Friday, March 31, 2017

03312017 - News Article - Lake sheriff wins delay in bribery case

Lake sheriff wins delay in bribery case
NWI Times
Mar 31, 2017 
HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's public corruption trial is being postponed until later this year.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Paul R. Cherry issued an order this week that he is preparing to grant the sheriff's request to move his trial from April 10 to later this summer.

Buncich's lawyer, Bryan M. Truitt, stated in a motion he filed this week in court that he needs additional time to prepare a defense against wire fraud and bribery charges the sheriff has been facing since his indictment Nov. 18.

Truitt said the sheriff's defense team first must analyze 128 megabytes of evidence that includes hundreds of photographs and recordings made during months of federal surveillance of the sheriff.

Truitt said he is still awaiting other evidence the government may have, but has yet to disclose.

He said the government has yet to turn over property federal investigators seized last November from Buncich's office and home in Crown Point, although negotiations are underway to recover it.

He said Valparaiso attorney Larry Rogers, who will be co-counsel on the sheriff's defense team, has been occupied with other criminal trials for the past month and has had little time to assist in the case.

Truitt said he has conferred with government prosecutors as well as the attorney for co-defendant William Szarmach, and he states they won't object to delay the beginning of the trial to late July or early August.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to a five-count indictment alleging he deprived the public of honest government services by soliciting and receiving thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from towing firms wanting work from county police.

Szarmach is pleading not guilty to a charge he paid bribes to the sheriff in 2015 and 2016 so his CSA towing firm in Lake Station received county police business.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

03282017 - News Article - EDITORIAL: Hooked on bidding for tow trucks

EDITORIAL: Hooked on bidding for tow trucks
NWI Times
The Times Editorial Board  
Mar 28, 2017 
Some 23 towing firm contractors are bidding to be on a list of preferred towing companies for Lake County government work. This is a big improvement in the way these contracts have been handled in the past.

Though it may not be perfect, it’s a change in the right direction from the private deals cut by Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, who now is under federal indictment for bribery in the matter. Buncich pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

The Lake County Council voted in January to reform the county's towing business by shifting authority to award contracts to the commissioners, rather than the sheriff.

The commissioners, to their credit, had promised to use the Indiana State Police vendor qualifications as a guide for setting up the new system.

Commissioner President Mike Repay, D-Hammond, said this month the county would create a new map of districts where an undetermined number of winning firms will operate. That's fair, as tow operators must be available to respond quickly whenever police need their services. The sheriff had set nine districts.

The new boundaries are to be apportioned equally to avoid creating some districts that were more lucrative than others for tow operators.

Earlier this month, 23 tow operators submitted their bids. Repay said at least five of the applicants had done work for the sheriff, and will continue to do so until the new system is in place.

The new system has more transparency, under a bidding process that is easier for the public to see and understand. The possibility of backroom deals is lessened under this system.

Throughout this process, the county should keep in mind that the goal is to get traffic moving again quickly. It is not about how much revenue the county can get out of the deal. Customers should be treated fairly in the process.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

03262017 - Federally indicted Mayor Snyder's First Financial Mortgage Company - Just wondering aloud...

Just wondering aloud: How many divorce cases in which former Porter County Magistrate James Johnson refused to issue property settlements for, were the finances in  some form handled by Portage Mayor James Snyder - who seems to be very adapt at hiding money [at least from the IRS]? Just saying, dontcha know.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

03212017 - News Article - Judge: Request to compel release of Buncich's documents 'moot'

Judge: Request to compel release of Buncich's documents 'moot'
March 21, 2017

A federal judge Tuesday declined to compel authorities to release Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's documents as the two parties are already exchanging information.

Judge Paul Cherry said the argument made by Buncich's attorney, Bryan Truitt, that sought judicial intervention for federal authorities to turn over the sheriff's personal documents is moot as both parties have started to exchange information in preparation for trial.

"Because the government has produced discovery and defendant has not raised any objection to the production, the court finds that the motion is moot," Cherry wrote, in his order.

In February, Truitt filed a motion that asked for a judge's intervention to get Buncich's personal documents returned, which he also argued hampered his ability to prepare for trial.

"The delay in returning Sheriff Buncich's belongings is hindering the preparation of the defense," Truitt wrote, in a motion. "Additionally, it is making it impossible for him to timely prepare and file campaign disclosure forms, income taxes and provide helpful evidence to his attorneys."

Federal authorities seized documents and other material from both Buncich's office and home in November, according to court documents, and Truitt said he's repeatedly asked for copies of that material to be turned over.

The U.S. Attorney's Office, in a March motion, said the government has made that material available to Buncich and his defense attorneys, even arranging meetings to accommodate their requests.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson, in his motion, said that Buncich reportedly went to the FBI office to identify documents he wanted returned but asked for all the material and left, according to court documents.

Benson said federal authorities then sent a thumb drive holding more than 100 recordings, 200 surveillance photos, search warrant inventories, diagrams and reports and payments associated with a confidential source.

"Buncich's motion fails to accurately state the attempts the government has made to accommodate Buncich's oral request to obtain some of the seized property," Benson wrote.

The back and forth over the documents came as Buncich's attorney sought to delay the start of the sheriff's jury trial, tentatively set to start in early April.

Truitt said, in his motion, the defense team is still reviewing material provided by federal authorities but is still missing some of the documents they need.

"There is no way that the defense can be adequately prepared by April 6, 2017 to try this case," Truitt said, in the motion.

Truitt said he thinks a July or August trial date is more realistic.

A judge has yet to make a final ruling on whether the trial will get pushed back pending Buncich's defense attorneys filing a new motion to continue.

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy 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.

Downs pleaded guilty in December.

Monday, March 20, 2017

03202017 - News Article - Gallery: A history of corruption in government in Lake County

Gallery: A history of corruption in government in Lake County
NWI Times
March 20, 2017
From former Lake County sheriff Rudy Bartolomei in the mid 1980s to current Portage Mayor James Snyder, Northwest Indiana officials have been the targets of federal investigations of bribery, theft of public money and other allegations of public corruption for decades. 

