Thursday, November 17, 2016

11172016 - Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Police Chief Timothy Downs - Indicted for public corruption - NEWS ARTICLES



















Rich James: Sheriff Buncich heads for a rare corruption trial
Howey Politics
By Rich James
August 03, 2017
howeypolitics.com/Content/Columns/Columns/Article/Rich-James-Sheriff-Buncich-heads-for-a-rare-corruption-trial/10/20/15570
MERRILLVILLE –  Unless something drastic happens in the next couple of days, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is going to trial on charges that he accepted kickbacks from tow truck operators. The trial will be in U.S. District Court in Hammond. The government alleges that Buncich accepted cash and checks from towing operators in exchange for the right to tow vehicles for county police.
 
Should Buncich actually go on trial, it would be counter to what generally happens with public corruption cases in Lake County. Rarely does an elected official actually go on trial. In virtually all cases in the last several decades, the defendant has entered into a plea agreement with the government. The plea agreement generally results in less prison time than if the defendant had gone to trial and lost.
 
Not only does Buncich deny taking kickbacks from towing businesses, he is putting the blame on Timothy Downs, his second in command and the former president of the Indiana Fraternal Order of Police. In pretrial motions, Buncich alleges that Downs acted on his own to collect money from the towing firms. Downs, however, entered into his own plea agreement early on and will testify for the government.
 
Two towing firm operators – William Szarmach of Hobart, the owner of a Lake Station towing company, and Scott Jurgensen, owner of Sampson’s Towing of Merrillville –  have entered into plea agreements as well and will testify against the sheriff.
 
Buncich served as sheriff from 1994 to 2002 and was reelected in 2010 after sitting out for eight years. The indictment already has cost Buncich. He was elected Lake County Democratic chairman in 2014. He didn’t seek reelection in March because of the indictment. Ironically, Buncich broke a tie between Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay and Schererville attorney Jim Wieser when he opted for Wieser to be the new chairman.
 

Since the indictment, politics has been heavy in the county as several potential sheriff candidates have surfaced. The only question is whether there will be a precinct election to replace Buncich or will things be decided in 2018 when his term expires.










Court documents: Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's attorney seeks trial delay
NWI Times
Aug 3, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/court-documents-lake-county-sheriff-john-buncich-s-attorney-seeks/article_f2c7b79e-5ec8-5b3b-82e6-c411505cc142.html

HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is seeking to delay his Monday trial start date, citing the government's recent disclosure of redacted transcripts, court records show.

The sought delay comes just days after William Szarmach, owner and operator of CSA Towing in Lake Station, pleaded guilty to playing a role in the alleged scheme. He has agreed to testify for federal prosecutors against Buncich.

Buncich faces six counts of wire fraud and bribery alleging he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting $34,500 in cash and campaign contributions.

He has pleaded not guilty.

Buncich's attorney Bryan Truitt, in response to sealed documents recently filed in court by prosecutors, said the government's last-minute filing of more transcripts makes "any response ... impossible in the (36-hour) time frame ordered."

"... Given the multiple dozens of hours of tapes and examining over 1,000 pages of proposed transcripts, it is physically impossible to identify specific portions of the omitted portions of the transcripts that should be omitted," Truitt said in the court filing.

Buncich's trial is set for 8 a.m. Monday before Senior Judge James T. Moody.

Truitt said the defense, although "not formally requesting," suggested jury selection proceed on Monday, then both sides be ordered back on either Aug. 14 or Aug. 21 so "all matters may be addressed and all discovery can be exchanged well prior to the submission of evidence."

The judge had yet to rule Thursday afternoon on Truitt's request for a delayed trial.


Truitt also told The Times late Thursday afternoon in response to questions about whether Buncich would plead guilty before the trial, that his client has done nothing wrong, and they intend to prove that in court.




Tow truck owner pleads guilty in fraud and bribery case, intends to testify against Lake County Sheriff
NWI Times
Jul 31, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/tow-truck-owner-pleads-guilty-in-fraud-and-bribery-case/article_984a9585-e226-5cf9-af04-fd32f51e5a9e.html
HAMMOND — A Lake Station tow truck owner pleaded guilty Monday afternoon to federal wire fraud and bribery charges.

William Szarmach, of Hobart, 60, who owned and operated CSA Towing on the 2500 block of DeKalb Street in Lake Station, admitted to U.S. District Court Judge James Moody he made thousands of dollars in payments between 2009 and his arrest late last year to Lake County Sheriff John Buncich in exchange for contracts for county towing work.

Szarmach also admitted he failed to report more than $75,000 in taxable income during 2015.

Buncich awaits trial Aug. 7 on charges he shook down towing firms for campaign contributions.

Szarmach stated in his plea agreement he is prepared to tell a jury next month he purchased Buncich's political fundraising tickets by check and cash to retain and increase his business of towing vehicles for county police.

Buncich's lawyer, Bryan Truitt, said in pretrial court documents earlier the improper activity the government is alleging was confined to Buncich's second-in-command Timothy Downs, Szarmach and another government witness, Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing, of Merrillville.

Both the sheriff and his attorney have publicly maintained the sheriff did nothing wrong.

Szarmach, who has been in the towing business for more than eight years, states in his plea agreement, "... it was my belief that in order to remain on the Lake County tow list, or to increase my towing area, I would have to buy tickets to many, if not all, of Sheriff John Buncich's fundraising events and pay additional cash payments."

Szarmach's towing company was one of a dozen the sheriff approved to tow vehicles from public streets and highways for county police. Buncich had the sole authority to authorize towing firms before the Lake County Board of Commissioners took over the towing contract approvals this year.

Szarmach said these purchases were made sometimes directly to the sheriff and at other times through individuals employed by the county sheriff, including Downs, then chief of county police operations.

The period of the indictment alleges the money solicitations and payments began with Buncich's 2010 campaign.

The U.S. attorney's office has agreed to recommend Szarmach receive the minimum under the federal sentencing guidelines, in return for his cooperation. Szarmach also agrees to pay $89,448 for taxes he owes between 2008 and 2015.










Tow operator pleads guilty, admits paying bribes to Lake County Sheriff John Buncich
Chicago Tribune
July 31, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-szarmach-plea-hearing-st-0801-20170731-story.html

A tow operator admitted in federal court Monday he paid bribes to Lake County Sheriff John Buncich to secure more work from the county.

William Szarmach, 60, of C.S.A. Towing, pleaded guilty to charges of bribery, wire fraud and tax evasion during a hearing Monday after being charged by the U.S. Attorney's Office alongside Buncich and former Chief of Police Timothy Downs. Judge James Moody has not formally accepted the plea deal.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said the government's evidence shows that Szarmach realized that it order to get on the county's list of tow operators required payments, in the form of cash or through the purchase of fundraising tickets for the sheriff.

Szarmach realized around 2010 that other tow operators had more business, Benson said.

"If more money was paid, he could get more towing," Benson said.

To get on the tow list was a coveted position, Benson said, and to stay on it was just as valuable.

Once Benson described the facts of the case, Moody asked Szarmach for his plea.

"Guilty, your honor," Szarmach said.

Szarmach, in the agreement, laid out how he gave the sheriff more than $10,000 over the course of several years to get more towing business through the Lake County Sheriff's Department, according to court documents.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach were named in a multicount indictment in November 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's Boosters, according to court records.

Buncich has publicly and in court documents insisted on his innocence.

"For those who know me and my 45 years in law enforcement, you know that I would never compromise my integrity or professionalism and cannot be guilty of these charges; trust that I would never sell my office — not for any amount. I assure you that I am absolutely innocent," Buncich wrote in an April statement.

Downs pleaded guilty in December and resigned his position at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, according to court documents.

"Based upon my experience in the towing business in Northwest Indiana, it was my belief that in order to remain on the Lake County tow list, or to increase my towing area, I would have to buy tickets to many, if not all of Sheriff John Buncich's fundraising events and pay additional cash payments," the plea agreement read.

"To become involved, to increase, or to retain my Lake County towing, beginning in 2009 and continuing through 2016, I regularly purchased tickets to Sheriff John Buncich's fundraising events by cash and check," the agreement read. "These purchases were sometimes directly with the sheriff himself, and other times, through other individuals employed by the Lake County sheriff's officer, including the chief of police and co-defendant, Timothy Downs."

The purchases were made to reportedly get promises from the sheriff, including securing Szarmach's spot on the towing list, enlarging his heavy and light towing, getting Gary ordinance towing done by the Lake County Sheriff's Department, and getting help from the sheriff to get towing at Indiana University Northwest, according to court documents.

"To increase my Lake County towing, I simply paid more money for more towing," Szarmach said, in the plea agreement. "Sometimes these payments were in cash, other times, disguised as campaign check contributions, or sometimes a mix of both cash and checks."

Szarmach hurriedly answered Moody's questions whether he understood the details on the plea agreement.

"Relax. Take a deep breath," Moody said.

Szarmach pleaded guilty to charges of wire fraud, bribery and tax evasion, according to court documents. The wire fraud and bribery charges each carry a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to the plea agreement, and the failure to file tax returns has a maximum of one year incarceration and a fine not to exceed $100,000.

As a part of the deal, Szarmach agreed for pay $89,448 in restitution for the tax charge.










UPDATE: Plea agreement details alleged deals between Lake County Sheriff Buncich and towing companies
NWI Times
Jul 28, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/update-plea-agreement-details-alleged-deals-between-lake-county-sheriff/article_b69342f4-252d-5cfe-9605-9418280a7d30.html

HAMMOND — A Lake Station tow truck owner has agreed to plead guilty to federal wire fraud and bribery charges and to testify against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

The plea agreement filed early Friday could make a star government witness of William Szarmach, of Hobart, who owned and operated CSA Towing, on the 2500 block of DeKalb Street, Lake Station, since 2008.

Szarmach is scheduled to appear Monday afternoon before Magistrate Judge John E. Martin to plead guilty to wire fraud, bribery and failing to file a federal income tax return reporting more than $75,000 in taxable income during 2015 on which he owed more than $17,000 in federal taxes.

Szarmach is prepared to tell a jury next month he purchased Buncich's political fund-raising tickets by check and cash between 2009 and 2016 to retain and increase his business of towing vehicles for county police.

Buncich is contesting allegations he was shaking down towing firms for campaign contributions and is set to stand trial beginning Aug. 7 before Senior U.S. District Court Judge James T. Moody.

