CROWN POINT — Lake County attorneys are considering whether to nullify the sale of hundreds of Gary land parcels, in what already has been criticized as an unethical land grab by insiders, following a Times probe of the matter.
The reason can be found on video footage maintained by the county of the March tax sale, during which tax-delinquent properties are sold at auction to recoup public funds for local government.
At the county commissioner's March tax sale this year, Thomas Wisniewski — with a stack of papers in his lap — can be seen on the video signaling to the man seated next to him in the government complex auditorium to throw up a yellow card with the bid number 273 on it.
“$500, once. $500, twice. 273. $500,” Don Guernsey, an auctioneer with Onyx Electronics, barks to the crowd.
And just like that, Broadway Logistics Complex LLC — assigned bid number 273 — has won another land ownership certificate. This occurs repeatedly, and a pattern emerges, according to video recordings of the March tax sale obtained by The Times.
The county's tax sale — the largest in the state — usually attracts hundreds of people over a two or three-day period.
As the event winds down, fewer people remain in the room. That's when Wisniewski, 56, a Region property owner, appears to grow more bold, calling out directly to the county auctioneer a series of parcels Broadway wants to bid on. The auctioneer obliges, and with fewer competitors in the room, Broadway snatches up a slew of properties with the minimum $500 bid.
Now county officials, once made of aware of The Times findings, are reviewing whether the sales of hundreds of land parcels to Broadway should be declared null and void because of Wisniewski's own tax-delinquency status, as shown in county records.
Sources with knowledge of the tax sale purchases by Broadway Logistics say Wisniewski is inextricably linked to the company's operations.
Because video of the March tax sale appears to show Wisniewski directing the bidding on behalf of Broadway Logistics, county officials are now questioning whether the sale of tax certificates to Broadway should be nullified.
State law prohibits a person from participating in the sale if they owe delinquent taxes, special assessments, penalties, interest or costs directly attributable to a prior tax sale. Any bid made in violation would be subject to forfeiture review and potentially cancelled, attorneys with knowledge of the law said.
Such rules are in place so people who owe back taxes cannot snatch up other tax-delinquent land for cheap at the county or treasurer’s tax sale events each year. County tax sale records show Wisniewski is delinquent on property taxes for two parcels under his name.
Those questions come on the heels of other recent revelations that politically connected attorney Rinzer Williams III is managing the firm sweeping up the dozens of land parcels while also working as an attorney for the Gary City Council and for a consultant with Spectacle Entertainment, the casino firm that plans to build a massive new land-based facility near some of the parcels in question.
County video records obtained last week by The Times show Wisniewski — a real estate investor in the Region with a federal felony cocaine conviction under his belt — flipping through documents and whispering to a group of associates seated around him during the March bidding.
He periodically waves his hand to a man seated beside him, appearing to direct that man to bid. And to bid again. And again.
In 2002, Wisniewski pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to possessing more than one kilogram of cocaine with the intent to distribute. He served 70 months in federal prison for the crime.
Being a convicted felon doesn’t bar Wisniewski from participating in the tax sale, but being a delinquent taxpayer should, according to state law.
Wisniewski owes $6,185.57 for a property in his name at 7816-18 Maple Ave. in Gary and $7,019.33 at 1002-04 Wells St. in Gary, according to records provided by the county’s tax sale department.
But no one has barred him from entering the bidding room.
Auctioneer Guernsey said he has no control over what goes on in the auditorium.
"I didn't know he was delinquent. Put yourself in my shoes. County does all the registration. They don’t give me pictures. They don’t give me anything. I’m there to take bids. So why wouldn’t I take bids? I know the county is trying to place it on me, but I'm just doing my job."
Tax sale process
A review of partial video footage shows Wisniewski appearing to signal to someone to bid on behalf of at least two other limited liability corporations: Scrooge and Marley LLC and Grantway Logistics LLC.
Several sources with knowledge of the county’s tax sale operations and real estate market accuse Wisniewski of gaming the system for years and avoiding taxes by bidding at the tax sales each year under newly created limited liability corporations.