1 - Kollintzas flees for Europe - February 25, 2005
EAST CHICAGO Feds say former E.C. councilman flew to Switzerland two days before being sentenced to 11-plus years

Former City Councilman Frank "Frankie" Kollintzas fled the country and a prison term that he warned in a letter he couldn't face.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Miller pronounced a sentence of 11 years and four months Thursday to an empty chair at the defense table in his South Bend courtroom after being told the 62-year-old man used either a false passport or a possibly a Greek passport, under the name Fotios Kollintzas, to board a Swissair flight Tuesday afternoon to Zurich, Switzerland.

Kollintzas wrote a letter to the court the day he fled complaining he hadn't slept well since his arrest in 2003 in the sidewalks-for-votes case and that he didn't deserve "to go to prison until I die or become an old man."

The judge issued an arrest warrant for Kollintzas.

U.S. Attorney Joseph Van Bokkelen said, "I will vigorously pursue him." Kollintzas, however, could find sanctuary in Greece, since that nation doesn't return American fugitives who receive Greek citizenship, he said.

He said Kollintzas is a native-born American, but his parents immigrated from Greece. Kollintzas' cousin, Evangelos Kollintzas of Schererville, fled there two years ago to avoid trial on a federal extortion charge.

The judge said Frank Kollintzas' sentence was a "just punishment" for misappropriating nearly $24 million in public funds five years ago to give free concrete driveways, patios and sidewalks to voters to ensure his re-election and that of the former Mayor Robert Pastrick's administration in the 1999 primary election.

There was no reaction Thursday to the announcement of Kollintzas' disappearance from the crowd of his supporters in the courtroom.

A work associate of Kollintzas, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Times Thursday she and another fellow worker last saw Kollintzas Tuesday afternoon. He met with one of his lawyers that day at the city school administration building, where Kollintzas was on the payroll as director of facilities.

Kollintzas apparently left his car in the school parking lot outside an administration building called the warehouse. A member of his family came to drive it away.

His 62nd birthday was Tuesday, and his family had planned a celebration at his home that evening. "But he never showed up," she said. She said his family told others they didn't know where he was. "No one has heard anything. This is like a bad dream," she said.

Van Bokkelen, who was present in court for the sentencing, and Theodore Poulos, lead counsel of Kollintzas' defense team, both said they suspect Kollintzas fled after the judge sentenced his co-defendants, Edwardo Maldonado, former city controller, and Joe De La Cruz, former fellow city councilman, to eight years and six years in prison, respectively.

Poulos said in his sentencing argument, "I don't know why he isn't here, but he continued to insist on his innocence and facing a sentence in such a draconian range... that would put him in prison until age 73 or 75."

He said Kollintzas would have received the same sentence if he had robbed and wounded a bank teller.

Van Bokkelen said the sentence was fair and a warning to others under investigation to cooperate or face a similar price.

He said, "I think the Maldonado sentence (Friday) did scare him. I think Kollintzas hedged his bets up to the last moment."

Kollintzas was supposed to have been sentenced Friday along with Maldonado and De La Cruz, but the judge granted Kollintzas a six-day delay because Poulos had to appear in another court Friday.

Van Bokkelen said he doesn't think that was a ruse. "I think Ted was as shocked as anybody. Ted's client betrayed him. I take him at his word that he wanted to (be sentenced) first."

Van Bokkelen said he never considered detaining Kollintzas before sentencing, despite vague rumors he might flee. He said no federal judge was likely to detain someone like Kollintzas who had lived and worked in Northwest Indiana all his life.

The three-hour sentencing -- described as surreal by one government source -- featured defense lawyers praising Kollintzas' integrity. "He's done a world of good," Poulos said.

The judge ran through the ritual of explaining how he arrived at the sentence, the amount of restitution ($25.5 million) and the right of appeal to an absent defendant.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Hollar argued that with Kollintzas "getting on an airplane and leaving the country, there was no more powerful statement he could make" in answer to evidence Kollintzas led and organized the corruption that swept the city.

The judge read out a long list of witnesses who implicated Kollintzas in the sidewalk scheme and said that his escape counterbalanced all the good attributed to his private and public good works over the last four decades.

Miller said 25 people wrote him to praise Kollintzas. "He did not return their support today," the judge said.

2 - Markovich gets 18 months in sidewalk case - March 10, 2005
HAMMOND | "I'm here, and I'm on time," former Lake County Councilman Joel Markovich proudly told a federal courtroom at his sentencing.

U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano rewarded the 43-year-old businessman with leniency -- an 18 month sentence -- for his cooperation in the sidewalks-for-votes case and other public corruption investigations.

Markovich also must repay East Chicago the $755,088 he overbilled the city for work JGM Enterprises, his landscaping and contracting service, did. He also must pay the federal government a $6,000 fine.

He is scheduled to report to prison May 17. He will be eligible for parole after 15 months.

Markovich's sentencing was in sharp contrast to that of Frank Kollintzas, a former East Chicago city councilman, who fled to Greece two weeks ago to avoid an 11 year and four month sentence as a leader of the sidewalk scandal.

U.S. Attorney Joseph Van Bokkelen said afterward Markovich deserved a break. "He came to us. He received the benefit of cooperation," Van Bokkelen said. He also said Markovich could have received more than double the prison time if he hadn't cooperated.

3 - Fifes headed to federal prison - April 01, 2006
HAMMOND | A former East Chicago mayoral adviser and his wife are going to prison for hiding hundreds of thousands of dollars of income funneled to him by fellow officials.

"One of the hogs at the public trough," was how U.S. District Court Judge James Moody described the crime of 48-year-old James H. Fife III, who must begin next month serving a 47-month sentence.

His wife, Karen L. Krahn-Fife, 37, must serve a 24-month sentence for her role in helping hide their income from the IRS through a baffling array of five shell corporations they created to receive under the table payments from former East Chicago Mayor Robert Pastrick and former North Township Trustee Gregory Cvitkovich.

The two also must reimburse the IRS a total of $627,000 in back taxes.

Moody didn't mince words with Fife when pronouncing his sentence. "This is an egregious crime. You should be ashamed of yourself. You did a disservice to your profession (as a lawyer), the city of East Chicago, your family and friends. Shame on you."

Merrillville lawyer Nick Thiros, who defended the couple and is a longtime acquaintance of Fife, said, "The biggest disappointment for Jim is that he feels he dragged Karen into this. Unfortunately, he did wrong by her. That is his biggest shame."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch III said Fife was "entrusted to make (East Chicago) better," but instead of stopping others in City Hall from misappropriating public funds Fife "was loading his pockets."

