Indiana sheriff, mayor, other officials charged with bribery

WLFI File Photo
WLFI File Photo

HAMMOND, Ind. (AP) — A federal grand jury has indicted a northwestern Indiana sheriff, his top deputy and a mayor, accusing them of collecting bribes in return for contracts for towing and other services, a prosecutor announced Friday.

Indictments name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and tow company owners William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station and John Cortina of Kustom Auto Body in Portage, U.S. Attorney David Capp said at a news conference.

The FBI last week raided Buncich’s offices in Crown Point, Indiana, 45 miles southeast of Chicago.

The indictment alleges that between February 2014 and October 2016, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach worked to enrich Buncich and his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters, through towing contracts.

Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000, often collected by Downs, in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County, prosecutors said. The three men face wire fraud charges, and Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

Snyder, named in a separate indictment, is accused of receiving $12,000 from Cortina and the same unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage, located in neighboring Porter County. He’s also accused of accepting $13,000 for other city contracts or projects from 2013 to 2014. He’s faces a charge of obstructing tax laws for impeding the government’s collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC.

Buncich, Downs, Szarmach and Cortina were all arrested and taken into custody Friday morning, Capp said. Snyder was to surrender to federal authorities later, officials said.

“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.”

Buncich is the chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party and was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015. Snyder, a Republican, was elected to his second term as mayor in 2015.

Snyder’s attorney, Thomas Kirsch, issued a statement saying the mayor’s indictment “comes as a complete surprise.”

“Mayor Snyder looks forward to fighting these charges in a court of law and to complete vindication,” the statement said.

Buncich issued a statement saying his department was “continuing to run as normal.”

Calls to Szarmach’s towing company in Lake Station rang busy, while the person who answered the phone at Cortina’s Portage business hung up on a reporter.