PORTAGE — Mayor James Snyder has filed a lawsuit against the City Council and clerk-treasurer over the council's operation of the Utility Service Board.
Snyder, represented by Indianapolis law firm Bingham Greenbaum Doll, is asking the court for both immediate and permanent action to declare the board's operations illegal and rule the recently passed stormwater fees void and unenforceable.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Porter Superior Court. The suit specifically names council members Elizabeth Modesto, D-1st; Pat Clem, D-2nd; Scott Williams, D-3rd; John Cannon, R-4th; Collin Czilli, D-5th; Sue Lynch, D-at-large; Mark Oprisko, D-at-large, and clerk-treasurer Chris Stidham.
The lawsuit is the latest volley in a battle between Snyder and the City Council since the council took over operations of the Utility Service Board just over a year ago.
"After nearly 90 days of no written response from the City Council attorneys, my staff and the city Board of Works felt this was the best, most efficient and most cost-effective way to remedy the potential legal and financial risk the city has been put in by two ordinances that I signed that we have been informed by other mayors and legal experts are not legally valid," Snyder stated Friday in a written statement.
"We look forward to a speedy declaratory judgment and final resolution to the matter so residents know who to call when an issue arises. It is my job to enforce all city ordinances, and when being informed one is not valid or is potentially illegal, it is my duty to seek speedy remedy," Snyder said. "It is not a matter of the council’s convenience, it is a matter of doing what is right. We have had enough meetings; the residents deserve corrections and collaboration, and I truly believe a majority of the council wants this as well."
The council adopted an ordinance in February 2017 to take control of the Utility Service Board after wrangling with Snyder over his spending of USB funds.
City Council Attorney Ken Elwood said Snyder forced the council to take that action because of "spending money for his own benefit," including attempting to pay $93,000 for attorney fees to defend his federal corruption indictment and spending utility funds to lease "$60,000 to $70,000" vehicles for his own use.
The lawsuit contends that, under state law, the USB, which was created by combining separate stormwater and sanitary sewer boards in 2010, violates state code. In addition, he contends the ordinance that put the City Council at the helm of the USB is also in violation of state law. Because those two ordinances are in violation of state law, the suit also contends, an ordinance that gave the council a salary for running the USB and the ordinance establishing the use of impervious surface measurements to charge stormwater fees for nonresidential customers are illegal.
Snyder sought advice from Bingham Greenbaum Doll last year on the issue. The law firm produced a memo stating the USB was illegally created.
Elwood said the lawsuit came as a surprise to the council, which has hired its own Indianapolis-based law firm, Clark Quinn, for advice and representation. Clark Quinn issued an advocacy memo, Elwood said, which stated the laws are vague and there are "many arguments" on both sides.
Elwood said he has been working with City Attorney Gregg Sobkowski in attempts to work out the differences and had hoped the two Indianapolis-based firms could meet to negotiate an agreement.
"Instead, he's wanting to spend thousands of dollars to settle this. This will stop projects because we don't know how much money we will be spending on legal fees," Elwood said.
Michael Griffiths, an attorney with Bingham Greenbaum Doll, disputed Elwood, saying his firm has reached out to the council's firm to seek a resolution prior to going to court.
"We did reach out to them a few times and tried to resolve this. Our goal was to try and stop this before it went to this action," Griffiths said.
Elwood said he also questions Snyder's standing in filing the lawsuit and finds the action illogical.
"He was chairman of the Utility Service Board for six years and has taken all kinds of action," Elwood said, adding those actions could now come into question. "Where's the logic in that?"
"When the mayor took office, that structure was in place, and he had no reason to question it," Griffiths said.
While named as a defendant in the lawsuit, council member Cannon is defending the lawsuit and believes Elwood should be replaced as the council and USB attorney.
"For months now, Mayor Snyder has been transparent and open with the City Council about his concerns with the USB and fees. If this fee is not legal, it will cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars to litigate. If we are entering into contracts unlawfully all of us should pause and seek correction," Cannon said in a written statement.