Government presented evidence at the nearly four-hour sentencing showing the couple received more than $1 million between 1998 and 2001 when he was a special assistant to former mayor Pastrick.

Kirsch said Fife did little if any legitimate work for the dollars, but milked his relationships with former mayor Pastrick and Cvitkovich, a longtime friend of Fife, a political ally of Pastrick and a cousin of Krahn-Fife.

Kirsch said Fife was a deal maker. The government alleged Fife received $135,000 from Cvitkovich "for arranging a contract between the city (of East Chicago) and Clark Material Terminals, owned by Dan McArdle, for the removal of sludge." The government alleges that deal was "in violation of the Indiana bribery law."

McArdle isn't charged with any wrongdoing. He was a major contributor to Pastrick's campaigns and is best known for owning a tire recycling business that caught fire in 1994 and polluted local skies for many days.

Former mayor Pastrick isn't charged with any criminal wrongdoing, although he is defending himself against a civil racketeering suit filed by the Indiana attorney general, which claims Pastrick and others operated the city as a corrupt enterprise.

Cvitkovich pleaded guilty last October to tax fraud and was forced to resign as township trustee. He is awaiting sentencing.

Kirsch said Cvitkovich and the city of East Chicago would have had to report their payments to the IRS if they had been made personally to Fife and his wife, so instead they took advantage of a loophole in tax law and the payments were made to five sham corporations that didn't have to be reported to the IRS.

Thiros argued Fife was disorganized and guilty only of negligence. He said the wife trusted her husband and didn't realize he was committing a crime.

Kirsch said the wife had to know because she was benefiting from the illicit income too, drawing out $40,000 out of the sham corporations to buy herself a new Mercedes-Benz.

Fife said, "I'd like to apologize to the court, my family and friends. My intention was to help my family." Krahn-Fife said, "I'm deeply sorry for all my wrongdoing. Our marriage was based on love and trust. There was never a reason to question anything."

The couple left the courtroom hand in hand. They have a 3-year-old son who will be without his parents beginning next month.

Moody said he will recommend sending Fife and Krahn-Fife to the Oxford Federal Correctional Institution, a medium security facility in south central Wisconsin.

There they can serve time with Kevin Pastrick, a son to the former East Chicago mayor, Peter Manous, another protege of Pastrick and a former state Democratic party chairman and two other convicted East Chicago officials.

4 - Smith, Powell, Harris Guilty - September 28, 2007

5- Cantrell sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison - Political fixer also must repay $68,000 stolen from North Township - April 01, 2009
HAMMOND | Blasting Robert Cantrell for using his talents to steal from taxpayers, a federal judge sentenced the former Lake County political power-broker to 6 1/2 years in federal prison.

Finishing Cantrell's long-delayed sentencing in Hammond federal court Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano seemed unconvinced by defense attorney Kevin Milner's portrayal of Cantrell, 67, of Schererville, as a benevolent patriarch, good Samaritan and patriot who deserved no prison time for his 11 fraud convictions.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Revisit coverage of Bob Cantrell's 2008 federal fraud trial.

RELATED: Read the federal indictment.

Milner argued Cantrell's crimes were "victimless" because Cantrell, a former political fixer based in East Chicago, can pay back the $68,000 he took from North Township through contract fraud.

Lozano disagreed. He called Cantrell a "blessed" man who stole from taxpayers.

"You were ahead of what most people had," Lozano told Cantrell. "But from the evidence in this case, it also appears that you fell into that ditch called politics."

Lozano sentenced Cantrell to 78 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. Lozano also ordered Cantrell to repay the $68,000 to North Township. Cantrell must report for prison May 13.

Milner drew smiles and quiet chuckles when he requested Cantrell be sent to a federal prison in Oxford, Wis., a common destination for local public servants convicted of federal crimes. Lozano agreed to recommend to the prison bureau that Cantrell be sent to a jail near Chicago.

"There are some people at the (Oxford) facility that are casual acquaintances," Milner said.

Milner said outside court he planned to file appeals to Cantrell's conviction and sentence Tuesday afternoon.

Cantrell was convicted June 6 of four counts of depriving the public of honest services, three counts of insurance fraud using the U.S. mail and four counts of filing false tax returns between 2000 and 2003. The indictment accused him of taking cash kickbacks from a contract between his then-employer, the North Township trustee's office, and a political ally's company.

The sentencing was delayed almost 10 months, most recently so that Lozano could review trial transcripts for evidence relevant to Milner's objections to sentence enhancements proposed in a pre-sentence report prepared by probation agents.

Milner argued unsuccessfully that his "friend Bob" deserved a lighter sentence, claiming the township lost no money in the fraud and that Cantrell had no decision-making or supervisory power at the township. Milner pleaded with Lozano to ignore advisory sentencing guidelines that called for a sentence of up to eight years in prison.

Assistant U.S Attorney Orest Szewciw asked for an eight-year sentence.

"Lake County, Ind., has a history of public corruption, and this case is just one more sordid chapter," Szewciw said.

In his statement to Lozano, Cantrell did not apologize. He reminded Lozano of his military service in the Gulf War.

"No matter what happens here today, I am proud to be an American," Cantrell said.

6 - Dozier Allen gets 18 months in corruption case - Former Calumet Township trustee, two deputies convicted of fraud last spring - April 28, 2010
HAMMOND | Citing former Calumet Township Trustee Dozier Allen Jr.'s 36-year record of public service and failing physical and mental health, Hammond federal Judge Philip Simon sentenced the 79-year-old fraud convict on Tuesday to 18 months in federal prison. The term falls one year short of the low end of the congressional advisory sentencing guideline range.

Allen, who suffers from hypertension, bipolar disorder and an as-yet unclear condition involving blood-clotting, will have 120 days to surrender, an unusually long delay Simon granted because of Allen's medical uncertainty. Allen will split a $143,000 restitution bill with his three co-defendants, two of whom also were sentenced Tuesday. Simon sentenced Allen to two years of supervised release after his prison term closes.

Simon sentenced former top deputy Wanda Joshua to 15 months in prison. The judge placed former aide Albert Young Jr., who signed a plea agreement and admitted guilt, to two years on probation. The final former deputy, Ann Marie Karras, is slated for sentencing Wednesday.

