CROWN POINT — The FBI and Indiana State Police raided the Lake County Sheriff’s Department and were parked outside the sheriff’s home early Thursday.
A number of FBI agents and state police investigators entered the offices of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich about 9:30 a.m. at the Lake County Government Center, 2293 N. Main St.
They left early Thursday afternoon with several boxes of documents they loaded into an FBI panel truck.
State police and federal investigators’ cars, both marked and unmarked, were parked late Thursday morning outside Buncich’s Crown Point home. FBI Special Agent Bob Ramsey, who appeared outside the sheriff’s home, declined to comment further.
Ramsey and Ryan Holmes, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said federal authorities were serving search warrants on the county sheriff. Holmes declined to comment on what documents are being sought or who is being targeted.
Sources within county government said investigators were looking into rumors of bribery involving towing vendors and police, and were looking for towing contracts and campaign finance reports.
At the same time that federal agents were raiding the Lake County sheriff’s office, several members of the Indiana State Police and the U.S. Department of Treasury shut down Kustom Auto Body, 5409 U.S. 6, Portage, in an apparent raid Thursday morning.
John Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body, said his business was not the target of Thursday morning’s raid.
Cortina said the agents were seeking information on Sampson Towing, a Merrillville-based business that leases storage space in his back lot.
Police vehicles blocked the entrance to the business. Police could be seen going in and out of the building. The treasury agent referred all questions to a department spokesperson, who did not return calls.
FBI order all to leave building
In Lake County, Dean Delisle told The Times he was in the Sheriff’s Bureau of Identification, where police records are held, to obtain a copy of an accident report when agents and state police walked into that office and ordered everybody, including the sheriff’s employees, to leave.
“They were taking pictures of everything,” Delisle said. He said sheriff’s employees appeared upset as they were preparing to leave.
A source within county government said 38 federal and state agents were inside the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. Another source said all employees in the sheriff’s office building were ordered to leave.
Federal agents then fanned out to the Lake County Voter Registration and Election offices, where campaign finance records are kept, and the Lake County E-911 offices, which keeps records of police radio communications, to serve subpoenas for documents.
Buncich’s campaign finance reports indicate he received more than $9,000 in contributions in 2014 and 2015 from several towing and auto firms in Crown Point, Gary, Highland, Hobart, Merrillville, St. John and Whiting.
The elections board office and E-911 offices were allowed to remain open and continue operating.
Mark Back, a spokesman for the sheriff issued a statement 2:43 p.m. Thursday, which said: “The Lake County Sheriff’s Department is cooperating with our federal law enforcement partners and fully assisting the FBI with their inquiry. Regular Sheriff’s Department operations are continuing. We assure the citizens of Lake County that their safety remains our top priority. There was no interruption of police duties.”
Back said the sheriff’s department continued to function through the day. “Employees were asked to at least step away from their desks while the FBI were completing their inquiry and look for whatever they were looking for,” Back said.
As to what the FBI was looking for or removed from the sheriff’s department, “You would have to ask the FBI,” Back said. He said Buncich was continuing to perform his duties as sheriff.
Buncich could not be reached for comment and was not seen Thursday outside his home.
The county sheriff’s department has had agreements with as many as eight towing firms who police use to remove abandoned cars from accident and arrest scenes.
Times staff writer Joyce Russell contributed to this report.