HAMMOND | Lake County Surveyor George Van Til has agreed to plead guilty to using his office's employees and resources to get re-elected.
The veteran Democratic county official signed an agreement, made public Monday, that he will admit to six counts of wire fraud and pay the county as much as $20,000 restitution in return for a shortened sentence.
He voluntarily resigns office as surveyor with the submission of the plea agreement, the federal court document states.
The U.S. Attorney's office is dropping two counts alleging he obstructed justice by paying an employee to destroy a computer hard drive containing evidence, but he could still face an enhanced sentence over those allegations.
Senior U.S. District Court Judge James T. Moody has scheduled a hearing 1 p.m. Thursday for Van Til to change his plea.
The agreement effectively ends the jury trial scheduled to begin Monday -- as well as Van Til's political career since he will be barred for running for any future public office. He had been serving his 20th year as the county's elected surveyor.
"It's the best resolution," defense attorney Scott King said Monday afternoon.
Mary Hatton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office, declined comment.
FBI and state police investigators raided Van Til's office in 2012, removing computers and containers full of official documents and a federal grand jury indicted Van Til, 65, last spring.
The government alleged he ordered an employee, who had worked for the surveyor's office for about a month in November 2011, to do his campaign work and little else.
The plea agreement contains a statement by Van Til that he "was fully aware of the rules and regulations contained in the Lake County Employee Handbook and various Lake County ordinances regarding the prohibition of using Lake County office equipment for political purposes.
"I did knowingly and intentionally request and direct some employees of the Lake County Surveyor’s Office to engage in political campaign work while they were being paid with Lake County governmental funds. Furthermore, I knew that while doing this campaign work at the Lake County Surveyor’s Office, these employees were using Lake County property and equipment to engage in political activity.
"Furthermore, I knew that false payroll information for these employees was being submitted for full payment of their entire salaries, even though some of their time at the Surveyor’s office was used to engage in political activity, rather than the legitimate work of the Lake County Surveyor’s Office.
"I further agree that since some of the Lake County Surveyor’s Office’s employees who were engaging in political activity while being paid with Lake County government funds had their payroll checks electronically deposited, payment of these salaries would involve some type of an electronic wire transmission.
"I hereby acknowledge that the wire transmissions identified in Counts 1 - 6 of the Indictment where either known by me, or reasonably foreseeable to me. Additionally, I further acknowledge that on or about February 27, 2012, I directed an employee of the Lake County Surveyor’s Office to remove and destroy a computer hard drive contained in a Lake County government computer.
"I provided that employee with private funds to purchase a new computer hard drive from a retail outlet and to install the new hard drive into the computer from which the Lake County hard drive was removed. I did this to prevent the possible future discovery by federal law enforcement officials of campaign work contained on the removed hard drive," it states.
County Democrats will have to call a caucus in the coming weeks to name Van Til's successor to a public office which spends $1.5 million in public funds and has a staff of 17 full-time and 15 part-time employees and oversees land surveying and flood-control services.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., the county chairman of the county precinct organization, said Monday he will act as soon as he receives official notice of Van Til's resignation.
"Its not a happy day," McDermott said.
John Garcia, who lost to Van Til by fewer than 2,300 votes in the 2012 Democratic primary, said Monday he is prepared to put his name before the caucus.
Garcia, who is owner of Garcia Consulting Engineers in Hammond, said his experience as a businessman, a former East Chicago city engineer and as a consultant for a number of other communities, qualifies him for the job. "I'm up to the task," Garcia said.
Gregory Sanchez, who has been Van Til's chief deputy for more than a year, is also consider a possible candidate.
Eric Krieg, a Munster Republican who ran against Van Til for surveyor in the 2012 general election, and Joe Hero, a St. John Republican, said Monday they think Van Til deserves no plea bargains. Hero urged Judge Moody to reject the agreement and force Van Til to be tried on all counts.