Defense lawyer Scott King said Allen, who continues to deny criminal wrongdoing, plans to appeal his conviction. King had asked Simon to put Allen on home detention, while prosecutors sought a 30-month sentence.

Allen, Joshua and Karras were convicted at a jury trial in April 2009 of two counts each of mail fraud. Prosecutors said Allen, Karras, Joshua and Young intentionally committed fraud by taking checks worth $143,000 from a contract linked to federal welfare-to-work programs. Prosecutors said the defendants routed unearned checks to their own bank accounts without permission of the Calumet Township Board and did not properly disclose their interests in the contract.

Defense lawyers argued the defendants were told they could legally take the payments.

Allen, noticeably thinner than he was last spring but speaking stridently in full voice, reiterated his disagreement with the jury verdict Tuesday in court. He said he signed the contract hoping to help the poor of Calumet Township. He said he administered more than $300 million in funds during his 32 years as township trustee. He noted he reported the welfare-to-work contract payments to the Township Board. He voiced remorse at his "hasty" behavior and acknowledged his decisions were "flawed," but he denied knowingly committing fraud.

"I absolutely did not violate federal law with any willful intent of deception," Allen said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Bell pointed out that Allen's crime was committed against impoverished residents of Calumet Township. He called the crime, which spanned years, "brazen" and "shocking."

King, a former Gary mayor defending a man who was briefly mayor of Gary after King resigned, eulogized Allen's political career in a speech redolent of King's own political experience. He said Allen, a decorated Korean War veteran, entered politics at a time when a black man would not have been welcome in certain Gary neighborhoods. King observed that Lake County Democratic politics set a low standard for cordiality, but he said Allen drew respect from his peers. Allen was "legendary" among local politicians, King said.

"You don't get elected that many times unless you can accurately be called a warrior," King said.

King said last year's conviction sent Allen into a "spiral." King challenged as "delusional" a Bureau of Prisons doctor's testimony Tuesday that the bureau can appropriately treat Allen's ailments. Simon said court records indicate a pattern of "bizarre behavior" followed Allen's conviction. Allen showed up at church "dressed inappropriately" and "lashed out at his wife," Simon said. King said Allen's record and his deteriorating health justified leniency.

"Mercy and justice are coequals in this particular case," King said.

Simon disagreed with King's argument that the prison bureau can't appropriately treat Allen. He lauded Allen for his public service, but Simon decried corruption as "corrosive" to the public trust in democracy. Simon described Allen's "cover story" as "ridiculous."

"I do think that this was motivated by greed," Simon said.

In sentencing Joshua, Simon said he had to balance factors including the support of family and friends -- who turned in an exceptional volume of letters praising Joshua -- with Joshua's prior embezzlement conviction and tax issues discovered by Internal Revenue Service investigators after the criminal investigation started. Joshua pleaded guilty to failing to file tax returns in 2001 and 2002.

Joshua plans to appeal, said her lawyer, Karen Freeman-Wilson.

Simon said Young, now of Mississippi, was "clearly less culpable" than his co-defendants. Young's plea agreement precludes an appeal.

7 - Former E.C. Mayor Pabey sentenced to 5 years in prison - Former E.C. mayor chastised for greed, breaking trust - May 05, 2011
HAMMOND | East Chicago's most recent former mayor joined the ranks of about 10 other city politicians Friday who have been sentenced for committing federal crimes.

A judge sentenced George Pabey, 61, to five years in prison and ordered the former chief of police to pay a $60,000 fine for his role in a conspiracy to steal money from East Chicago.

"You, sir, did not make a mistake," Senior Judge James Moody said before a packed courtroom. "You knew exactly what you were doing, and you knew exactly what you wanted to achieve. Money."

Pabey was indicted last year after pouring government funds and city labor into remodeling his home in Gary's Miller Beach neighborhood -- and putting the house on the market for more than twice what he paid for it. The assessed loss to East Chicago was about $14,500, which Pabey posted in restitution prior to the hearing.

In September, a jury found Pabey and a former city supervisor, Jose Camacho, guilty of conspiracy and theft of government funds. In April, Camacho was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison with a $50,000 fine.

Pabey's sentence was more than his calculated 27- to 33-month guideline range, which Moody said was necessary to prevent the spread of the region's public corruption epidemic. The enhanced sentence also was a result of prosecutors' argument that Pabey's wife, Hilda, lied under oath to protect her husband.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Bell quoted from trial testimony in which Hilda Pabey claimed to have bought with cash items found at the Gary home – but she did not have the receipts to prove it. Bell contrasted her words with photos and receipts showing Camacho bought those same items using a city account.

Pabey's attorney, Scott King, said no intentional misrepresentations were made, and the serious illnesses of some family members at the time caused a memory lapse. King called the accusations "petty" and "vindictive."

But Moody agreed with the prosecutors.

"Her language, her demeanor, did not indicate she did not remember things or was confused," Moody said.

In arguing for a higher sentence, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Nozick said Pabey took advantage of the trust voters had placed in him to end the corruption that had plagued the city for decades.

While East Chicago was facing severe budget issues, laying off 50 city employees and forcing others to retire, Pabey gave his friend Camacho a raise and siphoned off taxpayer money to finish his kitchen and put a bar in his basement, Nozick said.

To give the case "context" before reading the sentence, Moody read excerpts from a 2005 Times article on Pabey's victory in the mayoral race. Public figures and residents at the time were quoted describing their hopes in Pabey breathing life back into the city.

King asked Moody to consider Pabey's life of public service, as well his devotion to family, in determining his client's fate. Moody said he read the 28 letters supporting Pabey but would not give much weight to the good he did while in office because it was expected of him.

At the end of the two-hour hearing, Pabey sat expressionless, staring at his folded hands while Moody explained his reasons for the 60-month sentence.

In the next 14 days, King said he will file an appeal and request that Pabey maintain his freedom while the case makes its way through the appellate court.

"I have a lot of respect for Judge Moody, but I have to say in this particular case I could not disagree more," King said. "We have a great deal of confidence (the case) will be viewed differently in the court of appeals."

King has argued Pabey did not know that Camacho used city money on the house or that city employees were working there while on the clock. He said Pabey was paying Camacho with cash or checks to work on the home during off hours, as Camacho did not have a structured day in his 24-hour, on-call position.

If Pabey's request to be released pending the appeal is denied, he must report to prison June 1.

And while some appeared to cry after the hearing, others said they were happy justice was served.

"He ruined the reputation of East Chicago when it could have been restored," said Jesse Gomez, vice chairman of East Chicago's Democratic Party.

8 - Philpot sentenced to 18 months for public corruption - February 21, 2013
HAMMOND | Former Lake County Clerk Thomas Philpot was sentenced to 18 months in prison Thursday for stealing thousands of dollars in public child support incentive funds over which he had control.

Philpot, who also served as Lake County coroner, was ordered to surrender April 3 to a federal correctional camp in Pekin, Ill. Federal defendants usually serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, which means Philpot likely will spend at least 15 months in prison.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge James Moody asked himself out loud, why did Philpot, an intelligent, well-trained man familiar with the proper workings of local government commit his crime, and concluded that the evidence pointed to "arrogance, greed and a warped sense of entitlement."

Philpot, 55, a podiatrist and attorney, served 10 years as Lake County coroner and six years as county clerk between 1992 and 2012.

"I apologize to the court and all the citizens of Lake County. I should have been more careful and done more to ensure I deserved these bonuses," an emotional Philpot said during his two-hour sentencing hearing, attended by a number of family and friends.

He also apologized to his family. "The thought of being separated from my son just kills me," Philpot said.

Philpot will be analyzed for mental health and alcohol abuse issues at the request of defense lawyer Kerry Connor. After he serves his term, he will spend two years on supervised release, similar to parole.

Federal prosecutors said Philpot began making plans to pocket bonuses from federal IV-D child support incentive money within months of taking office and taking control of the money.

State Rep. Shelli Vandenburgh, D-Crown Point, who as a deputy under Philpot, testified she warned Philpot that IV-D money was meant only to compensate deputy clerks who performed daily work of recording and accepting child support payments to needy children.

However, Philpot drew up a list of bonus recipients and ordered the money be paid, including $24,000 to himself between 2004 and 2009.

Earlier this week, Moody threw out two felony counts related to bonuses Philpot pocketed prior to 2008 on grounds there wasn't enough evidence to prove he knew taking the bonuses was illegal.

However, he remains convicted of three other theft and mail fraud counts for bonuses after that date because Philpot admitted to his lawyer at the time he thought his supplemental pay might be problematic.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said Philpot violated state law by declining to get the approval of the seven-member County Council to boost his pay with the IV-D money.

Philpot only attempted to get council approval in 2008 and even withdrew that request immediately after Councilwoman Christine Cid questioned the legality of Philpot's maneuvers.

Philpot and his lawyers argue he was misled by an opinion from his longtime attorney David Saks that the IV-D bonuses were legal, but Benson said Saks later admitted the opinion was in error because Philpot withheld important information from him.

Benson adds Philpot also gave large, unnecessary bonuses to a group of favored employees "who did the least for the IV-D program" bonuses to camouflage his own enrichment.

Connors said Philpot already had suffered enough in terms of public humiliation and loss of his public and professional careers.

Philpot's wife, Anne-Marie, said Philpot became so depressed she had to encourage him to even get out of bed and shower, she found him walking in circles in his driveway and that he began drinking alcohol heavily.

She wrote in a letter to the court he has undergone therapy and hasn't had a drink in months.

9 - Calumet Township Trustee Elgin, three employees, indicted for fraud, extortion - December 19, 2014
Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin and three "key" employees of her office are charged with federal counts of fraud and extortion for allegedly using taxpayer resources for political gain, the U.S. attorney announced Friday.

Federal prosecutors said Elgin expected her government employees to either purchase or sell campaign fundraiser tickets, enlisted subordinates to sell the tickets to employees during government office hours and placed employees who couldn't afford the tickets on payment plans.

Employees who failed to purchase tickets received unfavorable treatment by supervisors, including being given undesirable work and threatened with layoffs, an indictment in the case alleges.

"You gotta take that stick out and bust some damn heads," deputy trustee Alex Wheeler is quoted in the indictment as saying in the presence of Elgin as a way of motivating campaign fundraiser ticket sales.

Wheeler also is charged in the conspiracy.

Elgin did not immediately respond Friday to calls from The Times seeking comment.

Elgin, whose primary duty as trustee was managing emergency relief to some of the region's poorest residents, also used township employee work for personal gain by requiring some to create banners and signs for her high school class reunion during government office hours, the indictment states.

The announcement of the indictment, which was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, Hammond, comes about two weeks before the end of Elgin's term in the Gary-based elected office.

It also followed a raid of her government offices earlier this year during which FBI and IRS agents seized several boxes of evidence and at least one computer.

Elgin, 70, faces charges of wire fraud, extortion, tax offenses and making false statements to federal agents, according to the indictment. Three of her office employees, Ethel Shelton, Steven Hunter — who is Elgin's son — and Wheeler, also face wire fraud and extortion charges.

Elgin and the co-defendants conspired to commit wire fraud by ordering other employees to raise funds and perform other Elgin re-election efforts while on the clock, the U.S. attorney alleged.

Elgin also faces counts of failing to file federal tax returns in 2012 and 2013, even though she earned more than $100,000 each of those years; providing false statements to the FBI during an investigation into her alleged wrongdoing; and attempting to extort a vendor who sought to do business with the trustee's office, federal prosecutors said.

Elgin was first elected trustee in 2003 on a platform of "integrity and principle," the federal indictment states.

But after election to her first term, "Elgin installed the individuals who spearheaded her campaign into the most lucrative supervisory positions" within the trustee's office, the indictment states.

Shelton, Elgin's personal trustee's secretary, collected money for political fundraiser tickets and kept track of the government employees who did or did not purchase tickets as part of her duties, the indictment alleges. She earned about $40,000 per year in compensation on the trustee's payroll, state records show.

Hunter, Elgin's son, served as deputy of information systems for the office, despite having "little or no experience in this area," the indictment states.

Hunter earned $50,000 per year in this post as of 2013, state records show.

As part of his duties, Hunter distributed fundraising tickets to his subordinates on government time, the indictment states.

Wheeler, who ran the trustee's job search program for about $46,000 per year in compensation, also distributed campaign fundraiser tickets on government time and turned in any money he was able to personally collect to Shelton, prosecutors allege.

The indictment also alleges Shelton and Wheeler each used township office time and resources when they sought elected seats on the Calumet Township Board.

Under Elgin's system, the higher the salary of an employee, the more fundraiser tickets he or she was expected to either buy or sell, prosecutors alleged.

Defendants in the case would attempt to conceal the campaign work on government time by announcing they were "on break" — or telling subordinates they were on break — before engaging in political activities, the indictment states.

They also tried to conceal the illegal activities by issuing "interoffice memos claiming to prohibit political activity" on government time, the indictment alleges.

Elements of the conspiracy occurred from Elgin's first election in 2003 until fall 2014, prosecutors allege.

In May, Elgin, a Gary Democrat, lost her bid for reelection to Democratic challenger and now trustee-elect Kimberly Robinson.

10 - Van Til sentenced to 18 months in prison - February 12, 2015
HAMMOND | Former Lake County Surveyor George Van Til was sentenced Thursday to 18 months in prison for making his employees to do his campaign work on county time.

U.S. District Judge James Moody also ordered Van Til to serve three years on supervised release after he leaves prison and pay more than $26,500 in restitution to Lake County. He reports to prison April 30.

In his statement to Moody prior to the imposition of his sentence, Van Til admitted to wrong-doing, but also said he had accomplished much good during his time in office before finally breaking down in tears as his attorney Scott King patted him on the back.

"The legacy I hoped to leave -- I have none," said Van Til, who also referred to himself as a "broken person" whose "reputation is gone."

"I am sorry to the court, I am sorry to my family, I am sorry to the people who voted me into office time and time again," said Van Til.

He told the court he has lost 55 pounds in the last several months and has dealt with health issues. At the request of King, Moody will recommend Van Til serve his time at a federal prison in Terre Haute.

While agreeing he was guilty of the charges, Van Til resented what he described as embellishments made by the U.S attorney's office in regard to his action. He also told the court that he never took a bribe or threatened anyone.

King said if Van Til's entire body of work is considered, the good overwhelmingly outweighs the bad.

"His remorse is genuine, his pain is real," King said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson, however, said "the conduct of Mr. Van Til strikes a the very heart of why some people don't want to go into public service."

Benson said workers were "forced to break the law to keep their jobs and that is wrong." 

Attorneys for the government and Van Til spent much of the day wrangling over the amount of the lost to the county from Van Til having employees do political work on government time and over whether Van Til should be given credit for acceptance of responsibility.

The government pointed to a document that contained a report of a phone call made to the FBI in June 2012 by Speros Batistatos, president and chief executive officer of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority. According to the report, Batistatos told of a conversation on a trip to a White Sox game where a worker in Van Til's office spent her time doing political work.

The document, which was not supposed to be disseminated, was given by Van Til to Gregory Sanchez, who went from being deputy chief surveyor to interim surveyor in December 2013 after Van Til pleaded guilty to the charges and resigned. Sanchez said he was asked by Van Til to give the document to Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., which he did in late December just prior to a pre-caucus meeting to determine who was to become Lake County surveyor until the next election. McDermott was the Democratic Party's County Chairman at the time and ran the caucus.

Sanchez said Van Til "wasn't real happy" about Batistatos making the call. McDermott notified FBI agents after receiving the document and Bill Emerson Jr. was selected at the caucus to by Lake County Democratic precinct committee members to take over as surveyor for the next election.

Benson raised the specter the release of the report could have resulted in political retribution to Batistatos, whose board is comprised of political appointees, for doing the right thing in reporting what he believed was illegal activity to the government.

Under questioning from King, Sanchez said Van Til did not give him any direct directions of what to tell McDermott, who he indicated had been contacted earlier by Van Til. Van Til said he never threatened anyone. He indicated he was just surprised someone "could just pick up and willy-nilly call up an FBI agent."

Van Til, 67, was previously charged with six counts counts of wire fraud and aiding and abetting over a scheme in which he used county employees to do his campaign work on county time. He pled guilty Dec. 5, 2013.

Prosecutors said Van Til ordered at least three county employees to complete re-election campaign work for which the employees were compensated from the county's payroll between 2007 and 2012.

The crimes constituted wire fraud, in part, because the county employees received their pay through direct deposit, which constitutes an electronic transfer, according to prosecutors.

Van Til also was accused of telling an employee to swap out a county computer's hard drive to conceal evidence in case federal authorities ever made inquiries, although those charges were dropped in exchange for his guilty plea.

His guilty plea ended Van Til's 42-year career.

Van Til's attorney asked Van Til be sentenced to a combination of probation and home detention because of the work he has done for Lake County residents and his poor health. The government provided documents that indicated Van Til's medical conditions could be accommodated while in prison.

Highland Clerk-Treasurer Michael Griffin, who was one of a number of local politicians and others who wrote letters in support of Van Til, testified at the sentencing hearing. He said Van Til was supported him early in his career and was also a supporter of Lake County becoming a member of the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission. He said he never thought he would find Van Til in the situation he was in Thursday.

11 - Lake County justice has had a drinking problem - July 10, 2016
Lake County's system of justice for drunken driving is receiving a new sobriety test.

State police recently began gathering records and conducting interviews into whether someone in Lake Station City Court intentionally withheld alcohol-related convictions over a four-year period from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles for inclusion on drivers' records — and all the consequences that imposes.

No one has yet been charged with criminal wrongdoing in that case. In Indiana, the charge is called operating while intoxicated, or OWI.

But three decades ago, an investigation by state and federal police called Operation Bar Tab bagged Lake County Court judges, a county clerk, a deputy prosecutor, a former director of the county court's alcohol counseling service and several minor court officials and attorneys.

They were convicted for their roles in fixing driving tickets, the bulk of them for drunken driving, for political favors.

Bar Tab, in connection with Operation Lights Out, a simultaneous federal investigation of non-court corruption, resulted in the conviction of more than 15 elected officials and county government employees.

Shaken Democrats at the time beheld the state replace two judges and the county clerk with Republicans, the first to occupy countywide offices in half a century.

Testimony from more than a dozen Operation Bar Tab trials and guilty pleas demonstrated drivers connected to Lake's sprawling patronage system could avoid the embarrassment of being judged in open court, and then fined, jailed, and having their licenses suspended and auto insurance premiums increased.

