Lake County sheriff, Portage mayor accused of taking bribes for towing contracts

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James Snyder (left) and John Buncich (right)

HAMMOND, Ind. – The sheriff of Lake County and mayor of Portage were indicted Friday on public corruption charges in connection with a towing and bribery scheme.

Federal prosecutors said the indictments were returned against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder. Timothy Downs—Buncich’s chief deputy—and William Szarmach, who owns a company called CSA Towing, were also named in Buncich’s multi-count indictment. John Cortina, the owner of a towing business, was named in Snyder’s indictment.

The indictment involving Buncich alleges deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money. Snyder’s indictment alleges a violation of the federal bribery statute.

Buncich is also charged individually with violating the federal bribery statute. He, Downs and Szarmach are accused of using towing contracts to enrich Buncich and his campaign committee, which was called “Buncich Boosters.”

The indictment said Buncich and Downs collected cash and check payments from Szarmach and another individual in exchange for the awarding of towing contracts in Lake County and Gary. The second individual came forward to report the practice, prosecutors said.

Buncich, in a position of power as county sheriff, demanded more than $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks for the contracts, prosecutors said.

The FBI and Indiana State Police raided his office and home last week.

Snyder, the mayor of Portage, is accused of accepting $12,000 from Cortina and the aforementioned whistleblower in exchange for favorable towing contracts in Portage. Cortina owns and operates Kustom Auto Body.

Snyder is accused of a second violation of the bribery statute. Between Jan. 2012 and Jan. 2014, he allegedly solicited and accepted $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and other consideration.

Snyder is also accused of impeding the Internal Revenue Service from collecting personal taxes and payroll taxes from his mortgage business.

Federal prosecutors said the investigations aren’t over yet and that towing contracts in Lake and Porter counties would be further scrutinized.