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updated: 11/24/2016 1:43 PM

Prosecutor: Retired officer crucial in Indiana bribery probe

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HAMMOND, Ind. -- A retired police officer was instrumental in an investigation that led to charges alleging that a northwestern Indiana sheriff, his top deputy and a mayor collected bribes in return for contracts for towing and other services, a federal prosecutor said.

United States Attorney David Capp said the voluntary cooperation and assistance of Scott Jurgenson, owner of Samson's Towing of Merrillville, helped investigators uncover the alleged corruption, The (Northwest Indiana) Times reported (http://bit.ly/2fcdZTN ).

Capp said Jurgenson spent 22 years as an officer with the Merrillville Police Department before retiring.

The indictments announced Nov. 18 name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and two owners of local tow companies - William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station and John Cortina of Kustom Auto Body in Portage.

Prosecutors allege 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. Buncich, who is chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party, was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015.

Snyder, a Republican in his second term as Portage's mayor, is accused of soliciting and receiving bribes to receive contracts and obstructing the IRS from collecting unpaid taxes from his private mortgage business.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach all face wire fraud charges, while Buncich and Szarmach are also charged with bribery.

Cortina is accused of making illegal payments to Snyder and the unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage, located in neighboring Porter County.

Capp declined to immediately identify the unnamed individual, saying the federal investigation is still ongoing.

Buncich, Downs, Snyder and Cortina are free on bond awaiting trial, now set to begin in January. Szarmach remains in federal detention.

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Information from: The Times, http://www.nwitimes.com

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