"My request to Council President Oprisko is to get us new legal counsel that is not financially or ethically conflicted in this matter. The entire council is confused when Clerk-Treasurer Stidham, who is also an attorney at Rhame and Elwood, speaks on the matter. Neither Stidham nor Ken Elwood have written us an opinion for review despite repeated requests. It has been 90 days since the mayor informed us of this problem," Cannon said, adding he hopes this can be resolved outside of the courtroom.
"It is a sad day for Portage when one branch of government is suing the other two. This is a loss to the city of Portage, which will be paying for the legal fees," said Stidham, adding he could not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but called the action "bizarre" in that Snyder had signed both the ordinances to change the composition of the USB and for the use of the impervious surface fee system.
Oprisko, the council's president, declined comment.
Take a look back at corruption in the Region
Corruption in the Region: Former Lake County Commissioner Steve C. Corey pleads guilty to lying and obstructing a federal investigation
Name: Steve C. Corey
Office held: Lake County Commissioner
Dates in office: 1983 to 1992
The crime: He lied to a U.S. District Court grand jury investigating bribery in Lake County Government.
Corey was a successful businessman who built a thriving Hobart bakery, once from the ground up in 1954 and again from the ashes of a fire that gutted the business in 1974.
He found time after making the doughnuts to become politically active. He served on the Hobart City Council in the 1960s and was elected to the Lake County Council in 1978 and 1982.
Corey became a county commissioner in December 1983, when Democratic precinct committeemen named him to replace Rudy Bartolomei, better known as Rudy Bart, who took over that year as sheriff.
Federal authorities soon charged Bartolomei with misconduct ranging from making county employees work on his political campaigns and work on a summer cottage on Lake Michigan as well as paying his housemaid with public money and extorting political contributions from county employees.
Bartolomei pleaded guilty to two felony counts and within weeks began cooperating with federal investigators and a grand jury on the web of public corruption over which he and his fellow county officials had presided.
Bartolomei had spent his time on the county board of commissioners cleaning up — so to speak — by awarding inflated janitorial contracts to vendors who paid kickbacks to him and other commissioners.
Authorities subpoenaed thousands of pages of documents, including minutes of commissioners meetings, payment vouchers in a probe called "Operation Lights Out," that resulted in a number of indictments, including that of Corey in 1993 on perjury and obstruction charges charges.
The government alleged Corey lied in July 1989 to a federal grand jury investigating whether Corey had accepted $30,000 from his long-time friend, East Chicago power broker Vincent Kirrin, to steer a lucrative government cleaning contract to a company Kirrin secretly owned and operated.
Corey denied wrongdoing and insisted the money was a business loan to his struggling bakery. But Corey pleaded guilty in February 1994 to lying and obstructing the federal investigation.
Former U.S. Attorney David Capp, who coordinated the federal investigation, said at the time the perjury conviction was "particularly important" because it revealed how contracts were awarded, not through independent assessment of their merits, but on cronyism.
A federal judge sentenced Corey to probation. Corey, who was suffering from a heart condition, died less than a year later.
Corruption in the Region: Corruption was spelled GUEA a decade ago
Name: Gary Urban Enterprise Association
Those involved: Jojuana Meeks, former Lake County Councilman Will Smith, former Gary attorney Willie Harris, former county tax collector Roosevelt Powell
Gary Urban Enterprise Association or GUEA came into existence in 1985 under a state law permitting U.S. Steel and other Gary businesses to reduce their property taxes by making charitable donations of more than $15 million to the association between 2000 and 2003.
The donations were supposed to improve the quality of life of the poor by redeveloping the nearly 3-square-mile area of Gary's Emerson neighborhood.