Buncich's lawyer, Bryan Truitt, has stated in pre-trial court documents the improper activity the government is alleging was confined to Downs, Szarmach and another government witness, Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing of Merrillville.

Truitt has stated, "Sheriff John Buncich maintains he has done nothing wrong. There is little to no direct evidence or a smoking gun," Truitt said in court records.

The U.S. attorney's office has said Jurgensen deserves credit for uncovering public corruption.

Szarmach's towing company was one of several the sheriff approved to tow vehicles from public streets and highways for county police before the Lake County Board of Commissioners took over the towing contract approvals this year.

Plea agreement details alleged deals

Szarmach alleges in his plea agreement he was one of 12 tow companies on the Lake County Sheriff towing list. Buncich had the sole authority at the time to authorize towing firms to remove vehicles from public road ways in the county.

Szarmach, who had owned his towing firm more than eight years, states, "Based on my experience in the towing business in Northwest Indiana, it was my belief that in order to remain on the Lake County tow list, or to increase my towing area, I would have to buy tickets to many, if not all, of Sheriff John Buncich's fundraising events and pay additional cash payments."

He states these purchases were made sometimes directly to the sheriff and at other times through other individuals employed by the county sheriff, including Downs, then chief of county police operations.

Buncich served as sheriff from 1994 to 2002 and was running to return to office in the 2010 election when Szarmach states he started going to Buncich fund-raisers and making contributions to join the so-called "boys club."

Szarmach's plea agreement states, "I knew that Person X had a better relationship with Buncich than I did. At one of these restaurant meetings, after discussing Buncich with Person X, I gave Person X $500 cash. I then saw Person X hand the cash to Buncich. Buncich shook my hand and said, 'Thank you.' I knew that by giving Buncich this cash, it opened the door to towing for the Sheriff's Department." The court document doesn't identify Person X.

Szarmach states he received his first towing assignment from a county police dispatcher the first day Buncich took office after winning in the fall of 2010. "This was when I knew I was on the Lake County tow list," Szarmach said.

He said Buncich initially promised there would only be five towing firms working with county police, but he later learned he was competing with a dozen towing firms that were on the sheriff's list.

Szarmach states he had several meetings with Buncich at an unidentified restaurant in Cedar Lake and signaled he was prepared to make more payments by telling the sheriff, "I'm here for you."

Szarmach alleges he gave Buncich $1,000 folded up in an envelop during their second Cedar Lake meeting "to grease the wheels." He states that six months later, Buncich gave Szarmach towing assignments associated with the sheriff's Lake County Gang Unit, a group of county police detectives focusing on criminal gang activity.

Szarmach said that he believed he ranked in the middle of the pack of 12 towing firms doing county police business in terms of towing assignments he received from the sheriff, but he wanted more so he began increasing his payments to the sheriff.

Szarmach's plea agreement states, "Sometimes these payments were in cash, other times disguised as campaign check contributions, or sometimes a mix of both cash and checks."

Szarmach recounts giving Downs $500 cash and a $2,000 check in October 2014 payable to the Democratic Party of Lake County. This was four months after Democratic precinct committee members elected Buncich as their party chairman.

Buncich was running for re-election as sheriff in 2014 and raised more than $200,000 from hundreds of contributors, according to county elections board records. Szarmach's agreement states he made other payments in 2015 and 2016.

Szarmach states he began cooperating in 2016 with Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing of Merrillville, and recently identified as a government informant who is referred to in the indictment as "Individual A." He said together thay paid Buncich $6,000 in April 2016.

"To obtain my portion of this bribe payment, I told Buncich to look inside my new vehicle. Buncich entered my vehicle and retrieved $3,500 from the vehicle's front seat."He states he and Jurgensen were afterwards given sole rights to do the towing county police ordered when enforcing Gary's ordinance violations.

Szarmach alleges he and Jurgensen talked Buncich into eliminate the need for their towing firms to pay the county treasury a $50 fee, earmarked to pay the salaries of some county police officers. They told Buncich this would free up more money to pay him kickbacks.

Szarmach also states he wanted Buncich's help to gain towing business from Indiana University Northwest in Gary. "Buncich told me he would have someone from his office speak to IUN.

"I gave Buncich $1,000 in cash in the parking lot of a restaurant where we were eating. This $1,000 cash payment was for Buncich's help in getting me the IUN towing and for helping me with a union issue in Lake Station."

Initial indictements came down Nov. 18

A federal grand jury indicted Szarmach, Buncich and Timothy Downs, the sheriff's former second-in-command, on Nov. 18, 2016.

Szarmach had, until Friday, been pleading not guilty to bribery and wire fraud counts alleging he paid the sheriff $9,500 between June 2015, and last August to influence the sheriff to give Szarmach more lucrative towing assignments.

Szarmach's lawyer, Daniel Purdom, of Lisle, Illinois, signaled on June 20 that Szarmach and the U.S. attorney's office were trying to conclude a plea agreement in the bribery case. No plea agreement was made public Thursday afternoon.

The agreement indicates Szarmach can win a reduced sentence if he cooperates fully with the government.

This deal mirrors one the government made seven months ago with Downs, who pleaded guilty to collecting Buncich's campaign contributions on public time. Downs also agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in return for a lenient sentence.










Plea: Lake tow operator bought tickets, made cash payments to sheriff
Post-Tribune
July 28, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-szarmach-towing-plea-deal-st-0728-20170728-story.html

A tow truck operator charged alongside Lake County Sheriff John Buncich intends to plead guilty on charges of corruption and tax evasion, according to court documents.

William Szarmach, of C.S.A. Towing, filed documents in court Thursday changing his prior plea of not guilty and admitting his role in an alleged scheme to solicit bribes —through the form of campaign donations — in order to get more towing jobs from the Lake County Sheriff's Department. Szarmach is also expected to plead guilty to a charge of tax evasion, according to court documents.

"Based upon my experience in the towing business in Northwest Indiana, it was my belief that in order to remain on the Lake County tow list, or to increase my towing area, I would have to buy tickets to many, if not all of Sheriff John Buncich's fundraising events and pay additional cash payments," the plea agreement read.

"To become involved, to increase, or to retain my Lake County towing, beginning in 2009 and continuing through 2016, I regularly purchased tickets to Sheriff John Buncich's fundraising events by cash and check," the agreement read. "These purchases were sometimes directly with the sheriff himself, and other times, through other individuals employed by the Lake County sheriff's office, including the chief of police and co-defendant, Timothy Downs."

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and Szarmach were named in a multicount indictment in November 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's Boosters, according to court records.

Downs pleaded guilty in December and resigned his position at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, according to court documents.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges after the indictments were filed in November and again in April when additional counts of wire fraud were filed with the court.

The purchases were made to reportedly get promises from the sheriff, including securing Szarmach's spot on the towing list, enlarging his heavy and light towing, getting Gary ordinance towing done by the Lake County Sheriff's Department, and getting help from the sheriff to get towing at Indiana University Northwest, according to court documents.

"To increase my Lake County towing, I simply paid more money for more towing," Szarmach said, in the plea agreement. "Sometimes these payments were in cash, other times, disguised as campaign check contributions, or sometimes a mix of both cash and checks."

In April, Buncich issued a public statement affirming his innocence.

"For those who know me and my 45 years in law enforcement, you know that I would never compromise my integrity or professionalism and cannot be guilty of these charges; trust that I would never sell my office — not for any amount. I assure you that I am absolutely innocent," Buncich wrote.

The plea deals filed by Szarmach and Downs are both contingent on their cooperation and that they provide testimony during the sheriff's August trial, according to court documents.

Szarmach pleaded guilty to charges of wire fraud, bribery and tax evasion, according to court documents. The wire fraud and bribery charges each carry a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to the plea agreement, and the failure to file tax returns has a maximum of one year incarceration and a fine not to exceed $100,000.

As a part of the deal, Szarmach agreed to pay $89,448 in restitution for the tax charge.










2nd co-defendant agrees to testify against Indiana sheriff
NWI Times
Jul 28, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/state-and-regional/indiana/nd-co-defendant-agrees-to-testify-against-indiana-sheriff/article_6a61ac28-0a0d-5ea5-8fb5-7953b47f3a3a.html
HAMMOND, Ind. (AP) — A second person indicted in an alleged bribery scheme will plead guilty and testify for federal prosecutors against a northwestern Indiana sheriff, who also was indicted, according to court documents filed Friday.

Tow truck operator William Szarmach of C.S.A. Towing in Lake Station says in a plea agreement filed in federal court that he bought tickets to Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's fundraising events and made additional cash payments to Buncich between 2009 and 2016 to maintain and increase his business of towing vehicles for county police.

The agreement with Szarmach is similar to one made in December with former chief of police Timothy Downs, who pleaded guilty to collecting Buncich's campaign contributions on public time. Downs agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in return for a lenient sentence. He resigned from the sheriff's office.

Szarmach's towing company was one of several that the sheriff approved to tow vehicles from public streets and highways for county police before the Lake County Board of Commissioners took over approval of towing contract approvals.

Szarmach agreed to plead guilty to federal wire fraud and bribery charges and failing to file a federal income tax return for 2015. The agreement states Szarmach can get a reduced sentence if he cooperates fully with the government.

"To become involved, to increase, or to retain my Lake County towing, beginning in 2009 and continuing through 2016, I regularly purchased tickets to Sheriff John Buncich's fundraising events by cash and check," Szarmach says in the plea agreement. " These purchases were sometimes directly with the sheriff himself, and other times, through other individuals employed by the Lake County sheriff's office, including the chief of police and co-defendant, Timothy Downs," the plea agreement states.

Buncich's lawyer, Bryan Truitt, said in an email to The Associated Press that the sheriff did not commit bribery.

"The Sheriff never encouraged or promised anything in exchange for his support," Truitt said of Szarmach. "The Sheriff appreciated his, and many others, support. But there were never any strings attached. Nothing was ever demanded of nor promised by the Sheriff."

Buncich is scheduled to stand trial beginning Aug. 7.










Lake County tow operator charged alongside sheriff to plead guilty to corruption, tax evasion: documents
Post-Tribune
July 28, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-szarmach-towing-plea-deal-st-0728-20170728-story.html
A tow truck operator charged alongside Lake County Sheriff John Buncich intends to plead guilty on charges of corruption and tax evasion, according to court documents.

