issues of one won't derail our progress."

“These investigations are not over. Our public corruption team will continue its work, particularly into the towing contracts in both Lake and Porter counties," Capp said in the press release.

Anyone with information related to these public corruption charges is encouraged to call the FBI at (219) 769-3719.













Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Indiana Mayor James Snyder Indicted Separately on Public Corruption Charges
Posted: Fri 3:08 PM, Nov 18, 2016
WNDU News
http://www.wndu.com/content/news/Lake-County-Sheriff-John-Buncich-and-Portage-Indiana-Mayor-James-Snyder-Indicted-Separately-on-Public-Corruption-Charges-401933685.html

United States Attorney David Capp announced today in Hammond the return of two public corruption indictments; one naming Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and the other naming Portage Mayor James Snyder.

Buncich, his chief deputy Timothy Downs, and William Szarmach were named in a multi-count indictment alleging a deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money in connection with towing contracts in Lake County.

John Buncich is the Lake County Sheriff. Buncich earlier served as sheriff from 1994-2002, and was re-elected in 2010 and again in 2014. Pursuant to a Lake County ordinance, the sheriff has exclusive authority to determine what entity would do any towing as required by the sheriff’s department. Downs is the Chief in the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, the second person in command, having been appointed to that position by Buncich. Szarmach owns and operates CSA Towing, located at 2599 DeKalb Street, Lake Station, Indiana.

The indictment alleges that from February 2014 continuing into October 2016, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach devised a scheme to deprive the citizens of Lake County of their right to the honest services of the sheriff’s office and the scheme was designed to enrich Buncich personally and his campaign committee, known as Buncich Boosters.

The indictment details a number of checks and cash payments, often collected by Downs, from Szarmach and an Individual A in exchange for Buncich awarding county towing business and towing in the City of Gary for ordinance violations. Individual A is the owner of a tow truck business who voluntarily came forward and cooperated with the United States during the course of this investigation.

Buncich is also charged individually with a violation of the federal bribery statute. Specifically, Buncich is alleged to have corruptly solicited, demanded and received over $25,000 in cash and $7000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions by Buncich regarding the towing contracts.

The second indictment names Portage Mayor James Snyder and John Cortina. Snyder was first elected as mayor in 2011 and was re-elected to a second four-year term in 2015. Cortina owns and operates a towing business, Kustom Auto Body, 5409 US Highway 6 in Portage.
Snyder and Cortina are both charged with a violation of the federal bribery statute. Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totaling $12000 from Cortina and Individual A (same individual above), in exchange for a towing contract in the City of Portage. Cortina is charged with corruptly offering those checks to Snyder.

Snyder is also charged with a second violation of the federal bribery statute. That count alleges that between January 1, 2012 and January 10, 2014, Snyder corruptly solicited and agreed to accept a bank check in the amount of $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and other consideration.

The final charge against Snyder alleges obstruction of the internal revenue laws. This count sets forth an alleged scheme, undertaken by Snyder between January 2010 and April 2013, to obstruct and impede the IRS’s collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage, LLC. Snyder is alleged to have diverted funds away from FFTM to a sole proprietorship he created, and submitted three forms to the IRS which failed to disclose, among other things, the existence of the sole proprietorship and its bank account – all during a time when the IRS was attempting to collect the aforementioned tax debt.

United States Attorney Capp stated, “These investigations are not over. Our public corruption team will continue its work, particularly into the towing contracts in both Lake and Porter counties.”

Anyone with information related to these public corruption charges is encouraged to call the FBI at 219-769-3719.

The United States Attorney's Office emphasized that an Indictment is merely an allegation and that all persons charged are presumed innocent until, and unless, proven guilty in court.

If convicted in court, any specific sentence to be imposed will be determined by the judge after a consideration of federal sentencing statutes and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

These indictments were the result of an extensive, ongoing investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation Division.

Assistance was provided throughout by the Indiana State Police. These indictments will be handled in the United States Attorney’s Office by Assistant United States Attorneys Philip C. Benson, Gary T. Bell and Jill R. Koster.













Lake County sheriff, Portage mayor accused of taking bribes for towing contracts
November 18, 2016 - 1:30PM
FOX 59 News
http://fox59.com/2016/11/18/lake-county-sheriff-portage-mayor-accused-of-taking-bribes-for-towing-contracts/


HAMMOND, Ind. – The sheriff of Lake County and mayor of Portage were indicted Friday on public corruption charges in connection with a towing and bribery scheme.

Federal prosecutors said the indictments were returned against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder. Timothy Downs—Buncich’s chief deputy—and William Szarmach, who owns a company called CSA Towing, were also named in Buncich’s multi-count indictment. John Cortina, the owner of a towing business, was named in Snyder’s indictment.

The indictment involving Buncich alleges deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money. Snyder’s indictment alleges a violation of the federal bribery statute.

Buncich is also charged individually with violating the federal bribery statute. He, Downs and Szarmach are accused of using towing contracts to enrich Buncich and his campaign committee, which was called “Buncich Boosters.”

The indictment said Buncich and Downs collected cash and check payments from Szarmach and another individual in exchange for the awarding of towing contracts in Lake County and Gary. The second individual came forward to report the practice, prosecutors said.

Buncich, in a position of power as county sheriff, demanded more than $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks for the contracts, prosecutors said.

The FBI and Indiana State Police raided his office and home last week.

Snyder, the mayor of Portage, is accused of accepting $12,000 from Cortina and the aforementioned whistleblower in exchange for favorable towing contracts in Portage. Cortina owns and operates Kustom Auto Body.

Snyder is accused of a second violation of the bribery statute. Between Jan. 2012 and Jan. 2014, he allegedly solicited and accepted $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and other consideration.

Snyder is also accused of impeding the Internal Revenue Service from collecting personal taxes and payroll taxes from his mortgage business.

Federal prosecutors said the investigations aren’t over yet and that towing contracts in Lake and Porter counties would be further scrutinized.












Northwest Indiana sheriff, mayor indicted in alleged bribery scheme
November 18, 2016 - 1:00PM
Updated: November 18, 2016 - 1:21PM
Julian Crews and Bob Kissinger
WGN News - Chicago
http://wgntv.com/2016/11/18/nw-indiana-sheriff-mayor-indicted-in-alleged-bribery-scheme/
Portage Mayor James Snyder leaving Hammond Federal Courthouse

HAMMOND, Ind. -- The sheriff of Lake County, Ind., along with his top deputy and a mayor have been indicted on charges of collecting bribes for contracts for towing and other services.

