Lake County sheriff, Portage mayor charged in towing-bribe schemes

November 18, 2016

Lake County Sheriff and county Democratic Party Chairman John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder have been indicted on public corruption and bribery charges handed down by a grand jury.

The indictments were announced Friday by David Capp, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Indiana.

In the first indictment, Buncich was indicted along with chief deputy Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, for an alleged towing-bribery scheme that provided case payments and unreported campaign contributions to Buncich.

According to Capp’s statement, Buncich accepted numerous cash and check payments collected by Downs from Szarmach and an unidentified person in exchange for Buncich steering towing work to the donors. The unidentified person, who also owns a towing business in the region, voluntarily came forward and cooperated with the investigation.

“Buncich is also charged individually with a violation of the federal bribery statute. Specifically, Buncich is alleged to have corruptly solicited, demanded and received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions by Buncich regarding the towing contracts,” Capp said in the statement.

A spokesman for Buncich said in a brief statement the department's command staff continues to handle day-to-day operations of the uniform patrol, criminal investigations, civil, staff services, and corrections divisions.

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

An ordinance in the state’s second-most-populous county gives the sheriff exclusive control and authority to determine who provides towing services when officers working with the department need to tow a vehicle. Buncich’s tow list had 10 to 12 companies that were paid $50 per tow in specific regions of the county.

The indictment alleges Buncich used his power to “increase or decrease towing areas for certain towing companies based on cash payments or campaign contributions” he received from tow companies on his list, and allow certain companies to remain on the list based on the purchase of campaign fundraising tickets.

The indictment also says the unidentified tow company owner provided Buncich’s campaign finance committee a $2,000 check — the most a business may donate per year to a candidate under Indiana law — and another $500 for fundraiser tickets. Buncich did not report the $500 contribution.  Szarmach and the unidentified person made identical contributions, and in both cases the $500 contributions likewise were not reported.

In total, the indictment says Buncich “did knowingly and corruptly solicit, demand, accept, and agree to accept” cash payments between 2014 and 2016 totaling $34,000 to influence the award of towing contracts.  

Buncich is charged with federal program bribery for receiving bribes. He, Downs and Szarmach each are charged with three counts of honest services wire fraud. Szarmach is charged with federal program bribery for paying bribes to Buncich.

The indictment also includes a civil forfeiture action against Buncich.

In a separate indictment, Portage Mayor James Snyder and John Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body in Portage, are charged with violating a federal bribery statute.

According to the statement, Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totaling $12,000 from Cortina and the same unnamed tow business owner, in exchange for a towing contract in the city of Portage.  Cortina is charged with corruptly offering those checks to Snyder.

Snyder is also charged with a second violation of the federal bribery statute, alleging that between 2012 and January 10, 2014, he solicited and agreed to accept $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and other consideration.

Snyder also is charged with obstruction of IRS laws. There was no answer Friday at the Portage Mayor’s Office.

“These investigations are not over,” Capp said. “Our public corruption team will continue its work, particularly into the towing contracts in both Lake and Porter counties.” Capp urged anyone with information about these public corruption charges to call the FBI at 219-769-3719.

Capp said the indictments were the result of an ongoing FBI and IRS investigation aided by the Indiana State Police.  The indictments will be handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Philip C. Benson, Gary T. Bell and Jill R. Koster.



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