William Szarmach, of C.S.A. Towing, filed documents in court Thursday changing his prior plea of not guilty and admitting his role in an alleged scheme to solicit bribes —through the form of campaign donations — in order to get more towing jobs from the Lake County Sheriff's Department. Szarmach is also expected to plead guilty to a charge of tax evasion, according to court documents.

"Based upon my experience in the towing business in Northwest Indiana, it was my belief that in order to remain on the Lake County tow list, or to increase my towing area, I would have to buy tickets to many, if not all of Sheriff John Buncich's fundraising events and pay additional cash payments," the plea agreement read.

"To become involved, to increase, or to retain my Lake County towing, beginning in 2009 and continuing through 2016, I regularly purchased tickets to Sheriff John Buncich's fundraising events by cash and check," the agreement read. "These purchases were sometimes directly with the sheriff himself, and other times, through other individuals employed by the Lake County sheriff's office, including the chief of police and co-defendant, Timothy Downs."

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and Szarmach were named in a multicount indictment in November 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's Boosters, according to court records.

Downs pleaded guilty in December and resigned his position at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, according to court documents.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges after the indictments were filed in November and again in April when additional counts of wire fraud were filed with the court.

The purchases were made to reportedly get promises from the sheriff, including securing Szarmach's spot on the towing list, enlarging his heavy and light towing, getting Gary ordinance towing done by the Lake County Sheriff's Department, and getting help from the sheriff to get towing at Indiana University Northwest, according to court documents.

"To increase my Lake County towing, I simply paid more money for more towing," Szarmach said, in the plea agreement. "Sometimes these payments were in cash, other times, disguised as campaign check contributions, or sometimes a mix of both cash and checks."

In April, Buncich issued a public statement affirming his innocence.

"For those who know me and my 45 years in law enforcement, you know that I would never compromise my integrity or professionalism and cannot be guilty of these charges; trust that I would never sell my office — not for any amount. I assure you that I am absolutely innocent," Buncich wrote.

The plea deals filed by Szarmach and Downs are both contingent on their cooperation and that they provide testimony during the sheriff's August trial, according to court documents.

Szarmach pleaded guilty to charges of wire fraud, bribery and tax evasion, according to court documents. The wire fraud and bribery charges each carry a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to the plea agreement, and the failure to file tax returns has a maximum of one year incarceration and a fine not to exceed $100,000.

As a part of the deal, Szarmach agreed to pay $89,448 in restitution for the tax charge.










Lake Station tow truck owner implicated in a bribery scandal faces a new charge of failing to pay federal taxes
NWI Times
July 27, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/lake-station-tow-truck-owner-implicated-in-a-bribery-scandal/article_7795807d-7b3e-5431-b234-1822b2737368.html
HAMMOND — The U.S. attorney's office has filed a new felony charge against a Lake Station tow truck owner implicated in the federal bribery case against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

The government names William Szarmach, of Hobart, in information it filed late Thursday afternoon in U.S. District Court here.

It alleges Szarmach, who owns and operates CSA Towing, on the 2500 block of DeKalb Street, Lake Station, failed to file a federal income tax return reporting he received more than $75,000 in taxable income during 2015 and owed more than $17,000 in federal taxes.

Szarmach's towing company was one of more than 10 the sheriff approved to tow vehicles from public streets and highways for county police before the Lake County Board of Commissioners took over the towing contract approvals this year.

A federal grand jury indicted Szarmach, Buncich and Timothy Downs, the sheriff's former second-in-command, on Nov. 18, 2016.

Szarmach has been pleading not guilty to bribery and wire fraud counts alleging he paid the sheriff $9,500 between June 2015 and last August to influence the sheriff into giving Szarmach more lucrative towing assignments.

Szarmach's lawyer, Daniel Purdom of Lisle, Illinois, signaled on June 20 that Szarmach and the U.S. attorney's office were trying to conclude a plea agreement in the bribery case. No plea agreement was made public Thursday afternoon.

Seven months earlier, Downs pleaded guilty to collecting Buncich's campaign contributions on public time. He agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in return for a lenient sentence.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to allegations he solicited and received campaign contributions from towing firms and is preparing to stand trial beginning Aug. 7 before Senior U.S. District Court Judge James T. Moody.

Buncich's lawyer, Bryan Truitt, earlier stated in pre-trial motions the improper activity was confined to Downs, Szarmach and a government witness, Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing of Merrillville.

Truitt claims they conspired to take over all Lake County towing, while the sheriff was busy overseeing the largest department in Lake County government. "In short, the tow operations were the least of the sheriff's concerns," Truitt said in court documents.

Truitt argues other tow truck drivers are expected to testify they were never pressured to buy political fundraising tickets.

"Sheriff John Buncich maintains he has done nothing wrong. There is little to no direct evidence or a smoking gun," Truitt said in court records.

The U.S. attorney's office has said Jurgensen deserves credit for uncovering public corruption.










Judge sets limits for evidence, testimony during Sheriff Buncich's public corruption trial
Post-Tribune
July 27, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-judge-limitations-st-0728-20170727-story.html
A federal judge Thursday set limits on what evidence and testimony defense attorneys for Lake County Sheriff John Buncich can enter during his August public corruption trial.

Judge James Moody filed an order places limits on the how defense attorneys can discuss the sheriff's good acts outside the facts claimed in the indictment, arguments of selective prosecution, discussing criminal penalties for cooperating witnesses and allowing Buncich to only have three character witnesses testify, according to court documents.

Moody spent much of his order discussing how the defense could talk about the sheriff's good acts during the trial. The judge said the case involved an alleged bribery scheme involving tow truck operators and non-corrupt interactions with tow operators could be relevant.

"However, the indictment is limited to a scheme involving towing operators, and defendant's interactions with other vendors are irrelevant in the sense that they do not counter the government's theory or case," Moody said in the order.

But, Moody ruled that testimony from the warden or medical staff reportedly saying they were not told the engage in political activities are too remote from the scheme alleged by prosecutors, court documents said, and creates a danger of confusing or misleading the jury.

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

Downs pleaded guilty in December and resigned his position at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, according to court documents.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges after the indictments were filed in November and again in April when additional counts of wire fraud were filed with the court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson filed a motion asking a judge to preclude Buncich's defense team from introducing evidence of the sheriff's lawfulness, non-corrupt conduct or lack of a criminal history; making comments in the jury's presence about the discovery process; and a number of other topics.

Bryan Truitt, one of Buncich's defense attorneys, filed a motion in opposition to prosecutors' request, and that the sheriff maintains he did nothing wrong and direct supervision over the towing program fell to Downs. Truitt said, in court filings, that testimony about the sheriff's job duties and character is needed to refute allegations of corruption.

"It befuddles the defense that the government seeks to restrict or limit the jury evaluating this case on less than all the facts or without a full perspective and context," Truitt added. "That a body supposedly interested in the pursuit of justice (the government) would seek to restrict the jury's consideration of all facts and circumstances surrounding the conduct of a defendant, is inexplicable. The jury does not leave their common sense at the courtroom door."

Moody said, in court documents, that rules of evidence allow opportunities to enter evidence on character when it is related to the charges.

"It is beyond question that character is not an essential element of any crime charged in the case, and the arguments of defense counsel on this point border on unprofessional," Moody wrote.










Court records: Lake County sheriff Buncich trial could take 'up to four weeks'
NWI Times
Jul 21, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/court-records-lake-county-sheriff-buncich-trial-could-take-up/article_7a45cd33-a07f-5c49-a121-ca6b6423637f.html
HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is set to go to trial Aug. 7.

Buncich faces six counts of wire fraud and bribery alleging he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting $34,500 in cash and campaign contributions.

Buncich is pleading not guilty.

During a pre-trial conference, counsel for both parties sought four additional juror alternates, noting the trial could take "up to four weeks," according to documents filed Friday. 

Court records note that both parties are "cooperating well in exchanging information for trial."

William Szarmach, who operated CSA Towing in Lake Station, is accused in a single bribery count of paying $9,500 to Buncich in 2015 and last year.

Timothy Downs, who served as second-in-command to Buncich, already has pleaded guilty to federal allegations he collected towing firm kickbacks and is prepared to testify he did it under Buncich's orders.

Buncich's trial is set for 8 a.m. Aug. 7 before Senior Judge James T. Moody. 










Lake County sheriff's lawyer says there is no smoking gun in federal bribery scandal. He blames corrupt chief deputy
NWI Times
July 19, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/lake-county-sheriff-s-lawyer-says-there-is-no-smoking/article_63e2daab-e459-5e7c-a700-e0572c95f3b3.html
HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's lawyer argues his client was so busy being a honest public servant, he didn't know a corrupt deputy and two tow truck drivers were conspiring against him.

Buncich is awaiting trial Aug. 7 in U.S. District Court on federal charges he solicited and accepted more than $30,000 in illicit payments from towing firms wanting to remove vehicles from public roads for county police. Buncich is pleading not guilty.

Defense attorney Bryan M. Truitt filed a pre-trial document this week declaring, "Sheriff John Buncich maintains he has done nothing wrong. There is little to no direct evidence or a smoking gun."

Truitt said he is unsure what evidence will be presented at trial, which could last two weeks, because "additional witnesses and evidence are being uncovered every day."

Truitt argues the county sheriff has "amazing responsibilities" which include overseeing a county jail with 750 inmates, amid a federal mandate to provide proper health care and other services after several inmates sued the jail under his predecessor, and managing a budget that exceeds $30 million annually.

"The sheriff had so much on his plate between budgetary matters and fixing the jail, due to his predecessor's failings, that tow operations were the least of his concerns," Truitt said. "He, erroneously as it turns out, trusted his deputies to act honestly and competently."

Truitt said Buncich delegated the supervision of towing to Timothy Downs, then the sheriff's police chief and second-in-command.

Downs was charged along with Buncich last November and soon disclosed he was already cooperating with government prosecutors. He has pleaded guilty and will testify he did political fundraising among the tow-truck owners under Buncich's orders.

But Truitt argues Downs conspired with two towing firms, now or soon to be cooperating with the government, to take over Lake County's towing.

Truitt claims government witness Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing of Merrillville, "attempted to corrupt numerous municipal and public officials and was paid $130,000 by the government to attempt to get people to accept bribes."

The U.S. Attorney's office has said Jurgensen deserves credit for uncovering public corruption.

Truitt states, "There simply was no 'pay for play' system in place within the Lake County Sheriff's Department."

Truitt argues other tow truck drivers are expected to testify they were never pressured to buy political fundraising tickets.

