Friday, December 1, 2017

12012017 - Federally Convicted Lake County Sheriff John Buncich - Sentencing Delayed to January 16, 2018




EDITORIAL: Buncich apologists open to public scrutiny
NWI Times
The Times Editorial Board
12052017
http://www.nwitimes.com/opinion/editorial/editorial-buncich-apologists-open-to-public-scrutiny/article_1d105141-1ee0-59b4-b5a7-8d2db44b23db.html
Government officials and other community leaders have every right to show public support for convicted felons, through spoken or written word.

Columnists and editorial boards, in turn, have every right to criticize those officials and leaders for acting as apologists to people who have committed crimes against the public.

And in the end, the public has the right to know the identities of the apologists when their letters become a part of the court or other public record.

These are rudimentary concepts of the First Amendment, which includes the freedom of speech most of us begin learning about in grade school.

It also seems to be a difficult concept for some Region attorneys to comprehend.

In recent weeks, Times columnist and Editorial Page Editor Marc Chase has promised to publish the names of any public officials or community leaders who write letters to a U.S. District Court judge seeking leniency for former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, who is now a convicted felon.

A federal jury convicted Buncich earlier this year of accepting bribes in exchange for steering towing work issued by the sheriff's office. Now he awaits sentencing, and his attorneys are seeking, and according to them receiving, letters of support for Buncich that they say eventually will be entered into the federal court record.

Knowing the deep-seated reputation for political corruption in Northwest Indiana, Chase has promised to publish the names of Buncich supporters, when they become available, as the public has a right to know.

It’s not a new practice. Chase also previously wrote a column taking several elected leaders to task for writing letters of support for former Lake County Surveyor George Van Til after Van Til was convicted of essentially stealing from taxpayers.

 Buncich's attorney Bryan Truitt has publicly criticized Chase's promise as an attack on his client's fair court proceedings.

Truitt has been joined by Merrillville attorney Geoffrey Giorgi and Lake County Bar Association President Adam Sedia in that criticism.

Region attorneys represented by the Lake County Bar Association should be especially leery of their president taking such stands against the First Amendment and the public's right to know.

"It is the height of hypocrisy for a news outlet to discourage individual citizens from exercising their rights to make their voices heard for fear of being publicly shamed...," Sedia said in a public statement about the matter.

But Sedia couldn't be more wrong.

Neither Chase nor The Times have any power to prevent anyone from exercising their right to support Buncich.

In our democracy, however, columnists and editorial boards have the right — and some would argue a duty — to call out any behavior that contributes to or defends public corruption.

In the end, elected officials must know that their actions — including defending political friends who are convicted felons — will be scrutinized.

No amount of legal grandstanding will stop that.










MARC CHASE: Disgraced councilman provides case study in corruption warning signs
NWI Times
Updated Dec 4, 2017
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/opinion/columnists/marc-chase/marc-chase-disgraced-councilman-provides-case-study-in-corruption-warning/article_3d1be100-3fb1-56bc-add1-0938e7a7856a.html

We all must wonder — when sitting public officials defend those who've done wrong — how much the apologists themselves are hiding.

Longtime Region residents should be familiar with the culture of corruption permeating many levels of local government and politics.

But how carefully are any of us looking at the warning signs — the smoke signals sent by sitting public officials when they offer support, comfort or justification for the acts of colleagues who've been caught in clearly unethical behavior or convicted of crimes against the taxpayer?

The recent federal indictment and guilty plea to felony bribery by former Merrillville town Councilman Tom Goralczyk shows us why it's increasingly important to be leery of any local leaders who act as apologists for those who perpetuate public corruption.

In late summer 2014, a little more than three years before he would plead guilty to the felony bribery charges, Goralczyk strode into a closed meeting of Region county and municipal officials carrying a blue designer Michael Kors purse.

It was a closed executive session of the Lake County Solid Waste Management District Board, so I wasn't permitted in. But several in attendance at the meeting confirmed what happened there.

At the time, Goralczyk represented Merrillville on the 27-member board, which is supposed to hasten local recycling by distributing government funded grants to Lake County communities.

Goralczyk brought the designer woman's handbag, complete with matching accessories, into the meeting to defend its purchase as an appropriate gift for a solid waste district employee.

No, Goralczyk didn't buy the purse himself. Times investigations had revealed then-solid waste district Director Jeff Langbehn made the lavish $750-plus purchase as a gift for a female subordinate in his office. Taxpayers footed the bill as it was made on Langbehn's government credit card.

