Lake County sheriff, Portage mayor indicted on bribery charges

SUN-TIMES MEDIA WIRE - Several northwest Indiana public officials, including Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder, were indicted Friday on federal bribery charges involving towing contracts.

One indictment named Buncich and his Chief Deputy Timothy Downs in connection with a scheme to exchange money for county towing contracts, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office. The indictment also named William Szarmach, owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, Indiana. They are charged with deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money.

Prosecutors allege that between February 2014 and October 2016, Downs collected multiple payments from Szarmach and the owner of another towing company in exchange for towing business in Lake County and the city of Gary. The scheme allegedly benefited Buncich personally, as well as his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters.

Buncich was also charged individually with violating a federal bribery statute, according to prosecutors. He is accused of having solicited, demanded and received more than $25,000 in cash and another $7,000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions in regard to towing contracts.

In a statement released Friday afternoon following the indictments, the sheriff’s office did not comment on the charges, saying only that Buncich and his administrative and command staff continue to oversee day-to-day operations for the department’s criminal investigations, patrol, civil, staff services, and corrections divisions.

“The Sheriff’s Department is continuing to run as normal,” Buncich said in the statement. “There has been no disruption of any operations. The proud men and women of the Lake County Indiana Sheriff’s Department continue to serve and protect our citizens.”

A second indictment was returned against Snyder and John Cortina, who owns and operates Kustom Auto Body in Portage, prosecutors said. Both men are charged with violating a federal bribery statute.

Snyder allegedly solicited and received two checks totaling $12,000 from Cortina and the owner of another towing company in exchange for towing contracts in Portage, prosecutors said. Snyder is also charged with a second bribery violation for allegedly soliciting and accepting a $13,000 bank check in January 2014 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts and a Portage Redevelopment Commission project.

The same towing company owner voluntarily came forward and cooperated with federal authorities in both investigations, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

A third charge against Snyder claims he obstructed attempts by the IRS to collect personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC, prosecutors said. He allegedly diverted funds from his company to a sole proprietorship, then submitted forms to the IRS that did not disclose the existence of the proprietorship or its bank account.

“These investigations are not over,” U.S. Attorney David Capp said in the statement. “Our public corruption team will continue its work, particularly into the towing contracts in both Lake and Porter counties.”

The investigations were conducted by the FBI and IRS with assistance from Indiana State Police.