The indictments announced Friday name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and tow company owners William Szarmach of Lake Station and John Cortina of Portage.

The FBI raided Buncich's offices in Crown Point, Ind. last week.

Prosecutors say Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County.

Snyder is accused of receiving $12,000 from Cortina and the same unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage. He's also charged with receiving $13,000 for other city contracts or projects.

Snyder is expected to turn himself in to authorities Friday afternoon. Neither Snyder or Buncich have commented on the indictments.













Northwest Indiana sheriff, mayor indicted in alleged bribery scheme
November 18, 2016 - 1:00PM
Julian Crews and Bill Kissinger
WGN TV News


HAMMOND, Ind. -- The sheriff of Lake County, Ind., along with his top deputy and a mayor have been indicted on charges of collecting bribes for contracts for towing and other services.

The indictments announced Friday name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and tow company owners William Szarmach of Lake Station and John Cortina of Portage.

The FBI raided Buncich's offices in Crown Point, Ind. last week.

Prosecutors say Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County.

Snyder is accused of receiving $12,000 from Cortina and the same unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage. He's also charged with receiving $13,000 for other city contracts or projects.

Snyder is expected to turn himself in to authorities Friday afternoon. Neither Snyder or Buncich have commented on the indictments.













Lake sheriff, Portage mayor indicted on corruption charges: Feds
Craig Lyons
Post-Tribune
November 18, 2016 - 1:00 PM


Federal authorities Friday leveled a series of corruption charges against several Northwest Indiana officials.

U.S. Attorney David Capp announced indictments against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Timothy Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder, William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Gary and John Kortina of Kustom Auto in Portage.

While the investigations in Lake and Porter counties were separate, both involved allegedly soliciting and accepting money from tow company operators.

"This is a sad day for the citizens of Northwest Indiana," Capp said.


Buncich, Downs and Szarmach are named in multi-count indictments alleging deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money.

Among the charges the U.S. attorney leveled against Buncich are federal bribery, alleging the county's top police officals solicited, demanded and received more than $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks from the towing contracts.

Snyder and Kortina were charged with allegedly violating a federal bribery statue. Snyder received an additional bribery indictment for alleged accepting $13,000 in connection with a Board of Works Contract, and allegedly obstructing internal revenue laws.

Buncich, Downs, Szarmach and Kortina were all arrested and taken into custody Friday morning, according to Capp. Snyder will surrender to federal authorities later, officials said.

Buncich is the chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party and was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015. Snyder, a Republican, was elected to his second term as mayor in 2015.

Federal agents were investigating a possible "receipt of a bribe by an agent of a local government receiving federal funds," "mail/wire fraud," "conspiracy to commit mail/wire fraud," and "Hobbs Act extortion under the Color of State Authority," according to a search warrant served in lake County Nov. 10.

On Nov. 10, FBI officials served search warrants at the Lake County Sheriff's Department and E-911 Department. Authorities sought information related to towing operations run through the county.

Federal agents sought records related towing operations for the last 6 years, according to a search warrant filed with the E-911 department. Information sought from the department included maps, tow logs, a list of tow companies, phone and dispatch call data for police and tow companies, emails from any sheriff's department personnel related to Lake County towing and dispatcher work schedules.

The Sheriff's Department has yet to make the search warrant served on the office public. The Post-Tribune has filed a freedom of information request for the document.

Capp said the investigations into corruption related to towing contracts in Northwest Indiana continue and more charges are anticipated.

"We know who you are. We know currently who some of you are," Capp said. "We are coming after you."













Portage Mayor, Lake County Sheriff Indicted For Corruption
November 18, 2016 12:05 PM
CBS - Chicago



CHICAGO (CBS) — Portage Mayor James Snyder and Lake County Sheriff John Buncich have been indicted on public corruption charges in connection to towing companies in northwest Indiana.


In indictments announced Friday, federal prosecutors allege Buncich and his chief deputy Timothy Downs schemed to award towing business in Lake County and the city of Gary to CSA Towing in Lake Station, in exchange for bribes to Buncich.

The indictment alleges Buncich received more than $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks for directing towing business to CSA and another unnamed towing business. Downs allegedly acted as the bag man for Buncich.

Last week, the FBI raided Buncich’s home and office, but U.S. Atty. David Capp said the indictments were the result of a multi-year investigation that started when a towing company owner came forward with corruption allegations.

A second indictment accuses Snyder of accepting two checks totaling $12,000 from and Kustom Auto Body owner John Cortina and another towing company owner in exchange for a towing contract with the city of Portage. Snyder also allegedly accepted a check for $13,000 in connection to Portage Board of Works contracts.

“Today is a sad day for the citizens of northwest Indiana, and it is a particularly sad day for all of us in law enforcement,” Capp said.

The feds said the same towing company owner who came forward in Buncich’s case also was cooperating in the case against Snyder. Capp said the owner, identified in both indictments only as Individual A, has paid bribes, and then went to the FBI, starting the investigation.

“This individual voluntarily came forward and offered to work with us, and it’s because of his efforts that we have been able to get into the inner workings of this illegal scheme,” Capp said.

Prosecutors said the investigation does not end with the charges announced Friday, and Capp said there would be more indictments.

“To those others out there in law enforcement, or in elected positions, who have been engaging in conduct similar to that announced today, we are coming after you. Time is running short,” Capp said.











Lake County Sheriff, Portage Mayor Indicted 
November 18, 2016 - 11:30AM
ABC News - Chicago
video

LAKE COUNTY SHERIFF, PORTAGE MAYOR INDICTED ON PUBLIC CORRUPTION CHARGES
The U.S. Attorney's office announced public corruption indictments Friday against officials in both Lake and Porter counties in northwest Indiana.

Last week, state police assisted the FBI as they executed a search warrant at the Lake County Sheriff's office in Crown Point.

On Friday, authorities charged Lake County Sheriff John Buncich with four counts of wire fraud and receiving bribes. Timothy Downs, chief deputy at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, was also charged with three counts of wire fraud and one count of receiving a bribe. Portage Mayor James Schneider is also facing charges of bribery and obstruction of tax laws.

The officials are accused of taking money from local towing companies in exchange for contracts. Buncich is alleged to have corruptly solicited, demanded and received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions by Buncich regarding the towing contracts.

Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totaling $12,000 in exchange for a towing contract in the City of Portage. Authorities said Snyder also corruptly solicited and agreed to accept a bank check in the amount of $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts and other considerations.

"To those others out there in law enforcement or in elected positions who have been engaging in conduct similar to that announced today regarding towing contracts. You know who you are and we know currently who some of them are and we are coming after you," said David Capp, U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Indiana.

If convicted on all of the charges, Buncich and Downs could face a maximum of 30 years in prison. Both pleaded not guilty and were released.

Buncich and Downs are due back in court on January 17. Federal authorities said they expect more charges to follow.











Buncich Behind Bars, Portage Mayor Snyder to Surrender Later Today
NWI Gazette
November 18, 2016
http://nwigazette.com/2016/11/buncich-behind-bars/

At a press conference this morning United States Attorney David Capp confirmed that Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Chief of Police Timothy Downs were both arrested earlier today.

Additionally, Portage Mayor James Snyder has been indicted and is scheduled to surrender later today.   William Szarrmach, owner of CSA Towing,  was also arrested.  John Cortina, owner of Kustom Towing in Portage, was also indicted and is scheduled to surrender later today. US Attorney David Capp declined to comment on why Buncich, Downs and Szarmach were arrested while Snyder and Cortina were allowed to surrender.  Mr. Capp did say that his office had conversations with attorneys for Snyder and Cortina regarding their surrender.

UPDATE: Sheriff Buncich and Chief Tim Downs were arraigned and released earlier today.  Sheriff Buncich issued a statement saying
"The Sheriff's Department is continuing to run as normal.
There has been no disruption of any operations. The proud men and women of the Lake
County Indiana Sheriff's Department continue to serve and protect our citizens."

The indictments against Buncich, Downs and Szarmach are not available at this time.  The US Attorney’s office held a press conference outlining a scheme of pay-to-play regarding payments made from towing contractors to Downs and Buncich.  “The indictment details a number of checks and cash payments, often collected by Downs, from Szarmach and an Individual A in exchange for Buncich awarding county towing business and towing in the City of Gary for ordinance violations.

Individual A is the owner of a tow truck business who voluntarily came forward and cooperated with the United States during the course of this investigation” according to a written release provided by Capp. “Buncich is alleged to have corruptly solicited, and received, over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions by Buncich regarding towing contracts” the statement continues.

The Indictment of Mayor James Snydert contains three allegations. “Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totalling $12,000 from Cortina and Individual A, in exchange for towing contracts with the City of Portage” according to Capp. “Snyder is also charged with a second violation of the federal bribery statute. That count alleges that between January 1, 2012 and January 10, 2014, Snyer corruptly solicited and agreed to accept a public bank check in the amount of $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and other consideration.” Finally, Snyer is charged with engaging in “an alleged scheme, . . . between January, 2010 and April 2013, to obstruct and impede the IRS’s collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust, LLC (FFTM). Snyder is alleged to have diverted funds away from FFTM to a sole proprietorship he created” according to the statement.

United States Attorney David Capp stressed that this investigation is ongoing and more indictments will come. Mr. Capp urged any citizen with information regarding public corruption to contact the FBI at 219-769-3719 or his office directly at 937-5601.

A criminal charge is not evidence of guilt.  All criminal defendants are presumed innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law.












FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Indiana Mayor James Snyder Indicted Separately on Public Corruption Charges
The United States Attorney's Office - Northern District Of Indiana
United States Attorney David Capp
Friday, November 18, 2016
HAMMOND – United States Attorney David Capp announced today the return of two public corruption indictments; one naming Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and the other naming Portage Mayor James Snyder.

Buncich, his chief deputy Timothy Downs, and William Szarmach were named in a multi-count indictment alleging a deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money in connection with towing contracts in Lake County.

John Buncich is the Lake County Sheriff.  Buncich earlier served as sheriff from 1994-2002, and was re-elected in 2010 and again in 2014.   Pursuant to a Lake County ordinance, the sheriff has exclusive authority to determine what entity would do any towing as required by the sheriff’s department.  Downs is the Chief in the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, the second person in command, having been appointed to that position by Buncich.  Szarmach owns and operates CSA Towing, located at 2599 DeKalb Street, Lake Station, Indiana.

The indictment alleges that from February 2014 continuing into October 2016, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach devised a scheme to deprive the citizens of Lake County of their right to the honest services of the sheriff’s office.  The scheme was designed to enrich Buncich personally and his campaign committee, known as Buncich Boosters.  The indictment details a number of checks and cash payments, often collected by Downs, from Szarmach and an Individual A in exchange for Buncich awarding county towing business and towing in the City of Gary for ordinance violations.  Individual A is the owner of a tow truck business who voluntarily came forward and cooperated with the United States during the course of this investigation.

Buncich is also charged individually with a violation of the federal bribery statute.  Specifically, Buncich is alleged to have corruptly solicited, demanded and received over $25,000 in cash and $7000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions by Buncich regarding the towing contracts.

The second indictment names Portage Mayor James Snyder and John Cortina.  Snyder was first elected as mayor in 2011 and was re-elected to a second four-year term in 2015.  Cortina owns and operates a towing business, Kustom Auto Body, 5409 US Highway 6 in Portage.

Snyder and Cortina are both charged with a violation of the federal bribery statute.  Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totaling $12000 from Cortina and Individual A (same individual above), in exchange for a towing contract in the City of Portage.  Cortina is charged with corruptly offering those checks to Snyder.

Snyder is also charged with a second violation of the federal bribery statute.  That count alleges that between January 1, 2012 and January 10, 2014, Snyder corruptly solicited and agreed to accept a bank check in the amount of $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and other consideration.

The final charge against Snyder alleges obstruction of the internal revenue laws.  This count sets forth an alleged scheme, undertaken by Snyder between January 2010 and April 2013, to obstruct and impede the IRS’s collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage, LLC.  Snyder is alleged to have diverted funds away from FFTM to a sole proprietorship he created, and submitted three forms to the IRS which failed to disclose, among other things, the existence of the sole proprietorship and its bank account – all during a time when the IRS was attempting to collect the aforementioned tax debt.

United States Attorney Capp stated, “These investigations are not over.  Our public corruption team will continue its work, particularly into the towing contracts in both Lake and Porter counties.”

Anyone with information related to these public corruption charges is encouraged to call the FBI at 219-769-3719.

The United States Attorney's Office emphasized that an Indictment is merely an allegation and that all persons charged are presumed innocent until, and unless, proven guilty in court.