Nearly all others on the 27-member solid waste district board expressed appropriate disgust when it was revealed Langbehn made the unauthorized purchase, which he initially tried to call a briefcase. In fact, the purchase would lead to Langbehn's firing.

But not before Goralczyk defended Langbehn in a meeting of other board members.

Langbehn wasn't charged with any crime in the purse matter, but it clearly was an unacceptable personal use of taxpayer dollars.

Thankfully, for taxpayers' sake, the rest of the board didn't buy Goralczyk's overtures. Following Langbehn's ouster, a subsequent Times probe of waste district finances revealed hundreds of thousands taxpayer dollars spent on lavish dresses, watches, Chicago theater tickets, expensive meals, a surfboard and luxury hotel stays, among other largesse.

Ultimately, when he stood before Lake County solid waste board members and was a virtual lone voice of support for Langbehn's purse purchase, Goralczyk was unwittingly doing us all a favor.

He was showing us the unethical colors that, as it turns out, would define his period of supposed public service.

Fast-forward from the purse matter to just a couple of weeks ago when Goralczyk was indicted on, and immediately pleaded guilty to, charges of taking bribes from a federal police informant in exchange for a vehicle towing contract.

A silver lining to the matter is Goralczyk, 51, was no longer a sitting public official at the time he pleaded guilty. Voters ushered him out of office in 2015.

But the bribery counts to which he admitted occurred in the heart of his tenure as a supposed public servant. Federal authorities say Goralczyk accepted a 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee for a cut-rate $400 purchase price from the informant, even though he knew the vehicle's value exceeded $2,500.

He also accepted a 2008 Ford Focus, valued at more than $5,000, for free, and was provided four camper tires and free storage for a personal motorcycle — all in exchange for steering towing contracts, court records show.

Then Goralczyk left evidence of trying to cover his tracks, presenting false bills of sale to the state for the vehicles, prosecutors say.

This all happened between February 2013 and August 2014, in the heart of Goralczyk's eight-year tenure on the Merrilllville Town Council.

In the end, new Hammond-based U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch II got it right when he characterized Goralczyk's actions as "self-dealing and graft."

Goralczyk gave us advance warning with his support of self-enrichment by defending Langbehn's purse purchase — and helping prop up, even through inaction or complacency — the wasteful and unethical spending of hundreds of thousands of more dollars in solid waste district funds.

It's a reminder to keep a keen eye on our public officials before they're potentially led off to federal prison.

It's why I've promised to publish the names and identities of all sitting Region public officials who file letters of support and leniency in the court record in the upcoming sentencing of disgraced former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, now a convicted felon.

Buncich's attorney has said dozens of letters, yet to be filed with the court, have been written on the disgraced sheriff’s behalf — presumably seeking a lenient sentence. This is all for a former top law enforcement officer convicted in a similar towing contract bribery scheme.

Taxpayers have a right to know the names of public officials who continue carrying water for other public officials convicted of public corruption or who engage in unethical behavior at taxpayers' expense.

Such letters of support can provide us all with a guide when it comes time to push buttons in the polling booths.










Ex-Indiana sheriff's bribery sentencing moved to January
NWI Times
Updated Dec 4, 2017 
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/state-and-regional/indiana/ex-indiana-sheriff-s-bribery-sentencing-moved-to-january/article_eeedaff0-47e3-5a53-bfc0-4edfae812735.html
HAMMOND, Ind. (AP) — The sentencing of a former northwest Indiana sheriff convicted of federal bribery and wire fraud charges has been moved to mid-January.

Former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's sentencing had been set for Wednesday on the charges stemming from an illegal car-towing scheme. But The Post-Tribune reports that a federal judge last week moved his sentencing to Jan. 16.

A federal jury convicted Buncich in August of bribery, wire fraud and honest services wire fraud. Buncich, a Democrat, was immediately removed from the elected sheriff's post in Indiana's second most-populous county. He had been elected in 2015 to his fourth term as sheriff.

Federal prosecutors told jurors that Buncich abused his elected position to solicit bribes from towing operators. He has denied all wrongdoing.










Former Sheriff John Buncich's sentencing is reset to Jan. 16
NWI Times
12032017
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/former-sheriff-john-buncich-s-sentencing-is-reset-to-jan/article_83a7f229-9177-58c4-a2ee-f93acd3d83d7.html

HAMMOND — A federal judge has reset the sentencing of former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich to take place Jan. 16.
U.S. District Judge James T. Moody ordered postponement of the sentence, which initially had been set to take place Wednesday, at the request of the former sheriff's defense team for more preparation time.
Bryan Truitt, one of Buncich's defense attorneys, complained last week that government prosecutors have hinted at new information they intend to use to lengthen any prison term the 71-year-old law enforcement veteran could receive for his bribery and fraud convictions.
He stated last week in a court memo he has yet to see any documents to support the government's new allegations, which haven't yet been made public.
A U.S. District Court jury found Buncich guilty Aug. 25 on six counts of wire fraud, honest services wire fraud and bribery.
The U.S. attorney's office presented evidence at Buncich's federal trial in August that Buncich solicited and accepted bribes from Scott Jurgensen, a former Merrillville police officer, towing firm owner and undercover informant for the FBI, and William "Willie" Szarmach, a Lake Station towing firm owner who was charged with Buncich, and then took a plea deal to testify against the former sheriff.
Jurgensen and Szarmach said they bribed the former sheriff to receive more lucrative towing assignments from county police. Timothy Downs, the sheriff's former second-in-command, said he sold Buncich's political fundraising tickets on public time to them and other county towing vendors, who Buncich had the power to hire and terminate.
Buncich took the witness stand over three days to deny wrongdoing, saying he never promised nor delivered favors for political donations.









Ex-Lake County, Ind., Sheriff John Buncich to be sentenced in January on bribery, wire fraud conviction
Post-Tribune
December 02, 2017
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-new-john-buncich-sentencing-date-st-1202-20171201-story.html

A federal judge on Friday set a new sentencing date for former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, pushing the hearing to January.

On Thursday, Judge James Moody agreed to push back the sentencing, which was first set for Dec. 6, saying he'd reset the hearing for either later in December or January, according to court documents. Moody set the hearing at 9 a.m. Jan. 16.

Buncich, former Chief Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of C.S.A. Towing, were named in a multicount indictment in November 2016 alleging a towing scheme where the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich Boosters, according to court records.

A jury convicted Buncich of bribery, wire fraud and honest services wire fraud in August after 14 days of testimony.

Federal prosecutors, during closing arguments, told jurors Buncich abused his elected position to solicit bribes from tow operators, but defense attorneys say it was the FBI that paid an informant to make a crime happen.

Downs pleaded guilty in December 2016 and resigned his position at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, according to court documents. Szarmach pleaded guilty in July — a week before the trial started.

Both testified against Buncich during the trial.

Sentencings for Downs and Szarmach have not been set.

Bryan Truitt, one of Buncich's defense attorneys, on Wednesday filed a motion to push back the sentencing date citing that more time was needed to prepare since it appeared prosecuting attorneys raised new allegations in the pre-sentencing report and will present new witnesses.

"The government makes numerous new allegations against the defendant concerning possible arguments against a downward variance for the defendants," Truitt wrote in his motion. "The government alleges these were learned by it shortly before trial yet the defense has received no documentation ... involving the same."

Given the new information prosecutors plan to present, Truitt said the defense needed additional time to prepare its response and interview witnesses to rebut the claims, according to court documents.
Truitt said the deadline schedule for filings prior to a Dec. 6 sentencing would not allow for adequate review.

The U.S. Attorney's office does not comment on matters pending before the court.










Federal judge grants former Sheriff John Buncich's lawyers more time to prepare for his sentencing
NWI Times
Updated Dec 1, 2017
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/federal-judge-grants-former-sheriff-john-buncich-s-lawyers-more/article_9afd1a64-f750-5332-808f-1b45177124e1.html

HAMMOND — A federal judge is postponing next week's sentencing of former Sheriff John Buncich, giving his legal team a chance to better prepare for new allegations of his wrongdoing.
U.S. District Judge James T. Moody issued an order Thursday afternoon granting an urgent request for more time by Valparaiso attorney Bryan Truitt.

Truitt complained Wednesday he was being blindsided by government prosecutors who have hinted at new information they intend to use to lengthen any prison term the 71-year-old law enforcement veteran could receive for his bribery and fraud convictions.

Truitt hasn't described what the new allegations are, but stated he first learned of them Nov. 14 in a government document that hasn't been made public. He states the government has yet to document the allegations or say which witnesses prosecutors will call at sentencing.