These LLCs are either tied directly to Wisniewski, his wife, or associates. Oftentimes, the corporations are tied to the same addresses on Magoun Avenue and Olcott Avenue in East Chicago, records show.
Broadway Logistics Complex had at least $272,000 on hand to successfully bid on 544 properties in the March 2019 tax sale, tax sale data show, and most parcels went for as little as $500 each — the minimum bid.
Those certificates — which are still in the process of being perfected — may become null and void if it is determined Wisniewski is profiting, according to John Dull, a longtime county commissioner attorney.
Dull said his successor, Matt Fech, brought the information about Wisniewski to the attention of Lake County Auditor’s attorney, Randy Wylie, as a result of The Times investigation.
There’s a strict registration process for the tax sale; the auditor’s office requires limited liability corporations to bring in identification, articles of organization and a list of members.
However, the tax sale department, responsible for registering bidders, has allowed proxies to bid on behalf of the registered bidder for years, Dull said.
"So the auditor’s office, in my mind, has the primary responsible. If they see something’s wrong, they should bring it to everyone’s attention. And to my knowledge, they’ve never done that,” he said.
Wylie did not respond to requests for comment.
Dull said tax sale staff and Guernsey had their eyes on the crowd and likely saw Wisniewski’s coordination with Broadway, a very active bidder.
Guernsey argued county officials are the ones allowing delinquent taxpayers into the room.
“He shows up every year. I mean, you saw the video, he tells other people what to do,” Guernsey said. “If he’s barred, then the county shouldn’t let him in the door. You have to understand my position, I see a plaque go up, and I got to take the offer.”
“I know Tom. I know him. I’m in a catch 22,” he added. “What would people say if I didn’t let someone inside? I’m not the county. If they don’t want to let Tom in, they shouldn’t let him in. My job is to maximize profit for the county. I do my job,” he said.
Connection to council attorney
While it’s up to Wylie to determine if Wisniewski’s actions warrant forfeiture of the winning bids associated, interviews with sources and records obtained by The Times shows Wisniewski has direct or indirect ties to Broadway Logistics Complex and several other LLCs that routinely bid at tax sales.
The Times reported last week that Williams, the Gary city council attorney, is one of two partners with Broadway.
Williams initially denied to The Times that Wisniewski was involved with Broadway, but video evidence suggests Wisniewski was coordinating bids on behalf of Broadway this past March.
Williams declined comment for the story. An assistant at his law office said she was told to tell the media they had no comment.
Wisniewski also declined comment.
Emails obtained by The Times also show Wisniewski approached another firm, which was working for the city of Gary to obtain delinquent properties for the municipality, proposing a joint venture.
Those emails show a direct link between Wisinewski and Williams.
In the emails, Wisniewski proposed a joint venture with MaiaCo — the Chicago-based company hired by the city of Gary’s redevelopment arm to acquire land — in January.
According to the email, Wisniewski noted he would retain Williams as his attorney for title work at a rate of $700 per tax certificate.
“If a joint venture cannot be established between MaiaCo and our group, we will purchase these properties from the commissioner’s sale in March. Sincerely, Tom,” the letter closes.
Michael Reinhold, partner with MaiaCo, previously told The Times that talks with Wisniewski and Williams never progressed because of “stark philosophical differences.”
Ultimately, Broadway Logistics Complex snatched up hundreds of parcels that had first been targeted by the Gary Redevelopment Commission. Some political figures in Gary have questioned the ethics of Williams, as city council attorney, undermining the city’s redevelopment efforts.
How the tax sale works
State law permits the county to sell properties whose owners have failed to pay their allotted property taxes for more than 18 months.
State officials say Lake County holds the largest tax sales in Indiana.
Delinquent properties are first offered for sale by the county treasurer annually in early September, at a minimum bid that must cover all back taxes and penalties.
Any property that doesn't sell in its first tax sale is shifted to a commissioners sale the following year and offered at reduced prices.