Friday, December 30, 2016

12302016 - News Article - Scandal and dissension racked Lake Democrats



Scandal and dissension racked Lake Democrats
NWI Times
Dec 30, 2016
CROWN POINT — It was a hard year for local Democrats.

Lake County Commissioner Roosevelt Allen died unexpectedly Jan. 6 after 20 years in public service. A Democratic Party caucus Feb. 3 crowned Gary City Councilman Kyle Allen as his successor.

Marissa McDermott further surprised the party in late January by announcing she would mount a rare challenge to a sitting judge and unseat incumbent Lake Circuit Court Judge George C. Paras.

Her appearance on the spring ballot set off a rancorous inter-party debate.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., the prior Democratic county chairman and Marissa McDermott's husband, chided 70-year-old Sheriff John Buncich, the current Democratic Party chairman, for a lack of party support for its youngest stars.

McDermott said it should be backing 40-year-old Marissa McDermott. Buncich rejected that story line, arguing Paras, 67, and other, older Democratic candidates were just as deserving of votes.

But Marissa McDermott's use of social media and her husband's overflowing political and financial wherewithal — $110,000 from his political war chest — staged an upset victory over Paras in May.

One party veteran had reason to cheer
George Van Til, 68, finished his 18-month federal prison term mid-year. He earlier had pleaded guilty to six counts of fraud alleging he assigned political work to his public employees in the county surveyor's office.

The summer saw the obligatory departures of town and city council members on the losing side of a fight over a new state law making it illegal to be both an elected official and employee of the same government unit.

The ban fell on Susan Pelfrey, a New Chicago councilwoman and water department manager; Michael Opinker, a Hammond councilman and fireman; Juda Parks, an East Chicago councilman and policeman; and Matthew D. Claussen, a Hobart councilman and police officer.

They sued in federal and state court, but couldn't convince a judge to overturn the law as an unconstitutional burden on their political activities.

Opinker surrendered his 5th District Hammond City Council seat, and a Democratic Party caucus selected David Woerpel, as his replacement. Pelfrey left her council seat to her daughter, Tara Pelfrey.

Parks vacated his East Chicago City Council at-large seat, and Democratic precinct committeemen named Ronald London, his successor. Matthew D. Claussen's Hobart City Council at-large seat passed to Dan Waldrop.

A giant of Lake County politics
Robert Pastrick died Oct. 29.

He was the longest-serving mayor in East Chicago history — from Jan. 1, 1972, to Dec. 31, 2004, and county chairman of the Democratic Party for a quarter of a century, but his last two elections were tainted by voting irregularities that resulted in convictions of city and party officials.

Pastrick never faced criminal charges, but a federal judge did brand Pastrick’s administration as corrupt and ordered Pastrick and former political allies to pay $108 million in damages in 2011, forcing Pastrick into bankruptcy.

Democratic control of county government suffered a body blow in the Nov. 7 general election when Republican Jerry Tippy defeated Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub.

Scheub's 20 years of experience in office couldn't overcome a Republican-inspired redrawing of commissioner district borders that robbed Scheub of much of his former voter support.

The biggest stunner of the year took place Nov. 10 when the FBI and state police raided the Lake County Sheriff's Department and Sheriff John Buncich's home for records of county police-ordered towing.

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

Capp soon disclosed Scott Jurgensen, owner of Merrillville-based Samson’s Towing, was cooperating with the government as a witness to payments he made to Buncich. Jurgensen hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing.

Downs gave the government further ammunition earlier this month when he pleaded guilty to doing political fundraising for Buncich, under Buncich's order, while on duty and using a publicly provided police car.

Downs admitted he has been helping investigators and will cooperate in any future prosecutions in return for the government's promise of leniency.

Rumors and damage abound
McDermott said the party's reputation has suffered collateral damage from the indictment.

The year was ending in the midst of unsubstantiated rumors about more public corruption indictments or a quick exit of Buncich as sheriff and Democratic county chairman.

Buncich remains in both posts, but the party is scheduled to elect a new boss in an all-county caucus of committee members in March.

Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington was spared having to resign from office in early December when a special prosecutor dismissed felony domestic violence charges against him.

He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery and invasion of privacy over a dispute with two women, one of them his wife, at their Merrillville home.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

12292016 - News Article - Mixed year for GOP in Porter, LaPorte counties



Mixed year for GOP in Porter, LaPorte counties
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.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

12282016 - News Article - County assessor Jon Snyder cries foul over location of tax hearing



County assessor Jon Snyder cries foul over location of tax hearing
NWI Times
Updated Dec 28, 2016  



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.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

12222003 - News Article - Fromm's would-be business partner backs out - EAST CHICAGO: E.C. native denies having any plans to take over counseling business - ROBERT CANTRELL



Fromm's would-be business partner backs out
EAST CHICAGO: E.C. native denies having any plans to take over counseling business
NWI Times
Dec 22, 2006
The day after news broke that politically connected addiction counselor Nancy Fromm was handing over the reins of her faltering business to a friend, that friend said he was shocked by the announcement.

"I am not taking over her business. I have not made any arrangements to take over her business," said Richard Mamula, an East Chicago native who lives in California. "Her entire statement is salacious."

Mamula said Fromm has contacted him in the past about possibly taking over the business, but he never agreed to anything.

In a two-sentence letter to Lake County Commissioners Wednesday, Fromm wrote that Mamula was taking over Addiction and Family Care.

Fromm has been indicted on charges of obstructing a grand jury that is investigating a "pay-to-play" scheme involving kickbacks from contractors to government officials.

In the past, her business has enjoyed lucrative contracts with local courts. However, Lake County commissioners recently postponed a request to renew Fromm's contract with Lake County Community Corrections.

Fromm has said her firm's business has suffered as a result of the indictment, and she hoped new leadership could help restore its reputation. But her deal with Mamula was not in writing before she told the commissioners and news media about it.

Fromm said she was troubled Thursday upon learning of Mamula's statements that he will not take over the business.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

12212016 - News Article - Feds won't confirm if Evans is still under investigation





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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

12202016 - News Article - Evans closes out 40-year career with strike of gavel



Evans closes out 40-year career with strike of gavel
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.

12202016 - News Article - John Evans brings 40 years of county service to an end




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.

Monday, December 19, 2016

12192016 - News Article - EDITORIAL: E.C. lead crisis shows cost of corruption



EDITORIAL: E.C. lead crisis shows cost of corruption
NWI Times
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.





Sunday, December 18, 2016

12182016 - News Article - EDITORIAL: E.C. lead crisis shows cost of corruption



EDITORIAL: E.C. lead crisis shows cost of corruption
The Times Editorial Board
NWI Times
Dec 18, 2016
nwitimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/editorial-e-c-lead-crisis-shows-cost-of-corruption/article_90fccb2d-b48e-5772-b87d-f056f78b5518.html

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.


Saturday, December 17, 2016

12172016 - News Article - I “Woefully” Broke the Law: LC Police Chief Tim Downs



I “Woefully” Broke the Law: LC Police Chief Tim Downs
The Northwest Indiana Gazette
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.

12172016 - News Article - Sheriff's top commander pleads in bribery case



Sheriff's top commander pleads in bribery case
NWI Times
Updated - December 17, 2016 - 12:30AM 



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.



Friday, December 16, 2016

12162016 - News Article - Lake sheriff's 2nd-in-command pleads guilty to wire fraud



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




12162016 - News Article - LC Police Chief Downs to Plead Guilty



LC Police Chief Downs to Plead Guilty
The Northwest Indiana Gazette
December 16, 2016
“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.

12162016 - News Article - Lake County chief pleads guilty to corruption charge



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.

12162016 - News Article - Portage mayor files for continuance in federal case



Portage mayor files for continuance in federal case
NWI Times
Updated - December 16, 2016 


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.


12162016 - News Article - UPDATE: Sheriff's top commander to plead in bribery case



UPDATE: Sheriff's top commander to plead in bribery case
NWI Times
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.