If convicted in court, any specific sentence to be imposed will be determined by the judge after a consideration of federal sentencing statutes and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

These indictments were the result of an extensive, ongoing investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation Division.  Assistance was provided throughout by the Indiana State Police.  These indictments will be handled in the United States Attorney’s Office by Assistant United States Attorneys Philip C. Benson, Gary T. Bell and Jill R. Koster.















SOURCE: Sheriff, One Other to be Indicted Tomorrow
Ken Davidson
Northwest Indiana Gazette
11172016
http://nwigazette.com/2016/11/source-sheriff-one-indicted-tomorrow/


November 17, 2016-During Operation Bar Tab and Operation Lights Out, “Federal Friday” sent chills down the spines of Lake County Politicians on a regular basis. The term was used in political circles after several high profile cases were announced on a Friday afternoon. The Gazette has received credible information that two indictments will be handed down tomorrow, November 18, 2016. “The Sheriff will be one of them” our source told us. The Source also said that Sheriff Buncich will be asked to step down as Sheriff. Charges are rumored to center around towing contracts and payments related to those contracts. The Gazette cautions that information from sources is never 100% accurate and no one can know for certain what is going to happen tomorrow. Thus, we print this with the express caveat that it could be wrong.

The home and office of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich was raided a week ago today. Additionally, FBI and US Treasury Agents raided CSA Towing in Lake Station and Samson Towing in Portage. Both Samson and CSA tow for the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. Agents also requested records from Lake County 9-1-1 and the Lake County Board of Elections and Voter Registration.

Friday after the raid was a holiday, but Sheriff Buncich returned to work on Monday. The Sheriff issued an official statement that his office was cooperating with Federal agents conducting the investigation. It is not known if the FBI received records responsive to the supboenas from Lake County 911 or the Election Board. In past cases, the time frame between a raid and an indictment has been as long as a year and a half. The office of Lake County Surveyor George Van Til was raided in June, 2012 and he was indicted in December, 2013. The office of Calumet Township Assessor Mary Elgin was raided in March, 2014 and she was indicted in December, 2014.

Buncich is also Chair of the Lake County Democratic Party.












MARC CHASE: Roving FBI billboard advertises Region shame
Marc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330  
Updated Nov 14, 2016  



It's grown as commonplace as the smut billboards on Interstate 80/94, and it's even more distasteful to our Region.

Only this billboard roves Northwest Indiana on four wheels, frequently advertising shame outside of local government offices.

These thoughts came to mind Thursday as I stood about 20 yards away from a large, white evidence truck colorfully emblazoned with the words "Federal Bureau of Investigation Indiana,” outside the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.

The size of the truck and lettering really do combine in a sensational billboard whenever the FBI raids Region government offices.

The truck has become a common, unfortunate sight in these parts.

This time, federal agents served search warrants Thursday at the Lake County sheriff's office, county voter registration and Lake County E-911 offices.

Sources inside the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point tell us the warrants pertain, in part, to irregularities surrounding business dealings between the sheriff and towing companies.

The investigation appears to be in its early stages, and we've seen no criminal charges or indictments relating to the case yet.

But we also know that the site of the big white FBI truck, more times than not, leads to such charges of public officials in our Region.

In recent years, we've seen it parked outside the Calumet Township Trustee's office and Lake Station City Hall.

Former Trustee Mary Elgin now faces a criminal trial on felony charges she intimidated employees into giving campaign donations. In an unrelated case, former Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist and his wife were convicted in Hammond federal court of stealing from a city food pantry and Soderquist's campaign fund to finance gambling excursions.

Public corruption — and in turn, the big white truck — have become so commonplace in Northwest Indiana that folks in the community regularly question, "What's new about that?" when we detail the cases in our newspaper.

Some ask the question in jest, others in all seriousness.

Seeing the truck isn't all negative. It means the FBI and our Hammond-based U.S. attorney continue to hold the feet of Region political corruption to the fires of justice.

But we must be mindful not to blindly accept the types of political culture that lead to the big white truck visiting our centers of government.

Many of us travel Interstate 80/94 every day, passing the lewd billboards advertising "gentlemen" clubs that aren't really there to attract gentlemen.

It becomes something we grow familiar with — something many of us don't even notice.

Outsiders and newcomers notice the billboards, though. This likely hatches a combination of jokes and a public image that doesn't match all the positive things happening in our Region — things like great schools, trails and family activities.

In many ways, Region public corruption represents a similar shroud obscuring our Region’s bright spots.

We all should be tired of the observations of people within and outside of our borders who believe corruption and Northwest Indiana are synonymous.

We can't be numb to it, and we can't allow it to overshadow our Region's good works.

Certainly the FBI could use its roving billboard truck for something other than advertising Region shame. Residents voting at the polls, shouting displeasure and demanding answers at public meetings, rather than accepting Region corruption as inevitable, would be a good start.












Search warrant offers insight into federal probe in Lake County
Carrie Napoleon
Post-Tribune
November 14, 2016 - 7:10PM


Investigators who seized records from Lake County offices last week were gathering evidence as part of a federal probe into a possible bribery scheme involving an unidentified local government official, according to a federal search warrant obtained by the Post-Tribune.

Federal agents were investigating a possible "receipt of a bribe by an agent of a local government receiving federal funds," "mail/wire fraud," "conspiracy to commit mail/wire fraud," and "Hobbs Act extortion under the Color of State Authority," according to the search warrant. It was unclear the identity of the local government official under federal scrutiny.

Nevertheless, investigators who seized records from Lake County offices last week were looking for records relating to the county's towing operations over the last six years, the search warrant said. The search warrant, which was delivered to the county's E-911 department on Thursday, also sought maps, towing logs, a list of tow companies, phone and dispatch call data for police and tow companies, emails from any sheriff's department personnel related to Lake County towing and dispatcher work schedules.

FBI and Indiana State Police officers first visited the Lake County Sheriff's department Thursday before moving over to the main county complex. Ryan Holmes, of the U.S. Department of Justice, confirmed last week that a federal search warrant was served in the vicinity of the Lake County Government Center. Holmes declined to elaborate.

"The Lake County Sheriff's Department is cooperating with our federal law enforcement partners, fully assisting the FBI with their inquiry," the sheriff's department said in a statement last week. "Regular Sheriff's Department operations are continuing. We assure the citizens of Lake County that their safety remains our top priority."

Sheriff John Buncich did not return calls seeking comment.