However, a Times investigation in 2004 found that former GUEA Director Jojuana L. Meeks and other in GUEA embezzling about $1 million through perks like her Jaguar sports car, a new, rehabilitated home and overpayments to herself and other GUEA officials.
The nonprofit collapsed in 2007 after being declared a corrupt business venture. Meeks pleaded guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion. She and other GUEA officials were convicted in U.S. District Court in Hammond.
Federal prosecutors also charged political insiders Roosevelt Powell, Willie Harris and Will Smith with conspiring with GUEA to further bleed it, the Gary Historical Society and Lake County government through an elaborate real estate scheme involving the abandoned Ralph's Grocery store in Gary's Miller section.
Smith learned of that through his political connections that its owners wanted to donate it as a tax write off. Smith conspired with Harris, an attorney for the Historical Society, take over the property.
They had Powell, a county tax collector, to use his influence to induce Meeks, to buy the store for $200,000 on the same day that Powell told a Lake County judge to wipe out $58,000 in back taxes on the building because it couldn't be sold.
The men pocketed significant profits without ever legally owning the building. Their defense lawyers argued the deal was legitimate, but a federal jury convicted them in September 2007.
Corruption in the Region: Former East Chicago city councilman Frank Kollintzas, infamous for sidewalks-for-votes scandal, remains at large after fleeing to Greece in 2005
Name: Frank Kollintzas
Office held: East Chicago city councilman
Dates in office: 1979 to 2005
The crime: A U.S. District Court jury in South Bend in November 2004 convicted then city councilman Frank Kollintzas as well as East Chicago Councilman Je De LaCruz and City Controller Edwardo Maldonado of misappropriating millions of dollars in concrete they gave to residents in the form of free driveways, sidewalks and patios to ensure the city administration's 1999 re-election.
Jurors also convicted Kollintzas of lying to the FBI, which investigated the so-called sidewalks scandal.
Kollintzas would have been forced to serve a prison term of 11 years and four months if he hadn't fled the county days before his sentencing in February 2005.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported Swissair sold a ticket from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to Zurich, Switzerland, to a man who presented a non-American, possibly Greek, passport to the airline in the name of Fotios Kollintzas.
Authorities believe Kollintzas, who was 62 when he bolted, fled to Greece, a nation that doesn't return American fugitives who receive Greek citizenship.
Kollintzas is a native-born American, but his parents emigrated from Greece and settled in East Chicago where they operated a family diner.
Just before his flight, he sent a letter to a federal court judge saying he couldn't face growing old or dying in prison. He conceded in the letter. "I know what I did. The concrete was poured, and I tried to make sure the people in my district got the work done at their property."
The man who fell from grace had a bachelor's degree from Indiana State University, a master's degrees in elementary education and in physical education from Indiana University and an advanced degree in administration and supervision from Indiana State University.
Kollintzas taught and also was director of athletics at East Chicago Central High School. Kollintzas also had a political career tied to Mayor Robert Pastrick, who was facing a troubling challenge in the 1999 municipal elections from Stephen R. "Bob" Stiglich.
Pastrick, Kollintzas and others in the city administration were worried enough about Stiglich to launch a giveaway of acres of free concrete to entice voters into supporting their re-election in the week leading up to that year's election.
Kollintzas, among others directed and paid contractors to pour concrete, initially just for public sidewalks and curbs, but eventually residents' private driveways, patios and walkways as well as free tree trimming on private property.
Pastrick won the spring primary that year and the concrete paving ended abruptly, sometime before individual jobs were competed, because the city had run out of cash.
Public complaints about shoddy concrete work prompted a Times investigation as well as the attention of then U.S. Attorney Joseph Van Bokkelen and his assistant David Capp. They directed a federal investigation that resulted in 2003 indictments that eventually led to the convictions of seven elected officials, a number of private contractors.
Pastrick never faced criminal charges, but a federal judge did brand Pastrick’s administration as corrupt and ordered Pastrick and former political allies to pay $108 million in damages in 2011, forcing Pastrick into bankruptcy.