Truitt is asking U.S. District Court Judge James T. Moody to reject federal prosecutors' efforts to limit the defense from giving evidence that Buncich has been an honest public servant. The judge has yet to rule on the request.









Buncich attorney: Towing 'least of the sheriff's concerns'
Post-Tribune
July 18, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-defense-response-st-0715-20170718-story.html
Attorneys for Lake County Sheriff John Buncich say that federal prosecutors' request to bar certain types of testimony could prohibit them from showing the sheriff's innocence, according to a document filed with the court.

Bryan Truitt, one of Buncich's defense attorneys, filed a motion Tuesday opposing prosecutors' request, arguing that the sheriff maintains he did nothing wrong and direct supervision over the towing program fell to former Chief Timothy Downs, who pleaded guilty in December to public corruption charges. Truitt said testimony about the sheriff's job duties and character is needed to refute allegations of corruption made by prosecutors.

"Sheriff John Buncich maintains that he has done nothing wrong. He believes that the evidence, both direct and circumstantial, will establish that contention," Truitt wrote. "He merely seeks the ability to present relevant evidence to establish his innocence."

Buncich, Downs and William Szarmach, of C.S.A. Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment in November alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records.

"It befuddles the defense that the government seeks to restrict or limit the jury evaluating this case on less than all the facts or without a full perspective and context," Truitt added. "That a body supposedly interested in the pursuit of justice (the government) would seek to restrict the jury's consideration of all facts and circumstances surrounding the conduct of a defendant, is inexplicable. The jury does not leave their common sense at the courtroom door."

The U.S. Attorney's Office does not comment on pending cases.

Judge James Moody will now have to rule on prosecutors' motion to exclude the material from the trail, though Truitt has asked the judge to hold a hearing on the matter.

Downs pleaded guilty in December and resigned his position at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, according to court documents.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges after the indictments were filed in November and again in April when additional counts of wire fraud were filed with the court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson filed a motion asking a judge to preclude Buncich's defense team from introducing evidence of the sheriff's lawfulness, non-corrupt conduct or lack of a criminal history; making comments in the jury's presence about the discovery process; and a number of other topics.

Truitt said the effort to exclude the testimony and evidence ought to be taken in context with the substance of the defense's facts.

Buncich oversees a large operation at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, according to court documents, including jail operations, police personnel, the animal shelter, investigations, coordinating efforts between other law enforcement agencies and public relations. Truitt said Buncich left operations of the towing program to his deputies.

"In short, the tow operations were the least of the sheriff's concerns," Truitt wrote in his motion.

Downs pleaded to using his position at the Sheriff's Department to solicit campaign donations from tow truck operators in a scheme to give more territory to those companies in exchange for the money, according to court documents.

In court documents, Downs said he sold fundraiser tickets to tow truck operators and would meet with them to make those transactions.

"The more they bought, the better they were treated," Downs said, during a hearing on the plea agreement in December.

Truitt said the indictment only cites incidents involving Szarmach and Individual A, according to court documents, but does not mention 10 other tow operations the defense has interviewed.

Those other tow operators are anticipated to testify that it was never stated or implied that they must contribute to the sheriff's campaign for tow operations or geographic territory, Truitt said, in court documents.

"Buncich's defense, as stated throughout this response, is that he did absolutely nothing wrong," Truitt wrote. "That he accepted legitimate campaign donations but not in exchange for any official action. That he never directed Downs to do anything improper. That he never took any official action whatsoever, or threatened to do so should a tow company fail to perform in any particular way."

Truitt said the court has discretion to decide whether it's appropriate to introduce evidence and testimony, according to court documents.

"Those that are discretionary the court needs to look at relevance and possible overwhelming prejudice to the government," Truitt wrote.










Judge denies Buncich request for stricter jury screening
Post-Tribune
July 11, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-jury-screening-denial-st-0712-20170711-story.html
A federal judge denied a request to have a more stringent process to screen jurors for Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's trial on corruption charges.

Judge James Moody denied motions by Bryan Truitt, one of Buncich's defense attorneys, to use a more detailed jury questionnaire and allow for voir dire, which is where attorneys can question jurors, during the jury selection process for the sheriff's upcoming trial. Truitt petitioned the court to use more stringent methods because of the publicity around the case and Buncich's profile in the community.

"The nature of the charges in this case are not novel or complex, and the undersigned exercises its discretion to question jurors himself under federal rule of criminal procedure 24," Moody wrote, in his order. "Further, the case involves political figures, but that fact alone does not convince this court that a more detailed jury questionnaire is warranted."

Truitt filed a series of pretrial motions at the end of June, including two that specifically asked the court for a stronger vetting process for potential jurors. Truitt said, in court filings, that extra level of screening is needed because of the media publicity of the case and comments made by Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., on his radio show, could taint the jury pool.

"The publicity has been both good and bad for both sides in that the defendant is the sheriff with over 60 percent of the vote and was the head of the Lake County Democratic Party, yet has been the victim (of) an endless negative campaign by the Northwest Indiana Times and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott," Truitt's motion read.

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

Downs pleaded guilty in December and resigned his position at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, according to court documents.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges after the indictments were filed in November and again in April when additional counts of wire fraud were filed with the court.

Moody also ruled on two other pending requests from Buncich's defense team: one asking the judge to require federal prosecutors to notify defense attorneys if they planned to introduce evidence related to the sheriff's bad character and another seeking information on cooperating witnesses.

The judge granted the defense's request to get information on any intention related to other crime, wrongs or acts, according to court documents.

Moody denied a request to compel prosecutors to provide information on any "monetary inducements" paid to witnesses in exchange for cooperation.

"In the discovery provided to the defense, nondescript information has been disclosed that cooperating witnesses have been provided upwards of $120,000 to perform as confidential witnesses and provided other monies for campaign contributions by the government," Truitt's motion to have that information turned over read. "However, the exact payees are not listed, nor are the cooperating witnesses' tax returns included, or other inducements for their cooperation."

Truitt said, in the motion, information on those witnesses is material the government must provide the defense.

Despite his ruling, Moody wrote that there is nothing in prior case precedent that forces the government to prematurely disclose that material as it would give defense advance knowledge of the government's witnesses, according to court documents.

"However, the court reminds the government that the longer it waits to make Brady disclosures, the more it runs the risk of a fair trial challenge," Moody wrote.










Feds seek limits on materials defense can introduce in sheriff's trial
Post-Tribune
July 10, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-prertrial-motions-st-0711-20170710-story.html
Federal prosecutors asked a judge to set limits on what information Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's defense team can introduce during his August public corruption trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson filed a motion Friday asking a judge to preclude Buncich's defense team from introducing evidence of the sheriff's lawfulness, non-corrupt conduct or lack of a criminal history among a long list, according to court documents.

Buncich's trial is set to start Aug. 7.

Bryan Truitt, one of the sheriff's defense attorneys, said he will be filing a formal response to Benson's motion by Friday.

"We believe that the jury should see the entire picture," Truitt said, in an email. "When in doubt, more evidence is better provided there is some probative value."

Benson argued, in his motion, that federal rules of procedure bar many of the items he cited from being mentioned during a trial.

For example, in defense of his objections to introducing information about the sheriff's good acts, non-corrupt activity or lack of criminal history, Benson wrote he anticipated the defense might attempt to enter evidence about days not mentioned in the indictment where Buncich did not solicit bribes or interacted with political contributors without suggesting official acts would be performed in exchange for donations, according to court documents.

"Even if evidence of specific acts unrelated to the charges of the indictment had some relevance, the evidence should be excluded because its probative value 'is substantially outweighed' by the danger of confusing the issues, needlessly complicating the case and causing undue delay and waste of time," Benson's motion read.

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

Downs pleaded guilty in December and resigned his position at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, according to court documents.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges after the indictments were filed in November and again in April when additional counts of wire fraud were filed with the court.

Aside from the new motion on what evidence and testimony can be presented at trial, a judge has yet to rule on a request for more stringent jury screening because of level of publicity around the trial.

Truitt filed a series of pretrial motions at the end of June, including two that specifically asked the court for a stronger vetting process for potential jurors. Truitt said, in court filings, that extra level of screening is needed because of the media publicity of the case and comments made by Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. could taint the jury pool.

"The publicity has been both good and bad for both sides in that the defendant is the sheriff with over 60 percent of the vote and was the head of the Lake County Democratic Party, yet has been the victim (of) an endless negative campaign by the Northwest Indiana Times and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott," Truitt's motion read.










Robust jury screening sought in Lake sheriff corruption case
NWI Times
Jun 30, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/robust-jury-screening-sought-in-lake-sheriff-corruption-case/article_2a4de8fe-a27d-5875-939b-e1581740a83f.html
HAMMOND — Attorneys for Lake County Sheriff John Buncich are seeking a more detailed jury screening ahead of his public corruption trial, citing the case's "significant publicity."

One of Buncich's defense lawyers, Bryan M. Truitt, also cited “an endless negative campaign by the (The Times of Northwest Indiana) and the Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott," in his motion requesting extra screening ensuring an impartial jury. 

The motion filed Thursday noted that a preliminary, detailed questionnaire would allow both prosecutors and the defense to screen jurors for cause, and "avoid ... a potential juror from elaborating their feelings and poisoning the remainder of the jury pool," court documents show. 

A separate pretrial motion also requested the ability on both sides to question individual jurors during jury selection, noting Buncich "has many political allies, as well as political enemies."

Buncich is pleading not guilty to a five-count indictment alleging he deprived the public of honest government services by soliciting and receiving thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from towing firms wanting work from county police.

In April, Buncich issued a public statement proclaiming his innocence to federal felony bribery and wire fraud charges in an alleged towing contract kickback scheme.

His attorney in a separate pretrial motion filed this week also requested notice if government prosecutors intend to “introduce any evidence of bad character,” moving forward.










Lake County sheriff's attorney: Publicity requires stronger jury screening
Post-Tribune
June 30, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-motions-publicity-st-0701-20170701-story.html
Attorneys for Lake County Sheriff John Buncich have asked a federal judge to use a more stringent jury screening process, citing extensive publicity about his public corruption case and remarks by Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.

Attorney Bryan Truitt, one of Buncich's defense attorneys, filed a series of pretrial motions Thursday, including two that specifically asked the court for a stronger vetting process for potential jurors. In court filings, Truitt said an extra level of screening is needed because of the media publicity of the case and that comments made by McDermott could taint the jury pool.

