Prominent NW Indiana Officials Indicted on Public Corruption Charges

Two prominent northwest Indiana officials, along with several others, have been indicted on public corruption charges, US Attorney David Capp announced Friday.

Lake County Sherrif John Buncich and the mayor of Portage, James Snyder, were named in two public corruption indictments.

Buncich, along with his chief deputy Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, were first named in a multi-count indictment alleging a "deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money in connection with towing contracts in Lake County," authorities said. 

The indictment alleges that from February 2014 to October 2016, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach "devised a scheme to deprive the citizens of Lake County of their right to the honest services of the sheriff’s office."

The scheme aimed to enrich Buncich personally and his campaign committee, the Buncich Boosters, according to officials. 

The indictment details a number of checks and cash payments, often collected by Downs, from Szarmach and an unnamed "Individual A" in exchange for Buncich awarding county towing business and towing in Gary for ordinance violations. Individual A owned the tow truck business and voluntarily came forward to help authorities in the investigation, Capp said. 

Buncich is also charged with a violation of the federal bribery statute after he allegedly solicited, demanded and received $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks in exchange for "favorable actions by Buncich regarding the towing contracts."

In a second indictment, Snyder and John Cortina, who owns and operates a towing business called Kustom Auto Body in Portage, were also charged with a violation of the federal bribery statute. Snyder, who was first elected as mayor in 2011 and was re-elected to a second four-year term in 2015, is accused of soliciting and receiving two checks worth $120,000 from Cortina and the same Individual A from the first indictment, in exchange for a towing contract in Portage. 

Cortina is accused of corruptly offering those checks to Snyder. 

Snyder is also charged with a second violation, claiming he solicited and agreed to accept a bank check for $13,000 in connection with  Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and others. 

A third charge against Snyder alleged obstruction of the internal revenue laws, claiming he was involved in a scheme to obstruct and imede the IRS's collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortage business, First Financial Trust Mortage, LLC. 

The FBI and Indiana State Police were seen raiding the Lake County Sheriff's Department last week. U.S. Attorney spokesman Ryan Holmes said at the time that federal authorities were serving search warrants on the sheriff.

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

Buncich did not comment on the investigation, but said in a statement following news of the indictment that the sheriff's department is "continuing to run as normal."

"There has been no disruption of any operations," he said in a statement. "The proud men and women of the Lake County Indiana Sheriff's Department continue to serve and protect our citizens."

Anyone with information related to these public corruption charges is encouraged to call the FBI at (219) 769-3719.

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