Hammond | Lake County Surveyor George Van Til defrauded taxpayers by ordering county employees to perform political campaign work on the county dime and using county equipment, prosecutors said Friday.
At one point during his alleged scheme, Van Til, 65, who is serving his 20th year as the county’s elected surveyor, paid a county employee $100 to swap out a hard drive on a county computer to cover his tracks, said U.S. Attorney David Capp, who oversees federal prosecutions in Northwest Indiana.
Ultimately, a resident’s tip to federal authorities led to the investigation and indictment of Van Til on six federal felony counts of wire fraud and two counts of obstruction of justice, Capp said.
An indictment made public Friday in Hammond federal court accuses Van Til of hatching the scheme between November 2007 and December 2012.
Van Til ordered one employee, who worked for the surveyor’s office for about a month, in November 2011 to do "virtually all" campaign work, including serving as a valet and picking up a tuxedo for Van Til to wear to a political fundraiser — all while the employee was collecting a Lake County salary, Capp said.
Van Til directed another employee to remove a hard drive from a county computer and replace it with another in case the federal authorities ever paid a visit to the office, Capp said.
Capp accused Van Til, whose office controls $1.5 million in public funds and has a staff of 17 full-time and 15 part-time employees, of abusing the public trust.
"This conduct needs to stop, and it needs to stop immediately," Capp said Friday during a news conference announcing the Van Til indictment.
Van Til did not return calls placed by The Times on Friday seeking comment on the indictment.
Chief Deputy Surveyor George Sanchez said Van Til would not have any comment Friday as he prepares for an arraignment in the case early next week.
Capp said his office was making arrangements Friday for Van Til to surrender to federal authorities by Monday.
Van Til’s longtime government colleagues and Lake County political observers expressed a mix of shock and disgust when learning of the indictments.
St. John Republican activist Joe Hero said he doesn’t believe the federal probe went far enough into the office of Van Til, a prominent Lake County Democrat.
"The indictment failed to examine how contracts were awarded in Lake County by the drainage board for Van Til’s projects," Hero said. "They failed to investigate evidence of bid rigging."
Hero and other Republican activists have accused Van Til publicly in the past of steering government drainage projects to contractors who were political supporters.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who also serves as county Democratic Party chairman, said he hopes Van Til can prove to be innocent of the charges.
"I know the man. I know his family, and I wish him well," McDermott said. "Nobody wants to see anybody go through what he is about to go through.
"I worked for a summer in the U.S. attorney’s office as a law student, and I bet I saw 50 trials that year. And I didn’t see defendants win one trial. They don’t indict unless they are positive."
Lake County Councilman Dan Dernulc, county Republican chairman, said he was shocked Friday when learning of the charges.
"My jaw is on the floor," Dernulc said. "I’m not saying Mr. Van Til is guilty. Let the courts decide that, but something needs to be done. This is the people’s money."