"The publicity has been both good and bad for both sides in that the defendant is the sheriff with over 60 percent of the vote and was the head of the Lake County Democratic Party, yet has been the victim (of) an endless negative campaign by the Northwest Indiana Times and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott," Truitt's motion read.

McDermott, who has a show on WJOB-1230 in Hammond every Friday, has addressed Buncich's legal troubles on the air.

"I have First Amendment rights and I will exercise them" McDermott said, during an interview with the Post-Tribune.

McDermott said Buncich chose to remain sheriff after the charges were filed but could have stepped aside. As citizens, people have a right to criticize public officials, the mayor said.

"As long as he's there, I think it's fair game for criticism," McDermott said.

The Hammond mayor said he personally feels bad for Buncich's situation and wouldn't wish it on anybody. But, McDermott said, Buncich chose to remain in public office.

"I speak my mind. Everybody knows that," McDermott said.

A representative from The Times declined comment.

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

Downs pleaded guilty in December and resigned his position at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, according to court documents.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges after the indictments were filed in November and again in April when additional counts of wire fraud were filed with the court.

The sheriff has insisted on his innocence, distributing and publishing a statement in April refuting allegations made by federal prosecutors.

The motions asked for both a detailed questionnaire and the ability for attorneys to question individual jurors during the selection process.

Truitt said, in a motion, the sheriff received 67 percent of the popular vote in 2014, according to court documents, and was the head of the county Democratic committee until March 2017.

"The defendant has many political allies, as well as political enemies," Truitt's motion read. "That as to his enemies, the mayor of Hammond, who for what unknown and inexplicable reasons, enjoys certain support, has taken it upon himself to use his weekly radio show to try to convict the defendant without a trial based in innuendo and absence of fact."

Truitt, in the motion, listed factors that could potentially taint the jury pool, including prior prosecution of Lake County politicians; the sheriff's good works; and widespread media coverage.

"Local media has shown no hesitation to be partisan and express opinions as to the defendant's guilt, rather than simply reporting the facts," Truitt's motion read. 

Truitt said both the defense and federal prosecutors support more detailed jury screening as they both thought jurors could more easily be eliminated for cause, according to court documents.

"In addition, it held a better opportunity for avoiding a potential juror from elaborating their feelings and poisoning the remainder of the jury pool," the motion read.

Truitt, during a status conference on June 20, asked Judge James Moody to use an extensive jury questionnaire to screen potential candidates, but Moody did not seem inclined to go along with the request.

"We're just going to use the same jury questionnaire we always use," Moody said, during that hearing.

The motion argued that a stronger questionnaire would benefit the defense, prosecution and court by sitting an impartial jury.

A second motion related to the jury selection process would give both the defense and prosecution an opportunity to question prospective jurors, according to court documents, and that using the same screening process would be "insufficient to give competence of an impartial jury for either side of the case."

"The court's current proposed procedure would not allow for appropriate follow-up questions given whatever the prospective juror's answers," Truitt's motion read.

Aside from requests to ensure the court can sit an impartial jury, Truitt also filed requests seeking more information from federal prosecutors to prepare for the August trial.

The first request related to cooperating witnesses involved in the case, according to court documents.

"The defense has good reason to believe that one, if not both, cooperating witnesses were compelled to cooperate based on the impending threat of prosecution, which in turn encouraged their compliance and cooperation," Truitt's motion read.

Truitt said no information on any investigation or prosecution has been turned over to defense attorneys.

"In the discovery provided to the defense, nondescript information has been disclosed that cooperating witnesses have been provided upwards of $120,000 to perform as confidential witnesses and provided other monies for campaign contributions by the government," Truitt's motion read. "However, the exact payees are not listed, nor are the cooperating witnesses' tax returns included, or other inducements for their cooperation."

Truitt said, in the motion, information on those witnesses is material the government must provide the defense.

The U.S. Attorney's Office does not comment on pending cases.

The final request asked the court to compel the government to notify defense attorneys if it plans to introduce evidence of bad character, according to court documents.










Another plea deal expected in sheriff's bribery case
NWI Times
Jun 20, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/lake/another-plea-deal-expected-in-sheriff-s-bribery-case/article_cc255139-3f5d-5f7f-8bff-3c4cd833c857.html
CROWN POINT — A Lake Station tow truck owner may plead guilty in the federal bribery case against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

A U.S. District Court record of a pre-trial hearing Tuesday states an attorney for William Szarmach told a federal judge he anticipates the likelihood of a plea agreement.

The court record doesn't provide any details of what a potential deal between Szarmach and the U.S. Attorney would look like. Defense attorney Daniel M. Purdom, of Lisle, Illinois, who represents Szarmach, declined to comment on the matter.

Six months earlier, Timothy Downs, the sheriff's former second-in-command, pleaded guilty to collecting Buncich's bribes on public time under an agreement to cooperate with federal prosecutors in return for a lenient sentence.

Szarmach currently is pleading not guilty to bribery and wire fraud counts alleging he paid the sheriff thousands of dollars for more lucrative towing business. He currently faces a lengthy prison term.

The U.S. Attorney's office alleges Szarmach owns and operates CSA Towing, on the 2500 block of Lake Station's DeKalb Street, which was one of several firms the sheriff approved to tow vehicles from public streets and highways for county police.

A federal grand jury indicted Buncich, Szarmach and Downs on Nov. 18, 2016.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge James T. Moody held a hearing Tuesday for Buncich's and Szarmach's attorneys in preparation for a jury trial now scheduled to begin Aug. 7.

The court record indicates Buncich's attorneys stated they will go forward with the trial and present five to seven days of evidence in the sheriff's defense.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to allegations he solicited and received campaign contributions from towing firms seeking county business.

The court record indicates federal prosecutors estimate they will present five to seven days of evidence against the sheriff.









Attorney: Indicted tow operator plea deal a 'strong possibility'
Post-Tribune
June 20, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-status-conference-st-0621-20170620-story.html
The public corruption trial of the Lake County sheriff and a tow operator is in line to start in August, according to attorneys, but there could be one fewer defendant, one attorney said Tuesday.

Federal Judge James Moody called attorneys for Sheriff John Buncich, William Szarmach, of C.S.A. Towing in Lake Station, and the U.S. Attorney's Office to court for a status conference on the corruption trial, which is set to begin Aug. 7. Szarmach's attorney, Daniel Purdom, said it's possible his client and prosecutors could reach a plea agreement, leaving only Buncich to stand trial.

"It's a strong possibility," Purdom said. "We're working with the government. I don't believe we will be here for trial."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said attorneys for Szarmach and the government could file a plea within the next 14 days.

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and Szarmach were named in a multicount indictment in November alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records.

Downs pleaded guilty in December and resigned his position at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, according to court documents.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges after the indictments were filed in November and again in April when additional counts of wire fraud were filed with the court.

Benson said he thinks it will take close to a week for prosecutors to make their case and present evidence to jurors.

"There's a substantial amount of recordings, your honor," Benson said.

Truitt said he'd estimate it would take close to a week to present the defense.

Attorneys asked Moody to consider starting with a jury pool of 75 to 100 people given that it's a significant case.

Bryan Truitt, one of Buncich's defense attorneys, said because of the publicity around the case, he thought the court should use a more detailed jury questionnaire.

"We're just going to use the same jury questionnaire we always use," Moody said.

Moody asked if either the defense or prosecution planned to file any motions to move the trial date.

"That would be a fruitless motion on your part," Moody said.

Benson said he did not plan to file a motion to continue.

"There shouldn't be any reason we're not ready to go on that day," Benson said.

Truitt also said he didn't intend to file to move to continue the trial.









Sheriff still deploys courtesy deputies
NWI Times
Jun 18, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/sheriff-still-deploys-courtesy-deputies/article_f732634e-f156-5e16-a806-26a035714e23.html
CROWN POINT — Some politicians usually have little more to offer their petitioners than a hearty handshake.

The Lake County sheriff can rain stars down on his.

Sheriff John Buncich has conferred special deputy commissions on 230 men and women, including politically connected business people, current or former government officials and precinct committee members, according to a list of names Buncich has provided The Times.

Police in Lake County have said privately and not for the record that the existence of special deputies has been an annoyance to uniformed police officers in Northwest Indiana who are required to undergo hours of training in the use of guns, emergency and other law enforcement skills — disciplines not required of special deputies.

Buncich acknowledged to The Times now and in the past that former sheriffs in the 1980s traded deputy sheriff commissions for political contributions, and some holders abused the commissions by harassing members of the public or getting out of traffic tickets.

Buncich said he hated the process as a county police officer and sued to stop the abuses. He said as sheriff all his deputies have passed background checks and he won't give special consideration to precinct committee members or political contributors.

"That has absolutely not occurred," said John Bushemi, legal counsel for the sheriff, and himself a special deputy.

Bushemi said some believe the cards, which bear a gold star and Buncich's signature, carry some authority, but "legally it's just a piece of paper. None convey police powers, and none allow the holder to carry a gun without a permit," Bushemi said.

Buncich said the only deputy sheriff commissions he issues with police powers are to municipal police officers, county jail corrections officers, school and court security officers, bailiffs and some state and federal law enforcement personnel.

He didn't estimate how many of the law enforcement deputy sheriff commissions are in circulation. The Times found there were 1,100 issued to law enforcement in 2001. Buncich said he hasn't issued that many. 

Bushemi said state law authorizes all county sheriffs to appoint special deputies. "They are issued in all 92 counties," Bushemi said.

Porter, LaPorte counties
Porter County Sheriff David Reynolds said he has deputized county animal control staff so they can gain access to sensitive police records and some dentists who work crime scenes for his department. But he signs few special deputy commissions, knowing they are an annoyance to trained and uniformed police officers in Northwest Indiana, he said.

"I know I have the power to give them out," Reynolds said. "Last week, I did one for (Chesterton) Town Manager Bernie Doyle. He is a veteran. Mainly, it's so he can put it on his desk, but everyone else knows how I feel, and they don't even ask."

LaPorte County Sheriff John T. Boyd said he will deputize state prison employees to serve court papers, for his office, on state prison inmates, but said, "We no longer give out courtesy commissions."

Robert Deliget said he was a Lake County Sheriff's Department civilian employee and deputy sheriff in the 1970s when he served court papers under the late Sheriff Leslie Pruitt.

