Lake County officials find public corruption indictment sad and untimely

2011-09-22T20:45:00Z 2011-09-24T02:10:43Z Lake County officials find public corruption indictment sad and untimelyBy Bill Dolan, (219) 662-5328
September 22, 2011 8:45 pm  • 

CROWN POINT | Lake County political and law enforcement circles immediately registered shock and regret after the indictment Thursday of Coroner Thomas Philpot and three county police officers on public corruption charges.

"It feels a little early to talk about it, but regardless of what you think of Tom Philpot, I don't want to see any elected official have a problem like this," County Treasurer John Petalas said minutes after The Times' live online coverage of a news conference by the U.S. attorney's office ended.

Philpot is charged with theft of almost $25,000 in federal funds earmarked to improve the collection of delinquent child support payments.

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said he is determined the department will recover from the scandal involving allegations that police officers used their positions to traffic in firearms and falsify records to avoid being caught violating federal gun control and tax laws.

"This cloud has been hanging over us for months now," Buncich said. "This is a sad day for the Sheriff's Department, but we will get through it."

The sheriff said Edward Kabella, a six-year veteran of the department's drug interdiction unit; Joseph Kumstar, a former deputy chief and 17-year veteran police officer; and Ronald D. Slusser, a 10-year veteran and member of the department's elite SWAT team, resigned Tuesday from the force.

"This isn't indicative of all the officers," Buncich said. "The vast majority are dedicated and hardworking."

He said he beefed up security over the department's armory, and all gun purchasing now must get top approval.

The sheriff said he will decide soon whether to reinstate Capt. Marco Kuyachich, Lt. Michael Reilly and Scott Shelhart, who were suspended with Kabella, Kumstar and Slusser last spring when news of the gun investigation first broke.

Kuyachich has threatened to sue the county to clear his name, saying he was questioned only as a witness, not as a target of the investigation.

Former Sheriff Roy Dominguez, who was in office when the alleged gun trafficking took place, said he read the indictments, which allege the three officers committed the crimes in their off-duty hours.

"I knew these individuals, and to the best of my knowledge, when they were on duty, they did a good job as police officers," Dominguez said. "If any of these charges are true, I am surprised and disappointed as we all should be whenever any law enforcement officer commits a crime."

Other Lake officials bemoaned the public corruptions charges giving the county's image a new black eye -- and only days after taking Gov. Mitch Daniels to task for branding Northwest Indiana, unfairly in their eyes, for having a "reputation for governmental corruption."

"It's unfortunate to have another county official who's been indicted," Commissioner Roosevelt Allen, D-Gary, said Thursday afternoon. "I don't know the circumstances of this case, but I hope (Philpot) is exonerated."

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., also the Lake County Democratic Party chairman, said: "As much as this looks bad for Democrats, I think it's fair to point out that in this case we sort of policed ourselves with the guns issue."

Buncich said he helped bring discrepancies in the department's gun purchasing to the attention of federal investigators when he took office this year.

"We did cooperate beginning in March when we found that things just didn't seem proper, and we turned to the federal authorities," Buncich said.

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