The 2019 Michigan City mayoral election is facing a controversial legal undercurrent as felony charges remain pending against Mayor Ron Meer. But as the LaPorte County court system searches for a judge who can take the case, Meer is alleging an “untenable conflict of interest” and possible political motivations should remove the proceedings from the LaPorte County Prosecutor’s Office.
The prosecutor’s office filed an information Oct. 30 charging Meer with eight felony and misdemeanor counts, including felony intimidation and official misconduct. The charges allege Meer – a Democrat facing re-election Tuesday – gave false information to the Michigan City Police Department and threatened local officers, including former Police Chief Mark Swistek, after Meer’s stepson, Adam Bray, was arrested for drug crimes.
The information says that after Bray was arrested on cocaine, heroin and firearm charges, Meer told Michigan City police that the confidential informant involved in the arrest came to Meer’s house and told the mayor “that the CI had been directed by members of the LaPorte County Prosecutor’s Office and LaPorte County Drug Task Force to setup and target Adam Bray for political reasons … .”
Then, according to the allegations, Meer told Swistek that members of the drug task force committed “unethical/illegal acts.” He also threatened to fire Swistek and threatened to reassign the members of the task force, including Lt. Tim Richardson, Cpl. Francisco Rodriguez, Cpl. Kyle Shiparski and Cpl. Willie Henderson, according to the prosecutor’s office.
Though the charges were filed Oct. 30, a probable cause hearing still has not been set after two judges recused themselves. LaPorte Superior Courts 4 and 2 judges Greta Stirling Friedman and Richard R. Stalkbrink Jr., respectively, each recused Oct. 31.
The county clerk forwarded the case to LaPorte Superior Court 1 Judge Michael S. Bergerson for his review on Nov. 2.
Friedman recused “from even finding probable cause on the basis that among other reasons the Judge’s spouse, whose employment caused him to be included on an email chain and could potentially lead to his being a witness in this matter,” according to online court records. Friedman added that the conflict extended to her magistrate.
Similarly, Stalbrink said he “has a conflict in this cause in that his wife is corporation counsel for Michigan City,” online records show.
While the issue of probable cause remains pending, Meer’s counsel, Merrillville attorney Scott King, filed Monday a request for a special prosecutor should the action proceed.
“Mr. Meer is charged by Information with several counts of misdemeanor and Level 6 felony allegations filed on October 30, 2019 without any probable cause finding by a neutral and detached magistrate and without being requested to be sealed unless and until such finding was made,” King wrote. A motion to seal public records was filed Oct. 31, but the clerk unsealed the records Nov. 1.
“It should be noted that Mr. Meer is the incumbent Mayor of Michigan City, Indiana and is seeking reelection in the November 5, 2019 election,” the special prosecutor motion continues, “and it should further be noted that the LaPorte County Prosecuting Attorney is a political supporter of one or more of the defendant’s political challenges.”
According to the motion, Meer’s defense will include “discovery mechanisms with (the prosecutor’s office) to pursue evidence of such impropriety.” Thus, employees of the office, including Prosecutor John Lake, could be witnesses.
“He must prove that a statement alleged to have been made by Mr. Meer that his (Lake’s) office engaged in conspiracy to target his (Meer’s) son for political reasons was false, not only as an element of the offense charged but, one would assume, to avoid a significant tarnish to the professional and ethical reputation of his office and himself,” the motion reads.
The criminal filings came about a week after Swistek, along with assistant chiefs Royce Williams and Kevin Urbancyzk, resigned.
In a resignation letter posted to the Michigan City Police Facebook page, Swistek wrote to Meer, “Your directive to me this evening to withdraw all cooperation and participation in the LaPorte County Drug Task Force and to reassign the officers who are currently attached to the Task Force places the Michigan City community at unacceptable risk. I am simply unable to reconcile my oath of office with your directive for me to withdraw our Department’s participation in the Task Force, reassign the talented and committed members of the Michigan City Police Department who are currently serving the unit with the utmost integrity, dedication and professionalism asked of them.
“…I do not know whether your decision is related to your step-son’s recent arrest by the Task Force,” Swistek continued. “But I do know that your decision is not in the interest of public safety, that it places the people of this great community in harms’ way, without any drug enforcement, Michigan City will be less safe to live and a more dangerous place for law enforcement to work.”
In a response also posted to Facebook, Meer said he had “apologized for my choice of words to the Chief during a private heated discussion, and I apologize to the members of the Michigan City Police Department, especially to the detectives currently assigned to the Drug Task Force. I did not mean what I said to Chief Swistek and I had no intention of reassigning any officers on the LaPorte County Drug Task Force or withdrawing the cooperation and participation of the Michigan City Police Department on said task force.”
Meer has since appointed Dion Campbell as the city’s new police chief, according to The Michigan City News-Dispatch.
King did not respond to an Indiana Lawyer request for comment on the case.