Today, at age 75, Deliget is still a deputy sheriff and works for Buncich as an overseer of the county jail "road crew" inmates who perform community services.

Past Lake practices
A high tide of deputizing all comers in Lake County occurred under former Sheriff Rudy Bartolomei during the mid-1980s before he was forced out of office by a U.S. attorney's office public corruption prosecution.

One of Bartolomei's special deputies, Mike Mokol Jr., got into a dispute with a pizza delivery man, flashed his deputy credentials and beat him. The victim sued, and it cost the county thousands of dollars.

Stephen R. "Bob" Stiglich, who succeeded Bartolomei as county sheriff, told The Times in 2001 that "there had been a lot of incidents like that around the county."

He said he made all of Bartolomei's special deputies turn in their credentials and overhauled the applications process to eliminate the "carte blanche" issuance of commissions.

Buncich, who served as sheriff from 1994 to 2002 and returned to office in 2010, said he now requires deputy sheriff applicants to sign an agreement that financially indemnifies Lake County for damages resulting from their negligent exercise of special deputy powers. He can revoke deputy sheriff commissions in cases of misbehavior.

Lake County Attorney John Dull said the county hasn't had to defend any lawsuits caused by deputy sheriffs since the 1980s, so the indemnity agreement is yet to be tested.

Robert Bullock, Gary's 1-6 Democratic precinct committeeman and a Buncich contributor in 2008, said he needed a special deputy commission for protection. "I had a couple of day care centers in a bad neighborhood, but when I got sick, I closed them." He said he has since misplaced his commission card.

Current Lake practices
Hobart City Councilman John Brezik, D-5th; Hammond City Councilman Anthony Higgs, D-3rd; and New Chicago Town Councilwoman Tara Pelfrey, D-4th; said their deputy sheriff commissions are related to their government work.

Pelfrey is the coordinator for the sheriff's sex offender registry. Brezik said he work's part time for the Sheriff's Department. Higgs works for the Lake County Board of Commissioners. He said he wants one in case any emergency arises in the county's Hammond courthouse, where he is an engineer.

Fred Cicco said he received a deputy sheriff commission while doing business with the sheriff's office, providing clothing worn by police and corrections officers beyond their basic uniform.

Gary attorney John Hall said he received one a couple of years ago for personal protection.

Hall said, "I know the sheriff very well from a couple of years ago when the Katie Hall Foundation gave him an award for being an outstanding person in appreciation for his service." The foundation contributed to the sheriff's re-election in 2014. Katie Hall is a former U.S. congresswoman and Gary clerk. John Hall was her husband. 

Martine Vagenas said she's had one since she was a Superior Court administrator, a position she retired from seven years ago.

Speros Batistatos, president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, said he's had one since 1989. "For me it's largely sentimental. My dad was a captain in the deputy sheriff's department, and my grandfather was a deputy sheriff as well."

Wally DeRose, a retired Gary police officer, a federal investigator and a deputy sheriff commission-holder, said, "It's true, some police officers were thinking it was a politician with a badge, which is BS to me.

"I think that changed. The Sheriff's Department decided there were liability issues. We can't have people running around flashing badges. Subsequent sheriffs, including John Buncich, stepped forward and said this makes us look bad, with guys running around drunk with a badge.

"I've had one for 30 years. If I see a police officer who needs assistance, I will show my retirement badge and deputy sheriff commission badge, too, to provide more emphasis to it.

"You work under the direction of the sheriff, but if you are already engaged in law enforcement, it provides a backup to the powers you already have," DeRose said.









Special Deputy Sheriff Restrictions
NWI Times
Jun 18, 2017 
nwitimes.com/special-deputy-sheriff-restrictions/pdf_a1b304cf-aaaa-5e5c-b687-b9598a506dee.html









Buncich names new chief to replace co-defendant
NWI Times
May 31, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/buncich-names-new-chief-to-replace-co-defendant/article_31ac8e3e-d1ad-52de-a27e-edaa83f0f58d.html
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich on Wednesday named a veteran officer to fill a position left vacant since the sheriff's second-in-command pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Buncich in a federal bribery case.

Matt Eaton, who has served as commander of the Sheriff's Department's Criminal Investigations Division since 2013, will become chief of police Thursday, according to a news release.

Timothy Downs resigned from the department in December, after pleading guilty to federal charges alleging he collected towing firm kickbacks. Downs has agreed to testify he took the kickbacks under Buncich's orders, according to court records.

Eaton joined the department in 1995, graduated from the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in 1997, the Northwestern University School of Police Staff and Command in 2012 and is currently studying security management at American Military University.


Buncich, Downs and William “Willie” Szarmach, operator of CSA Towing of Lake Station, were named in an indictment filed in November in U.S. District Court in Hammond. The U.S. attorney's office filed a superseding indictment in April charging Buncich with two additional wire fraud counts.

Both Buncich and Szarmach have pleaded not guilty. Buncich's attorney, Bryan M. Truitt, has said the sheriff believes he's innocent and is looking forward to proving it at trial.

The FBI raided the sheriff's home and office Nov. 10 and seized large numbers of documents. The government has disclosed it has hundreds of photographs and recordings made during months of federal surveillance of the sheriff.

The trial is scheduled to start Aug. 7.









Buncich names Eaton to chief of police post
Post-Tribune
May 31, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-eaton-lake-county-st-0601-20170531-story.html
A two-decade veteran of the Lake County Sheriff's Department has been selected as the new chief of police, filling a position left vacant when the former chief resigned and pleaded guilty to a corruption charge.

Commander Dennis Matthew Eaton takes over as chief of police for the Lake County Sheriff's Department, effective Thursday.

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich lauded Eaton's investigative skills in appointing him to the post.

"During his service with the Lake County Sheriff's Department, Commander Eaton has implemented effective management and innovative procedures, which have resulted in a significant increase in felony case filings," Buncich said.

Eaton is the commander of the criminal investigations division, after previously serving in the detective's bureau, gang unit, narcotics unit, K-9 unit and patrol division, according to the department. As commander, Eaton oversaw a number of investigative units including the detective bureau, crime scene investigation unit and auto theft unit. He was named the 2011 Lake County Officer of the Year.

He attended the Northwest Indiana Law Enforcement Academy and joined the Lake County Sheriff's Department in 1997, according to the department. He graduated from the Northwestern University School of Police Staff and Command in 2012 and is pursuing an education in security management from American Military University.

The new chief and second generation sheriff's department officer said he was humbled and overwhelmed at the chance to lead the department where he has worked for so long.

"I'm second generation here. It's a big deal to me and to my family," Eaton said.

Eaton said the department has a good command staff and has been moving collectively as a team.

"Overall, we are following a pretty solid game plan," Eaton said. "Of course, you always look for improvement measures and try and improve customers service and crime prevention," he said.

Eaton will fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Timothy Downs, who resigned as chief in December after pleading guilty to federal charges he cooperated to solicit bribes from tow operators for favorable treatment. Downs' resignation from the department was a part of the plea agreement.

Downs said he sold fundraising tickets to tow truck operators, according to court documents, and took both cash payments and checks from the businesses.

Buncich, Downs and tow operator William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges. Buncich's trial is scheduled for August.

Eaton said time and continued good customer service from the department's officers will be important to restoring any faith that has been lost in the department as a results of the charges.

"I think collectively as we police ourselves and are providing good service ... I hope over time that will serve to restore some confidence," Eaton said.









Commissioners start selecting towing operators
Post-Tribune
May 17, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-towing-contracts-st-0518-20170517-story.html
Lake County officials are getting ready to implement a new towing protocol June 1, including newly drawn districts.

The Lake County Council moved control over the county's towing contracts to the commissioners after Lake County Sheriff John Bunch was indicted in federal court on charges he solicited bribes from towing operators in exchange for more tow jobs.

The Board of Commissioners accepted signed contracts from nine of 20 towing companies Wednesday. The remaining 11 companies have until May 30 to return their signed contracts.

Michael Repay, D-Hammond, president of the Board of Commissioners, said 23 companies submitted forms required to be considered by the Sheriff's Department to tow vehicles. Three of those companies were disqualified for not properly following the procedure, he said.

Repay said a loosely prepared map dividing the county into five quadrants has been prepared based on the nine contracts received so far. A final map will be prepared after the May 30 deadline for returning the signed contracts.

"At this point, with nine turned in, we may have a different outcome than if there are 20 (companies)," Repay said. "This has never been done before. We don't know how it will play out."

Some of the 20 who have been offered contracts with the county are new vendors and some were vendors under the contract while it was overseen by Buncich.

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach of CSA Towing in Lake Stationwere named in a multicount indictment in November alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, and Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

Buncich and Szarmach have pleaded not guilty. Downs previously struck a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Buncich to solicit bribes from tow truck operators for favorable treatment.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in the 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Five of the 13 original contractors providing towing services under the sheriff did not participate in the requalification process: D.C. Towing, J.A.N. Towing, Bennie's Towing, CSA Towing and Samson Towing.

Companies that have returned their contracts and will be including in the new program are Steve's Towing of Merrillville, Double T Towing of Griffith, Purkey's Towing of Merrillville, Ray and Wally's Towing of Merrillville, Ridgeway Service Towing and Recovery Specialists of Griffith, McCoy & Sons Towing of Hammond, Bert's Towing Inc. of Hammond, 1st Response Towing of Merrillville and Republic Frame and Axle of Gary.

John Dull, commissioners' attorney, said the existing towing companies have been given 90-day notice their contracts will be canceled. Until that 90 days expires in August, there will be some overlap with those companies still providing services under the new protocol along with the new companies.

"Some companies couldn't be booted until the current contract runs out in August," Dull said.  









EDITORIAL: Buncich circles drain, taking county with him
The Times Editorial Board
NWI Times
Apr 27, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/editorial-buncich-circles-drain-taking-county-with-him/article_dea13189-6107-5bcb-bf85-05dc41da3ee8.html
An alleged corruption vortex keeps swirling faster around Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, and he doesn't seem to mind the rest of the county circling the drain with him.

Earlier this month, Buncich issued a public statement proclaiming his innocence to federal felony bribery and wire fraud charges in an alleged towing contract kickback scheme.

A week later, the federal prosecutors announced two additional wire fraud charges, linked to transactions Buncich made with alleged ill-gotten bribery gains.

The dark cloud of the federal charges have been hovering over Buncich since the initial indictment was announced in November, and it continues to rain down distrust that compromises the integrity of the chief law enforcement office for the county.

Lake County residents and other county officials unwillingly are being forced to weather the same storm.

Shortly after Buncich's November indictment, we implored him to step down and focus on his criminal defense while leaving the reputation of his office and the county out of his legal troubles.

Instead, he selfishly clung to power, and two new criminal charges have surfaced in the interim.

We renew our call today for Buncich to resign. If he ever possessed a true desire to serve the best interests of Lake County, resignation is the appropriate course of action.










Attorney in corruption case: 'Sheriff Buncich did nothing wrong'
Post-Tribune
April 27, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-arraignment-st-0427-20170426-story.html
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich continued to affirm his innocence Wednesday against federal allegations of corruption.

Buncich and co-defendant William Szarmach, of CSA Towing, both pleaded not guilty to charges of wire fraud filed against them by the U.S. Attorney's office last week during brief arraignments in federal court.

"We hold our heads up high and reaffirm Sheriff Buncich did nothing wrong," said Bryan Truitt, the sheriff's defense attorney, after the brief hearing.

When the case goes to trial in August, people will get a true picture of events, Truitt said.

The new indictment listed wire transfers Buncich allegedly made on April 8, 2014, and Oct. 21, 2014, as the cause behind the new charges, months after federal authorities filed a series of charges against the sheriff, Szarmach and former Lake County Chief of Police Timothy Downs in November.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said the November indictment remains unchanged, except for the two additional counts of wire fraud. Benson said two counts of wire fraud have a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach were named in a multicount indictment in November alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records.

A federal judge pushed back the date of the sheriff's trial because of the large volume of material defense attorneys must review to prepare for trial.

Buncich recently released a statement, calling the charges "absurd" and vowing to fight the federal allegations.

"For those who know me and my 45 years in law enforcement, you know that I would never compromise my integrity or professionalism and cannot be guilty of these charges; trust that I would never sell my office — not for any amount. I assure you that I am absolutely innocent," Buncich wrote.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, according to the indictment.

Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty during their initial appearances in November.

Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Buncich to solicit bribes from tow truck operators for favorable treatment.









Sheriff Buncich pleads not guilty to new federal charges
NWI Times
Apr 26, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/sheriff-buncich-pleads-not-guilty-to-new-federal-charges/article_4a62a686-5b39-5ddf-a8ab-2a1bca216a15.html
HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich pleaded not guilty during an initial court appearance Wednesday to the updated federal bribery indictment against him.

Buncich appeared in court with his attorney Bryan Truitt and the trial date was reaffirmed for Aug. 7, according to a court document.

The U.S. attorney's office filed a superseding indictment Friday afternoon that repeats all of the original wire fraud and bribery counts first made Nov. 17 against the sheriff, his top aide and a Lake Station towing firm's owner.

The new 14-page indictment adds two new wire fraud counts alleging Buncich made incriminating money wire transfers April 8, 2014, and Oct. 21 2014, in addition to three others in 2014 and 2015 already alleged by federal authorities.

The government alleges Buncich used his position as sheriff to solicit and receive bribes in the form of campaign contributions between 2014 and last fall from a number of towing firms wanting county police business.









New Charge for Sheriff Buncich
New count may indicate cooperation by Co-Defendant William “Willie” Szarmach
NWI Gazette
April 21, 2017
nwigazette.com/2017/04/21/new-charge-for-sheriff-buncich
April 21, 2017-The United States Attorney has added an additional count of bribery to the indictment of Lake County Sheriff and former Democratic Party Chair John Buncich. According to court documents, the 6 count indictment was amended today to include a seventh count of Federal Program Bribery. The indictment alleges three bribes paid to Sheriff Buncich by co-defendant William Szarmach of CSA Towing as follows:

6/18/15 $2500 cash
4/22/16 $3500 cash
8/9/16 $1000 check and $2500 cash

According to the indictment, Szarmach and “individual A”, later identified as Scott Jurgensen, paid thousands in cash and checks to the Sheriff in order to receive additional towing. The most damning allegation involves the city of Gary where the Sheriff allegedly ordered officers to make additional traffic in order to increase revenue for tow truck operators. The additional charges may indicate that co-defendant Szarmach is cooperating with federal officials. Lake County Police Chief Tim Downs has already entered a plea of guilty and is believed to be cooperating with federal authorities.

The additional charge comes a little over a week after Sheriff Buncich issued a statement proclaiming his innocence to the media. In that letter Sheriff Buncich stated “I assure you that I am absolutely innocent. I assure you that the workings of the Lake County Sheriff in all its capacities will remain ongoing in perfect working order. I look forward to my trial and the vindication that will come from it.”

Sheriff Buncich was replaced as Lake County Democratic Chair during the party’s March election. Buncich cast the tie-breaking vote to select Attorney Jim Wieser as party chair over Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay after a vote miraculously ended in a 305-305 deadlock.

All criminal defendants are presumed innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law. A criminal charge is not evidence of guilt.









Feds add new fraud charges to sheriff's indictment
NWI Times
Apr 21, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/feds-add-new-fraud-charges-to-sheriff-s-indictment/article_fc1b88be-354b-5654-a9ff-46043aae655e.html
HAMMOND — A federal grand jury has updated a bribery indictment against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

The U.S. attorney's office filed a superseding indictment Friday afternoon that repeats all of the original wire fraud and bribery counts first made Nov. 17 against the sheriff, his top aide and a Lake Station towing firm's owner.

The new 14-page indictment adds two new wire fraud counts alleging Buncich made incriminating money wire transfers April 8, 2014, and Oct. 21 2014, in addition to three others in 2014 and 2015 already alleged by federal authorities.

Buncich has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial, now scheduled to begin Aug. 7 in U.S. District Court in Hammond.

The government alleges Buncich used his position as sheriff to solicit and receive bribes in the form of campaign contributions between 2014 and last fall from a number of towing firms wanting county police business.

Timothy Downs, who served as second-in-command to Buncich, also was indicted in November and already has pleaded guilty to collecting towing firm kickbacks and has agreed to testify he did it under Buncich's orders.

William “Willie” Szarmach, operator of CSA Towing of Lake Station, is pleading not guilty to allegations he paid bribes to Buncich and Downs.

This comes days after Buncich released a detailed denial of the charges against him, in which he stated, "Trust that I would never sell my office, not for any amount."

Buncich's lawyer, Bryan M. Truitt, said Friday his client stands by his earlier statement, noting the superseding indictment filed Friday came "as a complete surprise." 

"He remains absolutely adamant that he’s done nothing wrong, that he’s completely innocent ... and we look forward to proving that at trial," Truitt said. 

Truitt added Buncich would "never sell his integrity" for "just a few thousand dollars."

"And if he was really to enrich himself, there’s a lot more contracts and vendors, the jail’s (food and visitation) services ... that are far more lucrative. If he was going to shake down someone, that’s who he would shake down," Truitt said. 

The FBI raided the sheriff's home and office Nov. 10 and seized large numbers of documents. The government has disclosed it has hundreds of photographs and recordings made during months of federal surveillance of the sheriff.









Feds level 2 new fraud charges against Lake County sheriff
Chicago Tribune
April 21, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-new-charges-st-0422-20170421-story.html
Federal authorities on Friday leveled two new fraud charges against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

The U.S. Attorney's office filed a new indictment against the sheriff, who was first indicted on a series of charges in November, adding new allegations of wire fraud, according to court documents. The new indictment listed wire transfers Buncich allegedly made on April 8, 2014, and Oct. 21, 2014, as the cause behind the new charges.

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment in November alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records.

A federal judge recently pushed back the date of the sheriff's trial because of the large volume of material defense attorneys must review to prepare for trial.

Buncich released a statement April 14 calling the charges "absurd" and vowing to fight the original federal allegations.

"For those who know me and my 45 years in law enforcement, you know that I would never compromise my integrity or professionalism and cannot be guilty of these charges; trust that I would never sell my office — not for any amount. I assure you that I am absolutely innocent," Buncich wrote.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, according to the indictment.

Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty during their initial appearances in November.

Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Buncich to solicit bribes from tow truck operators for favorable treatment.









Campaign reports deferred for Buncich; feds have his records
Post-Tribune
April 20, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-campaign-reports-st-0421-20170420-story.html
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich will get an extension to file his campaign finance reports because federal investigators have the documentation he needs.

The Board of Elections and Voter Registration on Tuesday granted the extension after officials learned the sheriff does not have the records needed to fill out the forms because they were seized by the FBI as part of the investigation of an alleged towing scheme. Buncich was indicted in November on public corruption charges.

Michelle Fajman, election board director, said Buncich sent a letter to the board requesting the extension due to his situation. This is the first time the sheriff has been late filing a required campaign finance document.

"He does not have the documentation he needs in his possession," Fajman said.

Buncich, former Lake County Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, in November were named in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in the 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty during their initial appearances in November.

Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Buncich to solicit brides from tow-truck operators for favorable treatment. Buncich's trial has been postponed to August.

Buncich was one of three politicians to receive a deferral from the election board. Others included:

•Former Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin, who, along with three co-defendants, was charged in December 2014 with using the Calumet Township trustee's office and employees to help run election campaigns. She also is charged with lying to federal investigators, trying to extort a township vendor and not filing her federal income tax returns. The case is scheduled for jury trial May 8 before Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen, according to the clerk's office for the U.S. District Court of the Northern Indiana District.

Elgin, in her request to the election board for an extension, said she has recently moved and she received a reminder days after the Jan. 18 filing deadline.

Fajman said this is the sixth time Elgin has been late with a campaign finance filing, but she has no outstanding fines. Potential fines for the infraction, once rectified, range from $120 to $300.

•The third individual granted an extension was former Coroner David Pastrick. Pastrick served as coroner from 2002 to 2009 and as current Coroner Merrilee Frey's second in command for 10 months when she first took the job in 2013.

This is the eighth time Pastrick has been late filing his campaign finance reports. He has an outstanding balance of $650. Fajman said Pastrick is working to close out his committee. He is facing new fines ranging from $160 to $400, though the election board has the discretion to waive new fines because he is closing the committee.









Lake sheriff, former Cal Twp. trustee play for time
NWI Times
Apr 19, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/lake-sheriff-former-cal-twp-trustee-play-for-time/article_11f4d619-bcb2-539e-9aee-5eb75e782d63.html
CROWN POINT — Two Lake County political figures who already have enough trouble with public corruption charges, now are trying to avoid penalties for election law violations.