The courts issued a warrant for Kollintzas' arrest 13 years ago. He remains at large.
Corruption in the Region: Peter Benjamin
Name: Peter Benjamin, formerly of Hobart
Offices held and dates: He served as Lake County assessor from 1987-94, as Lake County auditor from 1999-02 and operated a lucrative law practice on the side.
The crime: A federal grand jury indicted him in 2002 on racketeering and money laundering allegations that included: defrauding clients, lying on tax returns to cover thousands of dollars he spent on prostitutes and police officers who supplied him with drugs and bribing former Lake County Council member Troy Montgomery, of Gary.
He also lied about attending continuing education courses the state requires for lawyers, instructed a prostitute to lie to a federal grand jury about Benjamin's wrongdoing and embezzled real estate from his ex-wife's family and dissipated a small fortune, $1.2 million and a promising political and law career during his crime spree.
Benjamin pleaded guilty in 2003 to providing Montgomery with cash and dining room furniture in exchange for Montgomery using his county government connections to steer lucrative business to Benjamin's law firm. Montgomery served a one-year federal prison term for accepting the bribe.
Benjamin agreed to cooperate with federal investigators and publicly promised to bring down as many people in local government as possible, but the quality of Benjamin's cooperation and the evidence he provided the government never appeared to have much impact on future federal prosecutions.
He later told the court he met about 20 times with FBI, IRS and other law enforcement agents in his eagerness to cooperate with their investigations, but he also was suicidal, heavily medicated, "physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted."
Benjamin publicly laid out his faults in a 2005 letter to the court.
"I clearly bribed an elected official with expectation that I would be awarded a contract and committed other unlawful acts....I broke the law and have dishonored my family, the legal profession my community and myself. As a result, I have lost everything, my former wife, my law license, my career, assets, pension and self respect. I am only a shell of the person that I once was."
He served a 27-month prison term. Court documents indicate he was working a consultant in New York in 2010. He was still paying restitution the court ordered he must to Lake County, the Internal Revenue Service and his former wife's family.
Corruption in the Region: John Buncich
Name: John Buncich
Office held: Lake County sheriff
Dates in office: 1995 to 2002 and again 2011 to Aug. 24 of this year.
The crime: Bribery, wire fraud and honest service wire fraud.
A U.S. District Court jury convicted the former sheriff Aug. 25, following a 14 day trial, of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in cash from two towing firm owners in return for giving them more lucrative town work from the sheriff's department.
Buncich said it costs about $200,000 to run for sheriff. He showered political fund-raising tickets on towing firm owners, including Scott Jurgensen, a former Merrillville Police Department officer and confidential FBI informant, and William "Willie" Szarmach, who became cooperating government witness.
They in turn plied him with cash and requests for lucrative towing assignments and they said he delivered.
Buncich denied all wrongdoing during three days of testimony, saying his conduct was unchallenged and "All candidates do this."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson, who presented evidence against Buncich replied, "It's being challenged now isn't it?"
Benson provided jurors with video and photographic evidence that Buncich used his campaign fundraising as cover for a scheme to solicit kickbacks.
Defense lawyers argued, to no avail, that Buncich has had a spotless reputation for honesty during his more than four decades as a county police officer and the government was staging bribery scenes for their undercover cameras, including one involving Buncich's former second in command, Timothy Downs delivering $7,500 to Buncich inside the sheriff's office in 2015 after Downs began cooperating with the FBI.
An FBI video surveillance recording of Buncich leaning into Szarmach's tow truck and Jurgensen giving Buncich $2,500 April 22, 2016, in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville.
An FBI video surveillance recording of Jurgensen giving Buncich $2,500 on July 21, 2016, in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville.
He awaits sentence now scheduled to take place Dec. 6.
Take a look at this gallery featuring corrupt politicians caught by former U.S. Attorney David Capp: