A former Merrillville councilman will serve 15 months in prison for accepting bribes to help a tow operator secure a contract with the town.
Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen sentenced Tom Goralczyk, 51, of Merrillville, to federal prison, though he rejected a recommendation that the former councilman serve a minimum of nearly four years, during a hearing Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Hammond. Goralcyzk admitted he helped a tow operator secure a contract with Merrillville and accepted two used vehicles and other items to make that arrangement.
“Public corruption is a blight on this county and that deserves more than a slap on the wrist,” Van Bokkelen said.
Van Bokkelen said officials involved in corruption deserve punishment.
“If I’m sending a message at all, I think that’s the message,” Van Bokkelen said.
Goralczyk said he knows he made a mistake and that he let his family, friends and the people of Merrillville down.
“I know what I did was wrong,” Goralczyk said. “I was foolish to think I could get away with it.”
The charges said that Goralczyk “did knowingly and corruptly solicit demand, accept and agree to accept” a 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee; a 2008 Ford Focus; four new camper tires; and free storage for a motorcycle from “Individual A” in return for a towing contract from Merrillville, according to court documents.
Goralczyk presented false bills of sale to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles for the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which he obtained for $400 though the value was in excess of $2,500, and for the Ford Focus, which he accepted for free though it was valued in excess of $5,000, according to court documents.
“Public corruption will not be tolerated at any level,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch II, in a statement. “Public officials, like Mr. Goralczyk, elected and entrusted to do the public’s work are required to do that work free from self-dealing and graft.”
Defense attorney Scott King said the case is about Goralczyk taking two used vehicles and making a recommendation the town hire a firm to replace another on the Merrillville tow list. King said the deal was valued at $7,500.
“That’s what he did and it was wrong,” King said.
King argued for a sentence below the recommended minimum of nearly four years, and argued that Goralczyk immediately admitted his guilt and cooperated with federal authorities.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said Goralczyk has shown remorse and accepted the repercussions, unlike many elected officials who have found themselves in the same situation.
“I think it’s because he let down and awful lot of people in this process,” Benson said. “I believe he is genuinely remorseful.”
Benson said Goralczyk committed the crime and accepted almost nothing in return.
“If you’re willing to sell your office for nothing, isn’t that a scary proposition,” Benson said.
Van Bokkelen said he can look at the sentencing recommendation but ultimately has to do what’s fair.
“With public officials, I hold them to a higher standard,” Van Bokkelen said.
The judge said he realized the case is different than most in his court and that Goralczyk admitted to his conduct.
Thirty two letters filed with the court asked Van Bokkelen to be lenient, according to court records, and highlighted Goralczyk’s commitment to his family, friends, neighbors and community.
“I still cannot understand why he did what he did — so foolish,” wrote Mary Campbell.
“He did admit his guilt saving the courts a lot of time and money. For this he should get a lighter sentence,” Campbell wrote. “We have talked since his confession. He did wrong and he should be punished.”
“He has lost a lot for his foolishness and learned his lesson and hopefully will be a better person when this is over,” Campbell wrote.
Goralczyk, who represented Ward 4, was seeking his third term on the Merrillville Town Council when he lost the seat to Marge Uzelac, a longtime activist in the town, in the May 2015 Democratic primary. He had served as council president twice during his two terms.
Goralczyk was an initial target of a years-long federal investigation into pay-to-play towing in Northwest Indiana, according to court testimony during the trial of convicted former Sheriff John Buncich.
The pay-to-play towing investigation has led to charges against Buncich, former Lake County Police Chief Timothy Downs, William Szarmach of CSA Towing, Portage Mayor James Snyder, John Cortina, of Kustom Auto Body in Portage, and former Lake County Deputy Chief Dan Murchek.
“Today’s sentence sends a strong message of deterrence to others that want to engage in these activities,” Kirsch said. “My office, together with our law enforcement partners, will continue to pursue matters involving corrupt public officials.”
“I encourage anyone with information concerning corrupt public officials to contact my office or the FBI,” Kirsch added.