After starting at the Sheriff's Department, federal and state authorities moved into the administrative building, at the same time as a Veterans Day ceremony was winding down. Officials stopped by the Board of Elections and Voter Registration, the E-911 office, auditor's office, data processing and the County Commissioners.

"There's more questions than answers," Lake County Commissioner Michael Repay, D-Hammond, said Monday.

Jim Wieser, Lake County election board attorney, confirmed last week that the office was served a subpoena seeking records but did not disclose what records were requested.












FBI looking for evidence of Lake towing bribery
Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328  
November 14, 2016

CROWN POINT — State and federal agents are looking for evidence of bribery, extortion and fraudulent denial of honest government services in connection with car towing ordered by the Lake County Sheriff's Department.

The Times has obtained a copy of a federal search warrant served Thursday on the Lake County E-911 offices demanding telephone, radio and email data as well as paper documents, including a list of towing firms authorized by county government to tow cars and documents tracking their activity.

State police and FBI agents raided the Lake County Sheriff's Department and descended on Sheriff John Buncich's Crown Point home Thursday before leaving with several boxes of documents from the entrance of the sheriff's office building.

Federal agents also raided a Portage business site, whose owner said was connected to a Merrillville-based towing firm.

Agents served a subpoena seeking documents from the Lake County Voter Registration and Elections Department, which tracks campaign contributions and spending for all candidates for county, township and municipal offices.

They served a search warrant on the E-911 office, which coordinates communications among the public, the county sheriff and 15 municipal police, fire and emergency medical service providers.

The E-911 warrant states the government is looking only for towing data. Lake County elected officials and their lawyers said they are cooperating with federal authorities.

Federal authorities petitioned a federal magistrate Nov. 9 to authorize the E-911 search warrant.

They sought authorization to seize evidence of crimes involving receipt of bribes by an agent of local government, mail or wire fraud of honest services, conspiracy to commit mail or wire fraud, and honest services mail/wire fraud and extortion by state authorities.

The crimes listed could result in felony convictions and long prison sentences.

The warrant identifies what is to be seized as: Data and information contained in the computers and all storage media used by the Lake County E-911 Dispatch Center relating only to Lake County towing from the time period of 2010 to present.

The year 2010 was the last year in office for former Sheriff Roy Dominguez. Sheriff John Buncich has been serving as sheriff since 2011.

County government was in the midst of a financial crisis, because the 2008 recession and state-mandated property tax cuts had cut county government revenues to the point it was prepared to lay off 10 county police officers.

Buncich asked the County Council in 2012 to raise to $75 from $20 the fee the county charges each time a county police officer calls for a towing firm to remove a car on public streets. Buncich said he would use the revenue from those fees to support the endangered officers' salaries and benefits.

Buncich said then he would become more aggressive in towing disabled cars as well as vehicles belonging to targets of his department's gang and drug task forces.

The county collected $220,000 in towing fees last year and $164,000 this year to date from the thousands of cars towed.












Portage mayor's legal fees turned over to outside attorney
Joyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2222
November 11, 2016
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/portage-mayor-s-legal-fees-turned-over-to-outside-attorney/article_80d727f4-8c32-5f98-a8e5-d125e6138e3b.html

PORTAGE — Mayor James Snyder’s $93,000 in legal fees will be turned over to an outside, independent attorney for review and investigation.

Utility Services Board Vice Chairman Mark Oprisko said this week he had hired John Hughes of Hoeppner Wagner & Evans in Valparaiso to review Snyder’s legal fees associated with a more than 2-year-old federal investigation. However, Oprisko said after spending an hour and a half with Hughes on Thursday, Hughes decided it would not be in his law firm’s best interest to take on the issue, Oprisko said.

Oprisko said he would move forward, seeking another attorney for the job.

Oprisko, also president of the City Council, said after last month’s controversy he spoke with City Council and Utility Services Board members and felt this is the right way to go. Snyder chairs the board.

Snyder, who has been under investigation by the FBI, had two checks cut by the utility department on Sept. 26, totaling more than $93,000 to pay his two attorneys representing him during the investigation. The checks initially were sent to the firms without board approval. The money was returned to the utility department after the firms said they couldn’t collect payment from the utility department because it was not their client.

The request for reimbursement for the legal fees is legal under Indiana law, but only “if a grand jury fails to indict the officer or employees and the acts investigated by the grand jury were within the scope of official duties of the officer or employee.”

Snyder’s request for reimbursement would indicate the federal investigation is over.

Oprisko, who was on vacation and out of the country at the time, asked the matter be tabled upon further investigation.

Oprisko said he has no guarantee that the investigation is over and if the funds are reimbursed to Snyder and Snyder is indicted, the utility department will have lost the money.

He also said he’s uncertain if the entire investigation has to do with Snyder’s role as board chairman. The investigation began over Snyder using a utility department credit card to take a trip to Austria that he said was for economic development. However, it spread beyond to include the street department and purchasing of garbage trucks.

Snyder said before Wednesday’s Utility Board meeting that he had no intention of submitting the claims to the board a second time until the review was completed. Even then, he added, he may not submit the claims.

“This is the right, the fair thing to do,” said Oprisko about reviewing the claims. “I till have an obligation to anyone sitting on this board to find out what is correct and legal.”

Oprisko said he will share what information he receives with the board and council.














FBI raids Lake sheriff department
Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328
November 11, 2016 - 11:20AM
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/crime-and-court/fbi-raids-lake-sheriff-department/article_677e5038-f0f5-5da3-85da-0222e1f28c3a.html
CROWN POINT — FBI and Indiana State Police were raiding the Lake County Government Center early Thursday.

A number of FBI agents and state police investigators entered the sheriff's offices at the Lake County Government Center, 2293 N. Main St., about 9:30 a.m.

Ryan Holmes, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office, said federal authorities were serving search warrants on the county sheriff early today. He declined to comment on what documents are being sought or who is being targeted.

Dean Delisle told The Times he was in the Sheriff's Bureau of Identification, where police records are held, to obtain a copy of an accident report when agents and state police walked into that office and ordered everybody, including the sheriff's employees, to leave the building.

"They were taking pictures of everything," Delisle said. He said sheriff's employees appeared upset as they were preparing to leave.

A source within county government said federal agents and state police entered the building with dollies, which can be used to move large quantities of documents and equipment. A source said all employees in the building were ordered to leave the building.

A source within county government said federal agents then fanned out to the Lake County Voter Registration and Election offices, where vote totals are kept, the Lake County E-911 offices and other departments within the administration building.