John Hoehner, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Indiana, is quoted in a 1986 Times story as calling this practice "an aged cancer that permeates the political system of Lake County and casts an ugly pall over its system of justice."

Birth of Bar Tab
Bar Tab began in the early 1980s under former U.S. Attorney R. Lawrence Steele who assigned a major role to his assistant, James Meyer. Both are now private lawyers.

Meyer recalls, "(State) troopers noticed they were arresting drunken drivers who they had arrested just six months earlier who shouldn't have had a license. Further checking showed one guy pleaded guilty, but nothing showed up on the police record."

They tracked the problem to Lake County Courts, created in the mid-1970s to put on the bench judges who had formal legal training. They replaced justices of the peace, quasi-judicial officials who weren't required to have law degrees to handle traffic violations.

However, these new judges, unlike their Superior Court counterparts, were elected through Lake's powerful Democratic party with all the partisan influences and obligations that come with having to marshal campaign funds and voter support.

Meyer said, "It wasn't the whole county, but certain individuals were known to, not so much stop a prosecution, but keep the records from going downstate ... if you bought $1,500 in (campaign fundraising) tickets." 

Another former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Gregory Vega, complained in 1986 of "the use and sale of political tickets, which has been called the currency of corruption, and which has perpetuated the stigma of Lake County throughout the state."

A federal court document indicates that Bar Tab's earliest inroads came the summer of 1982 when Kenneth Anderson received a call from a Dan Mingo, complaining he had just been jailed for OWI. Anderson was a Crown Point barber who had an inside connection to the courts.

Anderson invited Mingo to the shop. They agreed to fix Mingo's problem for $1,600, much of which Mingo put in a blue envelope.

Anderson then called John Marine, a county courts administrator with access to court records. Marine was seen leaving the shop later that day with a blue envelope in his pocket.

Mingo was a state police informant. He was wearing a wire. The FBI had tapped the phone. The fabricated ticket was bait.

Anderson assured Mingo he wouldn't have to appear in court. But Anderson and Marine did — after they were indicted and brought to trial in 1984 in U.S. District Court. 

The racketeering and mail fraud charges against them also alleged that a trucker who knew Anderson, got his driver's license back in the mail without ever appearing in court. Another trucker who did go to court, later said a deputy prosecutor there noted the trucker must know somebody, because he didn't have to go to jail or pay a large fine.

Marine's lawyer attempted to bolster his defense at trial by calling to the witness stand Lake County Court Judge Orval Anderson, no relation to Kenneth Anderson, to talk about court procedures.

Federal investigators believed Judge Orval Anderson, elected on a promise of being tough with drunken drivers, had presided over several of the fixed-ticket cases.

Orval Anderson was asked, under oath, if he ever disposed of drunken driving cases behind closed judicial chamber doors without a prosecutor present.

"No, no. Always prosecutors there," the judge answered, according to a court document.

Not only did the jury convict Kenneth Anderson and John Marine, a federal grand jury also indicted Judge Orval Anderson for lying under oath and obstruction of justice.

Months after that, Marine reportedly was cooperating with federal authorities to lighten his 20-year sentence. Bar Tab was picking up steam.

More indictments, convictions
Orval Anderson's trial, which ended in his conviction in June 1985, featured nine offenders accused of driving under the influence. 

They testified Orval Anderson gave them breaks behind the closed doors of his judicial chambers, after they had contacted Lake County officials to petition Judge Anderson for leniency.

Former county Clerk John Krupa, former county Recorder William Bielski and then St. John Township Trustee Gerry Scheub, now a county commissioner, were among those who intervened for the offenders. The three testified for the government and were never charged with wrongdoing.

Bielski said officeholders were always asking one another for favors. Edward Lukawski, the county clerk, was called to testify at Orval Anderson's trial, but refused under his right against self-incrimination.

He was trying to avoid Orval Anderson's earlier mistake of boldly denying wrongdoing under oath. Nevertheless, the U.S. Attorney charged Lukawski seven months later of conspiring with judges and other court personnel to secretly dispose of at least 30 driving under the influence cases as personal favors, or in exchange for political fundraising tickets.

Lukawski's defense lawyer said Lukawski never solicited anyone to buy fundraising tickets, but accepted them when someone who benefited from a fixed case rewarded Lukawski for having done them "a good turn."

Indictments over the the coming months also included the following: Judge Steven Bielak and Robert Balitewicz, Bielak's court administrator; Lee J. Christakis, lawyer and occasional county courts judge; William Huber, a former county courts bailiff; Paul Kutch, former Gary police officer, county court bailiff and director of the county courts alcohol counseling service; defense lawyer Stephen Goot; and former Deputy Prosecutor Nick Morfas.

Bielak, Balitewicz and Morfas pleaded guilty. So did Huber and Kutch, who it later was revealed, had been working for several months undercover for federal authorities and wore body recorders in return for leniency.

Goot chose trial and was convicted of conspiring with Morfas to make 10 OWI tickets disappear under a scheme in which Goot challenged the legal validity of OWI  tickets his clients received. A judge properly dismissed the tickets, but gave the prosecutor several weeks to file new charging documents.

Morfas used his position in the prosecutor's office to steal and destroy the case files associated with the dismissed tickets. No one noticed because of disarray in the prosecutor's office and the Lake County Courts records system; the dismissed tickets were never refiled, and the drivers were off the hook.

Jack Crawford, then prosecuting attorney for Lake County and now a private attorney in Indianapolis, said recently his office cooperated with Operation Bar Tab. He declined to comment further.

Christakis prepared for his trial by lining up at least 22 or 23 of his drunken driving clients to testify they never paid him to keep their record from going downstate. "Their records were already downstate," he recently recounted.

He changed his strategy when the federal trial judge dismissed some of the fraud counts against him. He and his defense lawyer thought the judge had essentially crippled the government bribery case. However, he learned too late the judge would permit the bulk of the of the government cases to go to the jury. "So there I was with the witnesses gone home," Christakis said.

The federal jury did acquit Christakis of a tax violation, but convicted him of two fraud and two obstruction of justice counts.

Attorneys convicted in the scandal lost their law licenses, as did Christakis.

