MICHIGAN CITY – The Michigan City Common Council meeting was cut short Tuesday when a citizen erupted in anger, pointing and shouting at the police chief and two councilmen, and was kicked out of City Hall.
As Rodney McCormick continued to yell and gather his belongings, the council voted 5-4 to adjourn until a later date, which has since been scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday. At that time, they will address the remainder of the agenda from Tuesday, most of which was related to the municipal budget for 2020.
At the center of the controversy was a request from Michigan City Police Chief Mark Swistek that the council appropriate $27,200 for software licensing fees that allow the Digital Forensics Unit to aid law enforcement agencies throughout the region with retrieving digital evidence from various technology.
Swistek explained that the Digital Forensics Unit was derived from the former Internet Crimes Against Children unit, a county-wide task force established by former prosecutor John Espar.
It was funded through a grant from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, which reimbursed the city $65,000 for MCPD Detective Sgt. Matt Barr's annual salary and paid for those software licensing fees, among other things.
However, when current La Porte County Prosecutor John Lake took over Espar’s position in January, his office dropped the unit – causing its grant funding to cease, as it had been issued to the prosecutor’s office and was not transferrable to another agency.
Despite Lake’s decision, county law enforcement continued to operate the task force under its new name and with limited resources.
In a report he supplied to the council, MCPD Detective Sgt. Matt Barr provided an extensive list of the work he and the ICAC/Digital Forensics Unit performed in 2018 and 2019 to assist various regional law enforcement agencies with major cases, including murders, rapes, child molestation cases, drug investigations, robberies, burglaries, batteries, fraud cases and more.
“All of this was done despite the fact Prosecutor John Lake shut down my unit, fired any help I had and took all of my already awarded funding away, even though that funding was of high priority to continue work on these child pornography cases,” Barr wrote. “This stems from the false criminal accusations that were alleged against my unit. These false accusations have since been cleared.”
It is unclear whether the accusations Barr referred to were those made by McCormick, who claimed again Tuesday before the council that Barr had illegally “data dumped” his home security system, cell phones and laptop computers after one of McCormick’s arrests.
La Porte County Sheriff John Boyd told the council that Lake had only canned the ICAC because he didn’t feel the prosecutor’s office should be initiating and coordinating investigations. The sheriff claimed Lake supports the continuation of a Digital Forensics Unit as long as it is police-operated.
Lake was not present Tuesday, to which McCormick raised exception during public comment.
In April, Boyd and Swistek approached the La Porte County Council, and secured the funding they needed to maintain those software licenses through 2019.
Tuesday, they asked the Michigan City Common Council to pick up the tab for 2020, while they work to regain the grant under which the program was funded initially.
After listening to their presentation, Councilman Bryant Dabney moved to cut the $27,200 from the 2020 budget.
“I cannot emphasize enough how important this is until we get another grant,” Swistek said, his demeanor grave. “This will slow down any major investigation this police department does. We will not be solving major crimes.
"It will take some time for us to get this information back, delaying and leaving suspects in the community for months. I can only caution you that this is very important to all of us in La Porte County, particularly Michigan City’s police department."
Councilman Sean Fitzpatrick then seconded Dabney’s motion, but the council never got to vote on the matter because of McCormick’s outburst and the subsequent adjournment.
The issue will be revisited Monday when the council reconvenes to iron out the 2020 budget, which must be approved by the end of the month.
LAKE SUPPORTS DIGITAL FORENSICS UNIT
La Porte County Prosecutor John Lake said Friday he supports having a Digital Forensics Unit in La Porte County, and will address the Michigan City Common Council on Monday to recommend it approve funding the unit in 2020.
Lake said the reasons he allowed a grant funding the unit to expire upon taking office earlier this year had nothing to do with the effectiveness of or need for such a specialized law enforcement program, but more to do with accountability, and the role of his office in the unit.
"I unequivocally supported starting this unit, and would support the City Council continuing to fund it," Lake said. "I will speak Monday in favor, and just let them know they need proper oversight to protect people's rights. They just need to do this the right way – get warrants first – because there have been some cases where they didn't and those cases couldnt be prosecuted."
Lake said three factors led him to allow the grant that funded the unit to expire:
• Accountability: Lake said the when he took office in January, former prosecutor John Espar, who started the unit, formerly known as ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children), had "wiped" all the information about the program from the computers in the prosecutor's office, so he had no details on how the grant money (federal funds given out through the state) had been spent. And when he asked for an inventory of purchases, he was told none existed.
"The grant application process required that I sign off that everything was in compliance with grant terms for the last three years, that there was accountability for all funds. I determined that I couldn't do that because I had no data or inventory on what was spent. Espar did not give me such a record, and all the files had been deleted. With no audit compliance and no inventory, I couldn't sign off on it."
He also said there were never criminal charges considered against anyone in the unit, but that he requested a state audit because he did not have the data to do it himself.
• Administration: Lake had a couple of issus with the unit being run out of the prosecutor's office. He said it is not the prosecutor's office that should be initiating investigations or conducting the investigations – that is the job of police. "I have an issue with us being the administrative agency and leading investigations ... when we are investigating, we can potentially become witnesses, and at that point we can no longer continue prosecuting the cases.
He also said the unit's budget in the prosecutor's office would be about half of the total budget, while the county or MCPD could do it for much less. That would include salaries for four people being paid by the prosecutor's office when they are already on the MCPD or county payroll. "The budget for 2018 was almost $500,000 out of the prosecutor's budget, while they can do it for about $26,000."
He also mentioned duplication of services, saying he supports Digital Forensic Unit, but not if it only handled child pornography cases. "I don't want it to be just an ICAC unit, because the Indiana State Police already do that with us. I don't want us to be handling just those kinds of cases for the whole region.
"But I'm totally in favor ... we just need to coordinate with the sheriff's office on how it is used. I support them being able to do forensic examinations of phones and computers, just do it within the law. I always said this unit did excellent forensic work.""