Fed­eral tow­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion keeps courts busy in 2018

Post Tribune (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Craig Lyons

High-pro­file in­ves­ti­ga­tions into al­leged pay-to-play tow­ing in North­west In­di­ana con­tin­ued to keep fed­eral judges busy in 2018.

For­mer Lake County Sher­iff John Bun­cich in Jan­uary 2018 re­ceived a sen­tence of more than 15 years for us­ing his of­fice to so­licit bribes from tow op­er­a­tors. His two co-de­fen­dants, for­mer Lake County Chief of Po­lice Timothy Downs and Wil­liam Szarmach, of C.S.A. Tow­ing, who co­op­er­ated with fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors, each re­ceived two years of pro­ba­tion.

Downs, Szarmach and Bun­cich were named in a mul­ti­count in­dict­ment in Novem­ber 2016 al­leg­ing a tow­ing scheme where the sher­iff ac­cepted bribes in the form of thou­sands of dol­lars in cash and do­na­tions to his cam- paign fund, Bun­cich Boost­ers, ac­cord­ing to court records.

Szarmach was later charged with fil­ing a false tax re­turn, and agreed to pay up­ward of $89,000 in resti­tu­tion as a part of his sen­tence.

The for­mer sher­iff, who is be­ing held in a fed­eral prison in Spring­field, Mo., re­ceived pos­i­tive news on his ap­peal Dec. 21.

In his ap­peal filed with the 7th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals in Chicago, Bun­cich ar­gued suc-

cess­fully that there was in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence to sup­port any of his wire fraud con­vic­tions, court records state.

“The United States con­cedes that it failed to in­tro­duce suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence of ‘Fed­eral re­serve pay­roll fund’ trans­fers as al­leged in counts 1 through 3 of the in­dict­ment,” As­sis­tant U.S. At­tor­ney David Hol­lar wrote in the re­sponse.

“Those counts should be va­cated, and the case should be re­manded for re­sen­tenc­ing on the re­main­ing counts,” Hol­lar said.

The govern­ment ar­gued, how­ever, that there was “suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence” to con­vict Bun­cich of his two re­main­ing wire fraud counts, the re­sponse states.

Bun­cich was in­dicted the same day as Portage Mayor James Sny­der, but that case is ex­pected to go to trial in Jan­uary.

Much of 2018 was spent lit­i­gat­ing how fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors han­dled and screened email com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween Sny­der and his at­tor­neys. Sny­der ar­gued the faulty process ex­posed the fed­eral trial team to at­tor­ney client priv­i­leged in­for­ma­tion, and should war­rant the re­cusal of those as­sis­tant U.S. at­tor­neys or the dis­missal of some of the charges.

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors said Sny­der has not pre­sented any ev­i­dence that shows his email com­mu­ni­ca­tions were used in any im­proper way dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments, and that a judge should not dis­qual­ify the pros­e­cu­tors on the case or dis­miss any charges against the Portage mayor.

Judge Joseph Van Bokke­len de­clined to re- move the trial team or dis­miss any of the charges.

“The court finds that, as car­ried out in this case, the fil­ter process worked suf­fi­ciently, even if the process it­self has in­her­ent flaws (it has a sem­blance of the fox guard­ing the hen house),” Van Bokke­len said in his order.

Sny­der’s at­tor­neys have asked Van Bokke­len to re­con­sider the order.

A for­mer Mer­ril­lville town coun­cil­man, who fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors said dur­ing tes­ti­mony in Bun­cich’s case was an early tar­get of the tow­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion, was sen­tenced to 15 months in prison in June.

Tom Go­ral­cyzk ad­mit­ted he helped a tow op­er­a­tor secure a con­tract with Mer­ril­lville and ac­cepted two used ve­hi­cles and other items to make that ar­range­ment.

The charges said that Go­ral­czyk “did know­ingly and cor­ruptly so­licit, de­mand, ac­cept and agree to ac­cept” a 2000 Jeep Grand Chero­kee; a 2008 Ford Fo­cus; four new camper tires; and free stor­age for a mo­tor­cy­cle from “In­di­vid­ual A” in re­turn for a tow­ing con­tract from Mer­ril­lville, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

Go­ral­czyk pre­sented false bills of sale to the In­di­ana Bureau of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles for the Jeep Grand Chero­kee, which he ob­tained for $400 though the value was in ex­cess of $2,500, and for the Ford Fo­cus, which he ac­cepted for free though it was val­ued in ex­cess of $5,000, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

Lake County’s for­mer deputy chief of po­lice was pulled into Bun­cich’s case in April, when he was charged for ly­ing to the FBI when he was in­ter­viewed by fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors about tow­ing op­er­a­tions.