A U.S. District Court jury found Buncich guilty Aug. 25 on six counts of wire fraud, honest services wire fraud and bribery.

Moody didn't pick a new sentencing date Thursday, but said it would fall some time between late December and the third week in January. He said he would look with disfavor on any future requests for delay.

Truitt responded Thursday afternoon, "John Buncich is happy that he will get to present his entire body of life’s work and the specific details of his actions for the judge’s consideration. And he respects that the government gets to do the same, and each gets to respond."

When Buncich does face sentencing he will not do so alone.

Truitt said Thursday he will present the court with dozens of letters written in support of Buncich, whose law enforcement and political career stretches back 46 years.

Controversy has swirled around the letters and their writers.

Truitt said he was still receiving new testimonials for Buncich "despite the intimidation of the NWI Times," a reference to an Aug. 26 column by The Times' Marc Chase, who promised to publish the names and positions of public officials or other community leaders "who carry water for Buncich by petitioning the court for leniency."

Truitt and Merrillville attorneys Geoffrey Giorgi and Adam Sedia have criticized Chase's stand on social media and in a recent publication of TheIndianaLawyer.com.

Sedia, president of the Lake County Bar Association, has issued a public statement that, "It is the height of hypocrisy for a news outlet to discourage individual citizens from exercising their rights to make their voices heard for fear of being publicly shamed ...

"The proper role of the media in judicial proceedings is to report and opine on them, not to attempt to influence their outcome," Sedia said.

Chase told TheIndianaLawyer.com such letters only reinforce the culture of acceptance of public corruption in Northwest Indiana.

At Buncich's federal trial in August, the government presented evidence Buncich solicited and accepted bribes from Scott Jurgensen, a former Merrillville police officer, towing firm owner and undercover informant for the FBI, and William "Willie" Szarmach, a Lake Station towing firm owner who was charged with Buncich, and then took a plea deal to testify against the former sheriff.

Jurgensen and Szarmach said they bribed the sheriff to receive more lucrative towing assignments from county police. Timothy Downs, the sheriff's former second-in-command, said he sold Buncich's political fundraising tickets on public time to them and other county towing vendors, who Buncich had the power to hire and terminate.

The sheriff took the witness stand over three days to deny wrongdoing, saying he never promised nor delivered favors for political donations.










FBI: Region should not tolerate any amount of public corruption
NWI Times
Updated Dec 1, 2017
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/fbi-region-should-not-tolerate-any-amount-of-public-corruption/article_bfdef6fd-f5ab-5b04-b912-26b91a857ac1.html

HAMMOND — Public corruption undermines the fabric of American society and is among the FBI's highest priorities, said W. Jay Abbott, the FBI's special agent in charge for Indiana.

Abbott made the comments during a forum Thursday about the FBI's role in Northwest Indiana.

Nearly 50 local politicians have been sent to prison in the past decade, according to a slide presented by Bill Rowell, supervisory special agent for the white collar crime and public corruption unit at the FBI's Merrillville office.

As he stood before a slide showing news stories and photographs of public officials, Rowell said the Region's history shocked him when he arrived here six years ago.

"The extent of the public corruption, how long it had been going on, how in-depth it was," Rowell said. "And how it seemed like over a 40-, 50-, 60-year period, as I look back over the history of things, the same things were being done over and over and over again."

Under his watch, a public corruption task force that includes other federal agencies, state agencies and the federal prosecutor's office was established, he said.

'Nothing was accidental'
"Every single one of these people — none of them just slightly stepped over a line. None of them were in a gray area, none of them made a mistake, nothing was accidental," Rowell said.

Each convicted official "did everything they could ... to put money in their pocket," he said.

Rowell said residents should do more to hold other politicians who support their convicted colleagues accountable.

"I've noticed in some of these cases that happened before I got here, after there was a grand jury that indicted the politician, and after they went through a trial in the courthouse up in Hammond and different juries convicted them, and after they were sentenced by a judge — no question at all about what they did — there were still other politicians in the area who were bold enough to support the convicted politicians in spite of the wrong that had been done, in spite of the broken public trust," he said.

Sitting politicians may try to argue that everyone does it, that it's always been done or that it's just how it is, Rowell said.

