HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder were indicted today on public corruption charges.
Snyder and John Cortina, who owns and operates a towing business, Kustom Auto Body, in Portage, are charged with violating the federal bribery statute.
Buncich and Chief Deputy Sheriff Tim Downs are charged with mail fraud, and Buncich is charged with receiving a bribe.
Buncich and Downs were escorted into a federal courtroom by U.S. marshals to face fraud and bribery charges. Snyder was meeting with his staff at his home in Portage even as U.S. Attorney David Capp announced the indictments.
Buncich, Downs and William Szarmach were named in a multi-count indictment alleging a deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money in connection with towing contracts. Szarmach owns and operates CSA Towing in Lake Station.
The indictment alleges that between February 2014, and October 2016, the three men schemed to enrich Buncich and his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters, through towing contracts.
The announcement comes only a week after the FBI and state police raided the office and home of Sheriff Buncich in an investigation of bribery and extortion involving thousands of cars county police have towed off public streets by private towing firms in Northwest Indiana.
Buncich is the county’s highest elected law enforcement official as well as the chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party.
There is no indication Buncich will step down as the county’s top cop or as party boss, although pressure is expected to build to oust him at least from the chairmanship of the county’s Democratic Party by the younger wing of the party, which is led by Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.
Investigators served federal search warrants Nov. 10 on the sheriff, the Lake County E-911 offices and the Lake County Voter Registration and Elections office.
The E-911 search warrant, obtained earlier this week by The Times, demanded telephone, radio and email data as well as paper documents, including a list of towing firms authorized by county government to tow cars and documents tracking their activity.
State police and FBI agents removed several boxes of documents from the Lake County Government Center last week. Federal agents also raided a Portage business site, whose owner said was connected to a Merrillville-based towing firm.
Federal authorities told a U.S. District Court magistrate earlier this month they sought authorization to seize evidence of crimes involving receipt of bribes by an agent of local government, mail or wire fraud of honest services, conspiracy to commit mail or wire fraud, and honest services mail/wire fraud and extortion by state authorities.
The crimes listed could result in felony convictions and long prison sentences.
The warrant sought data about Lake County towing from the time period of 2010 to present. Buncich has been serving as sheriff since 2011. He previously served as sheriff from 1994 to 2002.
Buncich asked the Lake County Council in 2012 to raise to $75 from $20 the fee the county charges each time a county police officer calls for a towing firm to remove a car on public streets. Buncich said he would use the revenue from those fees to support officers’ salaries and benefits.
Buncich also said he would become more aggressive in towing disabled cars as well as vehicles belonging to targets of his department’s gang and drug task forces.
The county collected $220,000 in towing fees last year and $164,000 this year to date from the thousands of cars towed.