PORTAGE — Michigan City Mayor Ron Meer's initial appearance in court turned into a verbal sparring match between La Porte County Prosecutor John Lake and Meer's attorney over who should prosecute the case.
During a brief initial hearing at the North Porter County Government Complex, attorney Scott King entered not guilty pleas for Meer on five felony counts of intimidation, one felony count of official misconduct, and two misdemeanor counts of false informing resulting in a hindrance to law enforcement.
Porter Superior Court Judge Jeff Thode set an omnibus hearing for Feb. 10 in Portage, and said a trial would be conducted in La Porte County Superior Court 4 in La Porte, though no date has been set.
Thode then conducted a hearing on a defense motion for a special prosecutor because King claims there is a conflict of interest over the mayor's allegations of a setup by Lake and the La Porte County Drug Task Force in the arrest of the mayor's stepson, Adam Bray. That arrest led to the events for which Meer is charged.
King said "based upon the record, we believe clear and convincing evidence exists of a conflict of interest with this prosecutor and his staff."
He cited an Elkhart County case in which a defendant was charged with impersonating a prosecutor to solicit donations, and said in the Meer case, it is alleged Lake and the Task Force conspired to set up Bray.
In the Elkhart case, according to King, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that because the prosecutor was both a "victim and a likely witness ... it could reasonably appear that the prosecutor would be inclined to treat the defendant more harshly."
In the Meer case, King said there is "very little question that the prosecutor, his staff and his documents could be subject to discovery ... because of allegations that the prosecutor was involved in a conspiracy with police ... this prosecutor has more than the typical stake in this case. He and his office's integrity have been called into question..."
He said it is reasonable to assume Lake and his staff could be called as witnesses, and "that meets the burden of proof for a special prosecutor."
Lake said he had "no conflict" and the only way he could have is if he were called as a witness, and "the defense cannot call a prosecutor as a witness without compelling evidence ... they are assuming the allegations are true, but if I can show by evidence that they are not true, then there is no conflict."
Testifying under oath, Lake said he had no role in the arrest of Bray and did not even learn of it until the next day when he was meeting with Task Force detectives on an unrelated murder case and was informed of the arrest.
He said on the following Monday, he was informed of a press release by the mayor alleging he conspired with the Task Force to set up the arrest, and the mayor claimed a confidential informant in the case had come to his home and told him the arrest was a setup.
"The only time me or my office is involved with a confidential informant or an investigation would be to seek a warrant or discuss charges after an arrest," Lake said. "Police do their investigations on their own. We only do prosecutions but are never involved in investigations."
Task Force Commander Tim Richardson also testified there was no setup. He said the confidential informant, who has worked drug and gun cases and was "reliable," had told them Bray had a gun so an investigation was initiated.
The detective also mentioned a taped jailhouse conversation between Meer and Bray about three hours after the arrest in which which Meer mentioned allegations of a setup.
Lake said he did not even know of the arrest until 15 hours after it happened, and we "never know the identities of the confidential informant until they become a witness."
King asked Lake whether he had supported Meer's re-election bid, and whether Meer had supported his candidacy for prosecutor. After Thode overruled a defense objection, Lake said Meer had supported his opponent in the primary in 2018.
"I believed he would then support me in the general election and was surprised he supported my opponent."
As for supporting Meer, the prosecutor said he does not live in Michigan City "so I couldn't vote for him."
King also questioned the validity of the confidential informant after Richardson said that during an interview with Indiana State Police, he had denied speaking in advance with Lake, denied any setup, and denied going to Meer's home and telling him Bray had been set up.
The detective said the informant;'s phone records confirmed no contact with Lake or Meer.
But King said from what he knew, confidential informants cooperate with law enforcement to work off charges or for money, and asked Richardson if it was "unusual for them to lie," considering law enforcement is their source of income.
Richardson said "in a small percentage of cases they have been untruthful."
The detective also mentioned allegations that evidence had been planted, but said an ATF investigation showed Bray had paid a "straw purchaser" to buy the gun for him in 2018.
King then questioned Richardson about a statement in the probable cause affidavit that the detective was concerned over then-police chief Mark Swistek calling the FBI to look into the case after Meer alleged a setup and asked Swistek to reassign Task Force detectives.
"I met with the chief because I was still flabbergasted by the allegations of the mayor, and I was concerned why the chief called the FBI," Richardson said. "Was it over the arrest of Adam Bray or the allegations by the mayor?"
King asked Richardson whether the mayor could demote or punish an officer, and whether that was not instead the jurisdiction of the chief and the police merit board.
Richardson said while the chief would have to punish or demote, he knew the mayor "had a lot of influence" over the chief, who served "at the mayor's discretion ... My question was whether an elected official could build a good enough lie that someone could go to jail?"
King summed up by saying he had shown that the allegations in the case gave the prosecutor "reasons other than truth, justice and the American way to prosecute this case" because they "put the prosecutor's office in the role of being a victim" and "very likely to be a witness."
But Lake said the only issue is whether he would be a witness and "can the defense disqualify a prosecutor by perpetuating a lie?"
He said there are several witnesses, including the confidential informant and Task Force detectives, who would testify that he was not involved in any setup and the mayor's allegations were false.
"Witnesses will testify that even before I knew of the arrest he made allegations that I was involved. But there is no evidence of me doing anything other than the ordinary prosecution of the case. All the allegations have been refuted and there is no conflict of interest."
Afterwards, King said the hearing itself showed why a special prosecutor was needed.
He said Lake's testimony shows "he is engaged in face-saving as opposed to prosecuting."
Thode said he will rule on the request for a special prosecutor before Thanksgiving.