But four years after Christakis' conviction, a federal judge overturned Christakis' fraud convictions on grounds Christakis never received money for anything improper.

Eight years later, the Indiana Supreme Court followed up by letting Christakis recover his law license. He is practicing law these days in Crown Point.

Christakis said, "(U.S. Attorney) Steele thought he was going to prove up bribery. He wasted a lot of investigatory resources."

Steele said recently, "The investigation was very successful in discovering what was going on at the time and taking steps to alleviate the problem. At least back in those days, the problem was solved."

Former Gov. Robert Orr, a Republican, appointed Republicans to replace the disgraced Lake County officials, including Kenneth Peterson as the first Republican county clerk in decades. Peterson initiated reforms to prevent future corruption, including closer tracking of traffic tickets. Previously, tickets were held in a file cabinet for a month before they were forwarded to court.

Former federal prosecutor Meyer said current electronic record-keeping has probably made it even more difficult for corrupt officials to lose or tamper with drunken driving cases.

Five years ago, the Indiana General Assembly voted to remove Lake County Court judges from partisan political elections. Its judges now will run for election without party labels.

Fresh problems convicting drivers of OWI?
A recent Times review of police arrests in 2014 in Lake County showed more than half of those arrested had their charges reduced from operating a vehicle while intoxicated to reckless driving, a lesser violation. This is unlike neighboring Porter County, where 81 percent were convicted of operating while intoxicated, The Times found.

Leal Hill, lead victim-services specialist for Indiana's Mothers Against Drunk Driving office, said, "We have had three calls in the last two years from concerned citizens who have expressed concern about leniency for drunk driving charges. Lake County is one place where we have received the most calls."

Hill said, "Over 300 people are killed in drunk driving-related crashes every year in Indiana. Thousands more are injured and thousands more are victimized, so for every one person killed in a drunk driving crash, 10 to 15 family members get a life sentence of grief.

"We have to show the public that if you drive drunk, we are going to take it seriously. You are going to jail, possibly prison, if you repeat. People are going to be more likely to designate a driver and drink responsibly, than if they think they are just going to get a slap on the wrist," Hill said.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter has said the sheer volume of cases, more than 800 in 2014 alone, compels his office to plea bargain charges down, or risk having most of the cases dismissed for failing to meet speedy-trial deadlines mandated by state law.

While such reductions are opposed by MADD, it is perfectly legal under the discretion the state permits local officials. But state law does compel local court officials to report traffic convictions and court-ordered driving restrictions to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Carter initiated a state police investigation in May after discovering Lake Station City Court failed to report to the BMV a 2011 reckless driving conviction for Randolph L. “Randy” Palmateer, 37, business manager for the Northwestern Indiana Building and Construction Trades Council.

Carter said that wasn't an isolated incident, and that hundreds of convictions from that city court may not have been transmitted downstate between 2008 and 2012. State police have said they are gathering court records and interviewing potential witnesses in their ongoing investigation.

12 - UPDATE: Former Lake Station mayor sentenced to 4 years - September 28, 2016
HAMMOND — The former Lake Station mayor who wagered and lost the public trust is going to prison.

U.S. District Court Judges Rudy Lozano and James Moody on Wednesday sentenced 47-year-old Keith Soderquist to 48 months, and ordered him to pay $4,184 in restitution to the city of Lake Station and $22,571 to the IRS.

Soderquist’s 58-year-old wife, Deborah Soderquist, was sentenced to 24 months in prison and was ordered to share in restitution payments. She ran Lake Station’s food pantry and was treasurer of her husband’s election campaigns.

The Lake Station couple misused tens of thousands of dollars from the mayor’s re-election campaign fund and the city’s food pantry account to gamble at nearby casinos. The former mayor received a 42-month sentence for that fraud.

He received an additional six-month sentence for attempting to cover up his stepdaughter Miranda Brakley’s embezzlement of Lake Station City Court money.

Federal prosecutors had asked that he be sentenced to prison immediately, but Moody agreed to allow him to self-report at a specified date. The former mayor is scheduled to have neck surgery Oct. 13.

However, Moody did give the former mayor a tongue lashing.

“You stole from the food pantry? That’s obscene. I’ve sentenced many politicians in my 40 years here, but what you have done. ... Your city is full of people who are unemployed, underpaid and on welfare. What the hell were you thinking of? Are you goofy? Answer me!” the judge demanded.

The former mayor answered “no.” Moody continued, “So what you did is all right?” Shame on you.”

Soderquist, who had served nearly eight years in office, came under state and federal scrutiny four years ago following a public feud between him and former Lake Station City Judge Christopher A. Anderson, who was elected to replace Soderquist in the mayor’s office.

Anderson fired Miranda Brakley, the mayor’s stepdaughter, for stealing money held by the court from those arrested and posting bond in Lake Station.

Soderquist defended his stepdaughter and supported efforts to abolish City Court. Anderson called for an investigation of the Soderquists.

Federal authorities discovered Keith and Deborah Soderquist lost more than $100,000 between 2009 and 2012 at casino slot machines. They made dozens of withdrawals during the three-year period totaling $35,304.25 from his campaign fund and $5,040 from the city’s food pantry account.

A federal grand jury charged Keith and Deborah Soderquist in 2014 with 11 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud and filing false tax returns for criminal misuse of the public funds and covering it up.

A jury last year also found the former mayor and his wife guilty after an eight-day trial of all counts.

Afterward, the government became aware the former mayor had installed in the Lake Station City Hall a system to secretly record telephone conversations and listened to about 30 of the recorded calls made or received by potential government witnesses.

The Soderquists have dropped plans to appeal their convictions, and the former mayor admits to his role in the telephone recording scheme under an agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office to forestall the government from filing additional charges against him or his wife.

Lawyers for both Soderquists argued Wednesday for leniency on grounds their health will deteriorate in prison. Deborah Soderquist suffers from diabetes, muscular dystrophy, degenerative bone disorders and a cancerous lesion on her left kidney.

Brakley, 35, of Lake Station, received six months home detention followed by two years probation July 7 for her guilty plea to the theft.

13 - Portage Mayor Snyder indicted on bribery, tax charges - November 18, 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.

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.

14 - Bunich, his chief deputy indicted on corruption charges - November 18, 2016
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.”

15 - A county government history of bribery - November 27, 2016
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.