Dan Murchek, 58, of Scher­erville, was sen­tenced in Septem­ber to two years of pro­ba­tion by fed­eral Judge James Moody. Murchek was in­dicted in April for al­legedly mak­ing false state­ments to the FBI, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments, and re­port­edly lied to in­ves­ti­ga­tors dur­ing an in­ter­view about tow­ing op­er­a­tions un­der con­victed for­mer Bun­cich when the for­mer deputy chief was asked about cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions he re­ceived from a tow op­er­a­tor.

Dur­ing the fall of 2016, Murchek had an­nounced he planned to run for sher­iff dur­ing the 2018 elec­tion, as Bun­cich had served two con­sec­u­tive terms and was pro­hib­ited by term lim­its from run­ning again.

On Sept .23,2016, Murchek met with “Per­son A,” who was record­ing the meet­ing in co­op­er­a­tion with the FBI, and dis­cussed how to struc­ture a cam­paign do­na­tion to avoid In­di­ana’s lim­i­ta­tion on busi­ness con­tri­bu­tions, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

The in­dict­ment said “Per­son A” al­legedly gave Murchek a $1,000 do­na­tion from his busi­ness, which was a tow­ing firm that did work for the Sher­iff’s Depart­ment, and a per­sonal check for $500 from one of the busi­ness’ em­ploy­ees. “Per­son A” had given an em­ployee $500, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice, and the em­ployee then wrote a check to Murchek’s cam­paign.

Dur­ing a Novem­ber 2016 in­ter­view with the FBI, agents asked Murchek about con­tri­bu­tions from “Per­son A,” ac­cord­ing to the in­dict­ment, but he de­nied struc­tur­ing the do­na­tion to skirt In­di­ana cam­paign do­na­tion lim­its.

Moody, dur­ing Murchek’s Septem­ber sen­tenc­ing, de­cried the for­mer deputy’s chief ’s con­duct.

“You’ll be re­mem­bered as a crook,” Moody said.

“Yes, sir,” Murchek said dur­ing sen­tenc­ing.

The Porter County as­ses­sor in Oc­to­ber was in­dicted on a tax charge re­lated to his per­sonal busi­ness, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments, but is ex­pected to co­op­er­ate against the Portage mayor, his brother.

Jon Sny­der, 42, has pleaded guilty to fail­ing to supply in­for­ma­tion to the IRS, a mis­de­meanor charge.

Sny­der, as owner of Shore­line Ap­praisals Inc., al­legedly failed to give the IRS an In­for­ma­tional Re­turn 1099 Form, which is a re­quire­ment for nonem­ploy­ees who re­ceived more than $600 in pay­ments dur­ing a cal­en­dar year, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

Sny­der and Shore­line Ap­praisals al­legedly failed to file the doc­u­ment for “Per­son A,” who was paid more than $5,000 in 2013, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

The long-run­ning case against em­ploy­ees at the Calumet Town­ship trustee’s of­fice wound down in 2018.

For­mer Trustee Mary El­gin, 74, was sen­tenced in May to a year and a day in prison after she pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud, one count of con­spir­acy to com­mit wire fraud and one count of fail­ure to file a tax re­turn. She is be­ing held at a fed­eral prison in Pekin, Ill. She has a June 28 re­lease date, ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of Pris­ons web­site.

El­gin used town­ship em­ploy­ees and of­fices to run po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns and raise money for po­lit­i­cal fundrais­ers. “The higher the em­ployee’s salary, the more tick­ets em­ploy­ees were given and ex­pected to pur­chase” for the fundrais­ers, court records state.

Steven Hunter, El­gin’s son who was head of the town­ship’s in­for­ma­tion sys­tems tech­nol­ogy depart­ment, was sen­tenced to a year of su­per­vised re­lease after also tak­ing a plea deal.

Ethel Shel­ton, El­gin’s sec­re­tary, and Alex Wheeler, su­per­vi­sor of the town­ship’s Job Search Works, chose to go to trial in April. The jury ac­quit­ted Wheeler, but con­victed Shel­ton of con­spir­acy to com­mit wire fraud and con­spir­acy to com­mit hon­est ser­vices wire fraud.

Shel­ton’s mo­tion for a mis­trial is pend­ing and is sched­uled for a hear­ing in Fe­bru­ary.

KYLE TELECHAN/POST-TRI­BUNE

Portage Mayor James Sny­der ar­rives at the fed­eral court in Ham­mond with his at­tor­neys for a pre­trial hear­ing Sept. 14.

SUZANNE TEN­NANT/POST-TRI­BUNE

Ex-Lake County Sher­iff John Bun­cich, right, walks to the fed­eral court­house in Ham­mond with his at­tor­ney, Bryan Truitt, for his sen­tenc­ing in Jan­uary 2018.

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