The Lake County Jail, where the sheriff has offices, has been under a U.S. Department of Justice mandate for the last eight years for failing to meet federal healthcare standards for inmates.

Sheriff John Buncich couldn't be reached for comment.










FBI Raids Sheriff’s House, Office, Contractors
November 10, 2016
NW Indiana Gazette
http://nwigazette.com/2016/11/fbi-raids-sheriffs-house-office-contractors/

Federal Agents and State Police swarmed the home and offices of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich early today. Agents also raided at least one and as many as three towing contractors. The Gazette first received reports of the incident at approximately 9:00 a.m. when an FBI Van and several marked Indiana State Police cars pulled up in front of the Jail wing of the Lake County Government Center. Sources close to the investigation stated that agents came into the building and asked everyone to leave except the Sheriff’s bookkeeper Melanie Dillon. Agents removed records from the office of the Bookkeeper after spending several hours inside. FBI Agents also raided the home of Sheriff John Buncich and the home of at least one towing contractor. Additionally, Agents went to the Lake County Board of Elections and Voter Registration and the Data Processing Department within the Government Center.

Sources said at least three towing contractors were also visited by agents. CSA Towing in Lake Station, Samson Towing in Merrillville and Gary, and Kustom Towing in Portage were all reportedly visited by FBI Agents today. At least one of the homes of the owners of the above businesses was also visited. When asked if the FBI visited, an employee of Samson Towing replied “no comment.”

It is important to remember that a criminal investigation does not imply wrongdoing. FBI Agents have seized records many times and those seizures of records do not always result in criminal charges being brought.

Sheriff John Buncich issued a statement which read “The Lake County Sheriff’s Department is cooperating with our Federal law enforcement partners, fully assisting the FBI with their inquiry. Regular Sheriff’s Department operations are continuing. We assure the citizens of Lake County that their safety remains our top priority.”

We will keep you updated with any additional details, please Like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter for all the latest.














Raid at the Lake County Sheriff's department
WJOB1230
Ron Harlow
November 10, 2016
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5YeZo080dg











FBI raids Lake County Ind. Sheriff’s office
November 10, 2016 - 4:38PM
WGN TV


PORTAGE, Ind. -- The FBI raided the Lake County Sheriff's office today. Insiders say the agents are investigating corruption charges.

Federal agents and Indiana State Troopers are seen leaving the Lake County Sheriff's Department.

Some carried  boxes and bags seized in the raid that began about 9 a.m. today and involves additional departments within county government as well.

Federal authorities confirm to WGN News they were on county property executing search warrants.

Also today, agents were seen leaving the nearby home of Sheriff John Buncich.

Buncich is a career law-enforcement officer and has been elected several times, the most recent in November of 2014.

According to published reports, the investigation centers around allegations of bribery concerning the contracts of towing companies and campaign donations.

A department spokesman issued a statement in response to the investigation saying:

The Lake County Sheriff's Department is cooperating with our Federal law enforcement partners, fully assisting the FBI with their inquiry. Regular Sheriff's Department operations are continuing. We assure the citizens of Lake County that their safety remains our top priority.












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UPDATE: FBI raids Lake County sheriff's offices; searches may have Porter ties
Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328
November 10, 2016 - 8:30PM
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/crime-and-court/fbi-raids-lake-sheriff-department/article_677e5038-f0f5-5da3-85da-0222e1f28c3a.html

video






CROWN POINT — The FBI and Indiana State Police raided the Lake County Sheriff's Department and were parked outside the sheriff's home early Thursday.

A number of FBI agents and state police investigators entered the offices of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich at the Lake County Government Center, 2293 N. Main St., about 9:30 a.m.

They left early Thursday afternoon with several boxes of documents they loaded into an FBI panel truck.

Indiana State Police and federal investigators' cars, both marked and unmarked, were parked late Thursday morning outside Buncich's Crown Point home. FBI Special Agent Bob Ramsey, who appeared outside the sheriff's home, declined to comment further.

Ramsey and Ryan Holmes, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said federal authorities were serving search warrants on the county sheriff. Holmes declined to comment on what documents are being sought or who is being targeted.

Sources within county government said investigators were looking into rumors of bribery involving towing vendors and police, and were looking for towing contracts and campaign finance reports.

Simultaneous raid
At the same time that federal agents were raiding the Lake County sheriff’s office, several members of the Indiana State Police and the U.S. Department of Treasury shut down Kustom Auto Body, 5409 U.S. 6, Portage, in an apparent raid Thursday morning.

John Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body, said his business was not the target of Thursday morning's raid.

Cortina said the agents were seeking information on Sampson Towing, a Merrillville-based business that leases storage space in his back lot.

Police vehicles blocked the entrance to the business. Police could be seen going in and out of the building. The treasury agent referred all questions to a department spokesperson, who did not return calls. 

FBI order all to leave building
In Lake County, Dean Delisle told The Times he was in the Sheriff's Bureau of Identification, where police records are held, to obtain a copy of an accident report when agents and state police walked into that office and ordered everybody, including the sheriff's employees, to leave.

"They were taking pictures of everything," Delisle said. He said sheriff's employees appeared upset as they were preparing to leave.

A source within county government said 38 federal and state agents were inside the Lake County Sheriff's Department. Another source said all employees in the sheriff's office building were ordered to leave.

Federal agents then fanned out to the Lake County Voter Registration and Election offices, where campaign finance records are kept, and the Lake County E-911 offices, which keeps records of police radio communications, to serve subpoenas for documents.

Buncich's campaign finance reports indicate he received more than $9,000 in contributions in 2014 and 2015 from several towing and auto firms in Crown Point, Gary, Highland, Hobart, Merrillville, St. John and Whiting.

The elections board office and E-911 offices were allowed to remain open and continue operating.

Mark Back, a spokesman for the sheriff issued a statement 2:43 p.m. Thursday, which said: "The Lake County Sheriff's Department is cooperating with our federal law enforcement partners and fully assisting the FBI with their inquiry. Regular Sheriff's Department operations are continuing. We assure the citizens of Lake County that their safety remains our top priority. There was no interruption of police duties."

Back said the sheriff's department continued to function through the day. "Employees were asked to at least step away from their desks while the FBI were completing their inquiry and look for whatever they were looking for," Back said.

As to what the FBI was looking for or removed from the sheriff's department, "You would have to ask the FBI," Back said. He said Buncich was continuing to perform his duties as sheriff.

