Fed probe of Lake law enforcement could affect pending, closed cases

2011-05-28T23:00:00Z 2011-09-22T14:20:07Z Fed probe of Lake law enforcement could affect pending, closed casesBy Sarah Tompkins sarah.tompkins@nwi.com, (219) 836-3780 nwitimes.com

CROWN POINT | An unknown number of criminal cases six Lake County law enforcement officers worked on could be dismissed as a result of their being targets of a federal investigation, according to legal experts.

The FBI, Internal Revenue Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and Food and Drug Administration are involved in the multifaceted investigation, sources said. Last week, federal agents executed search warrants in Crown Point targeting Capt. Marco Kuyachich, Lt. Michael Reilly, Sgt. Joseph Kumstar and Officers Ronald Slusser, Edward Kabella and Scott Shelhart.

In federal court last month, prosecutors dismissed one of Kabella's drug busts. According to court records, Kabella had found 8.5 kilograms of powder cocaine, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars on the street, while working drug interdiction.

Mary Hatton, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office, said prosecutors could not comment on whether the dismissal was due to Kabella's being a target of the federal investigation.

None of the officers has been arrested in relation to the investigation.

The U.S. attorney's office would not release information about the investigation or comment on how many of its cases could be affected by it.

Charges against officers who were the primary investigators on criminal cases often force prosecutors to dismiss the cases, said Craig Futterman, a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School.

"It is difficult to rely upon the testimony of someone whom your office has found to engage in a pattern of corruption and dishonest behavior," he said, adding that frequently officers are the sole known witnesses to a crime.

Futterman said a federal investigation into a case's main officer may not bring about an immediate dismissal of a case, but ethics require prosecutors to evaluate the officer's role and whether they can meet their burden of proof without that officer taking the stand.

Past investigations involving target probes

For Slusser, this is not first time he has been the target of a criminal investigation. In 2006, he was charged with felony perjury and misdemeanor conversion after allegedly claiming $450 in illegitimate travel reimbursements, according to court records.

A special prosecuting attorney dismissed the case a year later, court records show, after Slusser remained crime-free and agreed to pay restitution and perform 10 hours of community service.

Roy Dominguez, who was sheriff at the time, was unable to be reached for comment Friday night.

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said he did not know how many pending and appellate cases would be affected by the ongoing investigation.

"When this investigation runs its course, then we'll see where we're at," said Buncich, who placed the officers on paid administrative leave after they were identified as targets.

Buncich said several of the men had received commendations during their careers. In 2009 Kuyachich was given a lifetime achievement award, and in 1991 Reilly was noted for his work as an evidence technician in a series of shotgun slayings.

Buncich declined to comment further.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said his office will evaluate the officers' involvement in cases to see if any need to be dismissed.

"There will probably be a few, but we're looking into that now," he said. "We'll look at each investigation that any of the officers had contact with. Decisions will be made at that point."

Carter said he did not think any of the officers caused an unfair trial or conviction that would warrant an appeal, but that closed cases also would be examined.

Gun sales, illegal payments part of current investigation

According to sources close to the case, the ATF is looking into whether Kumstar used Lake County letterhead and the federal firearms licenses of Kabella and Slusser to sell guns to collectors and licensed dealers, and the IRS is investigating the unclaimed proceeds from those alleged gun sales, as well unauthorized overtime payments.

According to a 2009 state audit, the Sheriff's Department paid tens of thousands of dollars in overtime to high-ranking, salaried personnel who were not entitled to such pay.

Between 2008 and 2010, Kuyachich received more than $4,600, Reilly received more than $8,000, Kumstar received more than $20,000 and three other officers received more than $11,000 total, according to the report.

Kumstar's overtime was "incorrectly entered into the payroll system," according to the report, which also stated he approved his own overtime hours.

In January, John Kopack, an attorney for the Sheriff's Department at the time, said the overpayment was the result of a bookkeeping error that more than doubled Kumstar's pay rate. Kopack said Kumstar reimbursed the county through paycheck deductions.

"We are still in the midst of reviewing everything," said Matt Fech, Kumstar's attorney. "Nothing has been filed as of yet."

The five remaining officers either did not return calls or were unable to be reached for comment.

Moving forward, Carter said the allegations against the officers will not affect the relationship his office has with the Sheriff's Department in prosecuting cases.

"The fact that some officers are under scrutiny does not reflect on the great work the men and women of that police department have done," he said, declining to comment further.

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