"There's thousands of excuses. None of them fly, and the more that the citizens of Lake County — or whatever county this happens in — the more those citizens hold those politicians' feet to the fire, whether they've already been convicted or there are other sitting politicians who are supporting these guys, the more their feet are held to the fire, I think the more it's going to push things in the direction that all the citizens want this community to go."

When asked about payments to an informant who testified against former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, agents said they were worth it.

"Any amount of money could almost be justified if there is a citizen that is willing to work with us to expose that type of corruption," Abbot said. "Public corruption is the highest criminal priority that the FBI has, and there's a reason for that."

Rowell said the informant — a police-officer-turned-tow-truck driver — came forward because he couldn't believe the blatant public corruption he was seeing.

Evidence at trial is that the FBI paid Scott Jurgensen $130,000 over a five-year period, and his testimony has resulted in multiple indictments.

"What you hear at trial is the tip of the iceberg," Rowell said.

Prosecutors decide before trial which charges to press, but they typically have much more information they can present at sentencing, he said.

"It's called relevant conduct," he said.

FBI has many roles in the Region
The FBI investigates about 350 types of crimes in Indiana, Abbott said.

Chris Ormerod, supervisory special agent for the Merrillville office's new counter-terrorism unit, was on the job just two weeks when a pipe bomb exploded Sept. 6 at the East Chicago post office, injuring a pregnant postal worker.

"Most people don't know that this is domestic terrorism," Ormerod said. "It is."

The bomb likely caused others to fear what might be in their mail, he said.

Bob Ramsey, special supervisory agent for the Merrillville office's violent crimes unit, offered an overview of four racketeering and gang cases his unit has investigated in recent years.

More than 100 indictments have been handed down in four separate cases against the Latin Kings, Imperial Gangsters and Two Six Nation street gangs, Ramsey said.

When asked if breaking up gangs could cause more violence, as smaller groups vie for power, Abbott said the FBI has taken notice of the issue and is working to develop strategies to address it.

Ramsey said Gary city officials have seen some success with the Gary for Life initiative, which integrates law enforcement efforts with a range of other programs to offer assistance and address community issues.










Former Sheriff Buncich wants to push back sentencing to prepare to challenge new allegations of wrongdoing
NWI Times
Nov 29, 2017
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/former-sheriff-buncich-wants-to-push-back-sentencing-to-prepare/article_85a9b5f8-eb46-5070-8a96-19b99e2ad835.html

HAMMOND — Lawyers for former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said Wednesday the government has new allegations of wrongdoing it plans to reveal at his Dec. 6 sentencing.

Valparaiso attorney Bryan M. Truitt asked U.S. District Court Judge James Moody, in a memo made public Wednesday night, to delay the proceedings "a week or two" to better prepare for such a broadside.

Truitt doesn't detail the government's new allegations, which Truitt said federal prosecutors intend to use to oppose any leniency for the 71-year-old law enforcement veteran, now facing a lengthy prison term.

A U.S. District Court jury found Buncich guilty Aug. 25 of six counts of wire fraud, honest services wire fraud and bribery.

The government presented evidence over a 14-day trial that Buncich solicited and accepted bribes from two towing firm owners — Scott Jurgensen, a former Merrillville police officer, towing firm owner and undercover informant for the FBI, and William "Willie" Szarmach, a Lake Station towing firm owner who was charged with Buncich and then took a deal to testify against the former sheriff.

It included their testimony, the testimony of the sheriff's former second-in-command, Timothy Downs, and hours of FBI video and audio recordings.

Jurgensen and Szarmach said they bribed the sheriff to receive more lucrative towing assignments from county police. Downs said he sold Buncich's political fundraising tickets on public time to them and other county towing vendors, who Buncich had the power to hire and terminate.

The sheriff took the witness stand over three days to deny wrongdoing, saying he never promised nor delivered favors for political donations.

Truitt states he only learned Nov. 14 that "the government makes numerous new allegations against the defendant ... yet the defense has received no documentation or (FBI reports)," and "the government has indicated it intends to call several witnesses at sentencing to support the allegations."
Truitt said he has received dozens of letters in support of leniency for Buncich, "despite the intimidation of the NWI Times to prevent the same."

That is a reference to an Aug. 26 column by Times columnist Marc Chase promising the paper would publish the names and positions of public officials or other community leaders "who carry water for Buncich by petitioning the court for leniency."

Neither the U.S. attorney's office nor Moody has responded to Truitt. Moody earlier declined a defense request for more time to prepare for Buncich's trial.