Buncich could not be reached for comment and was not seen Thursday outside his home.

The county sheriff's department has had agreements with as many as eight towing firms who police use to remove abandoned cars from accident and arrest scenes.










Warrants served at Lake County government offices
November 10, 2016 - 11:58AM
Post Tribune
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-fbi-visit-st-1111-20161110-story.html

FBI officials Thursday morning visited a string of Lake County offices.

FBI and Indiana State Police officers first visited the Lake County Sheriff's department before moving over to the main county complex. Officials stopped by the 911 office, auditor's office, data process and the County Commissioners.

Ryan Holmes, of the U.S. Department of Justice, confirmed that a federal search warrant was served in the vicinity of the Lake County Government Center. Holmes could not discuss the case any further.

An FBI official at the courthouse was unable to comment on why federal officials were visiting the offices.

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich did not respond to a call for comment Thursday morning.













BREAKING: Mayor Reports FBI at Lake County Government Center
Ken Davidson / 2 hours ago
November 10, 2016 - 10:00AM
http://nwigazette.com/2016/11/breaking-mayor-reports-fbi/












EDITORIAL: Snyder skipped propriety in legal fees matter
The Times Editorial Board
Updated October 17, 2016
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/editorial-snyder-skipped-propriety-in-legal-fees-matter/article_ef3ccac0-722c-5b0d-84a0-7cc547755c26.html

It’s the type of mistake, innocent or not, that paints an undesirable portrait of local government.

Portage Mayor James Snyder and other city officials owe their ratepayers an apology for putting the cart before the public discussion horse while attempting to pay his legal bills following an FBI probe of Snyder’s practices.

At issue are checks cut from the funds of the Portage Utility Service Board, of which Snyder is chairman, to pay for Snyder’s legal fees in the long-running federal probe.

On Sept. 26, Snyder directed the board’s secretary/treasurer to cut two checks totaling more than $93,000 to two law firms that represented him during the probe.

The mayor did so even though the payments weren’t discussed, much less voted upon in a public forum, by the Portage Utility Service Board.

In fact, the board didn’t vote to approve those payments until Oct. 12 — after the law firms already had returned the money, having determined they were improperly paid by a public utility rather than their actual client, Snyder.

Snyder seeking to have the board cover his legal expenses isn’t what’s wrong in this situation.

State law allows for a government body to cover such expenses if an official involved in a possible criminal probe isn’t indicted by a grand jury or if “the acts investigated by the grand jury were within the scope of official duties of the officer or employee.”


In short, if there’s proof the federal probe uncovered no wrongdoing by Snyder, his fees should be covered by the utility board under state law.

However, the public deserved an appropriate procedure to be followed before those checks were cut.

A discussion and vote in a public meeting should have occurred first, and that didn’t happen.

Snyder, and any public official, should realize the sacred confidence they must keep with voters regarding fiscal propriety. Northwest Indiana has seen too many cases of abuse over the years, and we’re frankly sick of flippant handling of public money.

Factor into that history that Snyder’s checks were cut because of a federal probe into his activities, and it’s not hard to see why a public discussion and board vote should have occurred prior to release of these payments.

Snyder is now doing the right thing.

He’s asking for the board to consider reimbursing him for legal expenses following a future public discussion and vote.

It’s unfortunate a course correction was necessary.












Portage mayor's request for attorney fees remains up in the air
Joyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2222
NWI Times
10122016
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/portage-mayor-s-request-for-attorney-fees-remains-up-in/article_540a6f7b-b3ff-5aa4-929a-9be5a8f1c005.html


PORTAGE — The Portage Utility Service Board did not decide whether to reimburse its chairman for his legal fees in regard to a long federal investigation.

The members never even discussed the matter during their monthly meeting Wednesday.

The board did approve claims that included two checks to Mayor James Snyder’s attorneys totaling over $93,000. However, that money has been returned to the utility.

Snyder, who chairs the utility board, didn’t answer many questions.

He said he intends to submit claims to get reimbursed for the legal fees, but wants board vice chairman Mark Oprisko to return and have a discussion before he submits any claims.

Oprisko, who is out of town, objected to the claims, saying earlier this week he wanted time to conduct research before approving anything. He wanted the issue tabled until he returned.

Last month Snyder submitted claims to pay the firms of Winston and Strawn of Chicago and Dogan and Dogan of Portage totaling just over $93,000. The checks were cut and distributed to the law firms before they were approved by the board. The firms said they could not accept the checks because they were from the utility and the utility is not their client. The money was returned to the utility this week.

State law allows Snyder to seek reimbursement of the legal fees “if the grand jury fails to indict the officer or employee and the acts investigated by the grand jury were within the scope of official duties of the officer or employee.”

Asked Wednesday if that means he has been cleared of any potential charges during the nearly three-year investigation, Snyder said he couldn’t comment.

“I can’t answer that either. We have several legal people looking at it,” Snyder said. “We are going to get through it and do the right thing.”

Snyder did say he approached the utility because the investigation started with a trip he took to Austria using the utility’s credit cards. The investigation expanded, however, with FBI agents delivering several subpoenas for various financial records, including the purchase of garbage trucks. The FBI interviewed dozens of city employees.

“As a board member, I don’t know enough about it,” said James Hazzard, adding he only learned of the situation Monday when he picked up the claims docket and saw the two claims to the two attorneys.

“I want to know the exact statute and how it reads,” Hazzard said, before making any decision.

Member Marci Kunstek said she trusts the board’s attorney “to walk us through the decision,” adding she would have no problem reimbursing Snyder’s legal fees if that was the recommendation.












Snyder submits $93K bill for legal fees to Portage
Michael Gonzalez
Post-Tribune
10102016
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-portage-legal-fees-st-1011-20161010-story.html


Anyone or any business that pays user fees for sewer or storm water sewer service in Portage may also be on the hook for paying legal bills related to a federal investigation of Mayor James Snyder.

The seven-member Portage Utility Services Board, whose majority is made of mayoral appointees, is expected to consider reimbursing Snyder's $87,389.75 in legal expenses from Chicago law firm Winston and Strawn and $6,118.75 in expenses from Portage-based law firm Dogan and Dogan, as part of its claims, or bills that have been paid. Snyder serves as the board's chairman.

Boards often pile up bills in their claims sections and vote them up or down as part of consent agendas. Individual items rarely come up for discussion or a separate vote.

City Council President Mark Oprisko, who is the vice chair of the utilities board, said he encourages the board to table a vote on the reimbursement until members can get more information on Snyder's request.

"It's awful hard to get two bills that total more than $90,000 without having all the facts," said Oprisko, who is out of town and will not attend Wednesday's meeting. "I want to see what the bills were, dates, hours and I want to go a step further.

"Was there anything found that the mayor did that was illegal as far as the utility end or the city end? (Snyder) keeps saying there's nothing there, but I'd sure like to see some proof of that before the board cuts a check for more than $90,000."

Snyder could not be reached for comment Monday.

The board also will consider paying $8,375 in legal expenses for Randy Reeder, assistant superintendent of the streets department, and Amanda Lakie, the mayor's secretary, though the amount of her legal expenses were not in the claims list.

Director of Administration Joe Calhoun said both employees were called before grand juries for the investigation.

According to Calhoun, federal officials began looking into a trip Snyder took to Austria after an invitation from Fronius, an Austrian-based manufacturer of solar panel technology, whose U.S. headquarters is in Portage.

The company did not pay for the trip, Calhoun said.

Snyder used his utility board-issued credit card to take the trip and later asked political supporters who contributed to a political action committee to reimburse the utility board for expenses related to the trip.

"It was kind of an economic development-type trip that many government officials often take about implementing new things and bringing new jobs to the city," Calhoun said.

Calhoun said the trip caught the attention of federal investigators.

In 2013, federal officials began an investigation related to the Austria trip, Calhoun said, but that could not be verified by federal officials Monday, a federal holiday.

Snyder hired the law firms when the investigation began, Calhoun said.

The utilities board issued a statement Monday indicating state law allows the board and other governmental entities to pay for legal expenses of board officers related to work done for the board.

Because Snyder went to Austria to represent the utilities board, the board can pay for his legal expenses related to the investigation, Calhoun said.

Calhoun also said Snyder has been paying his legal bills for the three years of the investigation, and he had reason to believe the investigation concluded without an indictment.

"(Snyder) wanted to make sure he went through the process and waited until (the investigation) had reached this level of conclusion," Calhoun said. "Obviously, at this point, (Snyder) feels there's a level of conclusion, and thats why he submitted the bills at this point."











Portage mayor asking city to pay his attorney fees
Joyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2222
NWI Times
10102016
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/portage-mayor-asking-city-to-pay-his-attorney-fees/article_fd8a6355-de84-52c0-8c01-07a3d9514554.html


PORTAGE — Mayor James Snyder has submitted two claims to the city’s Utility Services Board to pay more than $93,000 in attorney fees in defense of a 2-year-old federal investigation.

The request for reimbursement for the legal fees also could indicate that the investigation by the FBI is over.

Snyder has been under investigation by the FBI for more than two years. Agents have subpoenaed hundreds of records from city hall, the utility services department and the city’s street department as well as interviewed dozens of city employees.

In September 2014, agents visited the street department requesting information on the purchase of automated garbage trucks in 2012.

In July of that year, the agency visited the city’s Utility Services Department and requested documents about Snyder’s travel expenses for a city economic development trip to Europe.

FBI agents also requested copies of his campaign finance records and reports, and last year they requested meeting minutes from Portage FOP Lodge 145.

The Times received the latest information Monday after filing a Freedom of Information Act request on Oct. 3, asking for copies of checks written by the Utility Services Board between Sept. 20 and Sept. 30. Included in that information were checks made payable to the Chicago law firm of Winston and Strawn for $87,389 and to Portage law firm Dogan & Dogan for $6,118.

The checks, dated Sept. 26 were made out to the law firms and sent directly to their bank for automatic deposit, according to a statement from the city.

According to the statement, the law firms cannot take the checks directly from the utility department because the department is not their client, and will return the money. When the money is returned, the department will issue payment directly to Snyder. The statement said the payments were for “legal invoices pertaining to the Federal Investigation of James Snyder that started in his role as chairman of the Utility Service Board.

Neither of the checks issued on Sept. 26 were approved by the Utility Services Board. Board attorney Katrina Spence and city Director of Administration Joe Calhoun said that was a mistake, but did not say who was responsible for sending the checks without board approval. They said the checks should not have been mailed to the law firms until the expenses had been reviewed by the Utility Services Board.

The Utility Services Board will meet Wednesday afternoon with Snyder’s claims on its agenda.

Wants second opinion
One member is not so sure he’s going to approve the claims.

Mark Oprisko, board member and City Council president, will be out of town for Wednesday’s meeting and will ask the board to table action on the claims until he returns and has a chance to do some research.

Oprisko said he wants to know how much of the investigation has to do with Snyder’s personal business.

“I want to see the bills. I want to get a second opinion. I want to try and contact the federal prosecutor and find out where the investigation is,” he said.

The board already approved payments to local attorney Kevin Milner for legal fees for Assistant Street Department Superintendent Randy Reeder and for Snyder’s administrative assistant Amanda Lakie. In January, the board approved claims of $4,125 for Lakie and $7,375 for Reeder. In September, a second claim for Reeder for $8,375 was approved.

Neither Spence nor Calhoun anticipate additional requests for reimbursements will be made to the department.

Only official duties covered
Spence said the reimbursement is legal under Indiana law. The code, 36-1-17-3(b), states that an officer or employee of a unit or municipal corporation may apply for reimbursement “if the grand jury fails to indict the officer or employee and the acts investigated by the grand jury were within the scope of official duties of the officer or employee.” In an email from Spence to Snyder on Sept. 26, Spence tells Snyder that he can present the bills to the utility department “since the Grand Jury specifically investigated your actions as the Chair of the USB ...”

Susan Gordon, of the Indiana State Board of Accounts, said while the law does allow for the reimbursement, it must be proven the fees covered only the part of the investigation pertaining to his professional duties. Gordon said it is likely to toss up a “red flag” when the department’s financial statements are audited by the state.

Gordon said paying a claim without board approval is not allowable unless specifically addressed by a city ordinance. Portage Ordinance 2-109 addresses bills that can be paid without board approval. Attorney fees are not included on the list.

Spence and Calhoun said they didn’t know if all of the legal fees cover the investigation of Snyder in his official capacity, or if it would cover any investigation into his personal business, a local mortgage company.

Spence said that is something the board will have to discuss.

The request for reimbursement may mean the end of the more than two-year investigation; the funds can only be paid “if the grand jury fails to indict,” according to the law.

“That is what we have been led to believe,” said Spence.


Snyder did not immediately return telephone, text or email messages.

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