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and former Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin petitioned the county elections board Tuesday to delay bringing up their failure to file past campaign finance reports.

Michelle Fajman, the county elections director, said Elgin sent the board a letter asking for more time because she had medical issues.

Three years ago, Elgin asked to be excused from filing campaign finance reports because FBI and IRS agents seized her campaign records during a 2014 raid on her township offices in Gary, just before a federal grand jury indicted her.

Elgin and Steven Hunter, her son and former information technology boss, have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to be tried May 8 on federal wire fraud and conspiracy charges alleging she extorted cash and work from her township employees to benefit her re-election.

She also is accused of failing to file federal income tax returns and lying to the FBI when denying her employees were doing her political work on public time.

Fajman said a lawyer for Buncich stated to the elections board the sheriff's campaign finance records are in the hands of federal investigators following a raid on his home and office Nov. 10.

He is pleading not guilty and is awaiting trial, now set to begin Aug. 7, on bribery charges alleging he used his position as sheriff to solicit and receive campaign contributions and bribes from towing firms wanting county police business.

Elgin and Buncich face prison time if convicted of their federal counts. Their potential election violations are only fines.

Buncich would face up to a $25 penalty and Elgin up to $300 for not timely filing reports.

The elections board voted to postpone action on both cases.

The board also deferred action on fining David Pastrick for a late finance report for his former campaign for county coroner. Fajman said this would be his ninth such violation. Pastrick served as coroner from 2002 to 2010.









Buncich: 'I would never sell my office'
NWI Times
Apr 13, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/buncich-i-would-never-sell-my-office/article_0bde9506-36c8-53a5-bd23-f7892fa169ac.html
CROWN POINT — Sheriff John Buncich is proclaiming his innocence to federal bribery charges.

It comes months after Lake County's top law enforcement officer retreated from public view after federal agents arrested him. He pleaded not guilty in a federal courtroom in Hammond and had maintained his silence until now.

The sheriff issued a written statement, through his defense attorney, Bryan Truitt, that, "I assure you that I am absolutely innocent."

"For those of you who know me and my 45 years in law enforcement, you know I would never compromise my integrity or professionalism and cannot be guilty of these charges. Trust that I would never sell my office, not for any amount," Buncich writes.

The sheriff states he waited to publicly address the issue because he had expected the U.S. attorney's office to drop the charges or a jury to have acquitted him by now.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Paul R. Cherry has continued Buncich's trial, at his defense lawyers' request, until Aug. 7. Buncich suggests other delays may take place as his lawyers analyze "the massive volume of material" the government may use against him.

Buncich said he wants to assure the public "the workings of the Lake County sheriff in all its capacities will remain ongoing in perfect working order. I look forward to my trial and the vindication that will come from it."

He states, "There have been no allegations that I have not performed exceptionally as sheriff, and I will continue to do so."

The government alleges Buncich used his position as sheriff to solicit and receive bribes between 2014 and last fall from towing firms wanting to do county police business.

Timothy Downs, who served as second-in-command to Buncich, already has pleaded guilty to federal allegations he collected towing firm kickbacks and is prepared to testify he did it under Buncich's orders.

The Lake County Council and Board of Commissioners are removing Buncich's authority to select towing firms for the county.









Indicted Lake County sheriff insists he is innocent
Post-Tribune
April 12, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-sheriff-buncich-innocence-statement-st-0413-20170412-story.html
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich broke his months-long silence Wednesday following his November indictment on federal corruption charges, calling the claims "absurd" and pledging to fight.

"I have long wanted to issue a statement of my innocence to allay any concerns that you may have and to maintain your confidence in the Lake County Sheriff's Department. But, on the advice of my attorneys, I have remained silent," Buncich wrote in an open letter to Lake County residents.

Buncich said he had expected the case to be resolved by now, but since it's continued until August, he wanted to speak out and assure residents the work of the Lake County Sheriff's Office will continue without disruption.

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment in November alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records.

A federal judge pushed back the date of the sheriff's trial because of the large volume of material defense attorneys must review to prepare for trial.

"For those who know me and my 45 years in law enforcement, you know that I would never compromise my integrity or professionalism and cannot be guilty of these charges; trust that I would never sell my office — not for any amount. I assure you that I am absolutely innocent," Buncich wrote.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, according to the indictment.

Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty during their initial appearances in November.

Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Buncich to solicit bribes from tow truck operators for favorable treatment.

The sheriff on Wednesday said he decided to speak out at this time with the support of his attorneys since a resolution would be long in coming.

"I've had an overwhelming amount of calls for support from people," Buncich said, and he wanted to be able to publicly address those supporters and assure them work within the sheriff's department has not been affected by the allegations.

"There have been no allegations that I have not performed exceptionally as sheriff and I will continue to do so. I wish to make certain that all functions of the Sheriff's Department will continue to operate with absolute excellence," Buncich wrote.

"I wish to provide confidence that you are protected and absolute excellence is still demanded of all county employees. My commitment to you remains unwavering."









Sheriff Buncich Issues Statement Proclaiming Innocence
NWI Gazette
April 12, 2017
nwigazette.com/2017/04/12/sheriff-buncich-issues-statement-proclaiming-innocence/"/sheriff-buncich-issues-statement-proclaiming-innocence
Sheriff Buncich issued the following statement today. We have chosen to re-print the statement in it’s entirety, without comment for your review. As always, the Gazette welcomes comments from readers.

“As many of you know, in November 2016 I was charged in a federal indictment of receiving bribes and/or kickbacks with regard to County towing contracts. This is and has always been absurd. I was certain that this matter would have been resolved quickly with either a dismissal or a positive jury verdict. I have long wanted to issue a statement of my innocence to allay any concerns that you may have and to maintain your confidence in the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. But, on the advice of my attorneys, I have remained silent. Unfortunately, the massive volume of material that has been turned over to me and the material that has yet to be turned over has made quick resolution impossible, despite the most diligent efforts of me and my counsel. My case has now been continued to August and may require further continuances.

With consideration of that delay and now with the consent of my attorneys, as the highest law enforcement officer in Lake County I feel it is my obligation to make a statement and reassure the public that their safety and interests are protected. Trust that I am still your faithful servant and that your safety and services are carrying on as always. For those who know me and my 45 years in law enforcement, you know that I would never compromise my integrity or professionalism and cannot be guilty of these charges; trust that I would never sell my office—not for any amount.

I assure you that I am absolutely innocent. I assure you that the workings of the Lake County Sheriff in all its capacities will remain ongoing in perfect working order. I look forward to my trial and the vindication that will come from it.

I wish that I could be more specific and provide further re-assurance of my innocence. However, I have been advised against trying the particular facts of my case publicly. I will have my opportunity to do so in a courtroom in August or sometime later and I look forward to that optimistically.

I give this release for reassurance. There have been no allegations that I have not performed exceptionally as Sheriff and I will continue to do so. I wish to make certain that all functions of the Sheriff’s Department will continue to operate with absolute excellence. I wish to provide confidence that you are protected and absolute excellence is still demanded of all county employees. My commitment to you remains unwavering. I continue to be your faithful servant with gratitude, and trust that I am innocent of these charges.”
Sheriff John Buncich









Federal judge pushes Lake sheriff's trial to August
Post-Tribune
April 03, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-august-trial-st-0404-20170403-story.html
A federal judge on Monday delayed Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's trial until August, agreeing that attorneys need more time to prepare.

Judge Paul Cherry agreed to delay the trial, which had previously been set to start in April, after Buncich's defense team said it is still combing through material provided by federal authorities. Attorney Bryan Truitt asked a judge to delay the trial because a review of the large amount of information needed to prepare Buncich's defense will not be done in time for an April start.

"Find that the ends of justice served by granting such a continuance outweigh the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial, in that a failure to grant such a continuance would unreasonably deny defendant the reasonable assistance of counsel and time necessary for effective preparation for trial and for preparation of pretrial motions, and taking into account the exercise of due diligence," Cherry wrote, in his order.

Truitt wrote in his request that federal prosecutors and attorneys for co-defendant William Szarmach, of CSA Towing, did not object to delaying a trial.

Truitt said, in his motion, the defense team is still reviewing material provided by federal authorities but is still missing some of the documents they need.

"That there is no way that the defense can be adequately prepared by April 6, 2017, to try this case," Truitt said, in the motion.

Truitt said he thinks a July or August trial date is more realistic.

Buncich's attorney sparred with federal prosecutors in a series of court motions about perceived difficulty getting documents and information seized from the sheriff in November.

Truitt said that discovery is still in progress but arrangements are being made to get the sheriff's property from federal authorities.

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and Szarmach were named in November in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

Downs pleaded guilty in December and is tentatively set to be sentenced in September.

Cherry noted in his order that any plea agreement must be submitted to the court in writing five days before a trial is set to start.









Lake sheriff wins delay in bribery case
NWI Times
Mar 31, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/lake-sheriff-wins-delay-in-bribery-case/article_f7ebb156-a080-5c21-aeae-fcb68c551cc9.html
HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's public corruption trial is being postponed until later this year.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Paul R. Cherry issued an order this week that he is preparing to grant the sheriff's request to move his trial from April 10 to later this summer.

Buncich's lawyer, Bryan M. Truitt, stated in a motion he filed this week in court that he needs additional time to prepare a defense against wire fraud and bribery charges the sheriff has been facing since his indictment Nov. 18.

Truitt said the sheriff's defense team first must analyze 128 megabytes of evidence that includes hundreds of photographs and recordings made during months of federal surveillance of the sheriff.

Truitt said he is still awaiting other evidence the government may have, but has yet to disclose.

He said the government has yet to turn over property federal investigators seized last November from Buncich's office and home in Crown Point, although negotiations are underway to recover it.

He said Valparaiso attorney Larry Rogers, who will be co-counsel on the sheriff's defense team, has been occupied with other criminal trials for the past month and has had little time to assist in the case.

Truitt said he has conferred with government prosecutors as well as the attorney for co-defendant William Szarmach, and he states they won't object to delay the beginning of the trial to late July or early August.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to a five-count indictment alleging he deprived the public of honest government services by soliciting and receiving thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from towing firms wanting work from county police.

Szarmach is pleading not guilty to a charge he paid bribes to the sheriff in 2015 and 2016 so his CSA towing firm in Lake Station received county police business.









EDITORIAL: Hooked on bidding for tow trucks
The Times Editorial Board  
NWI Times
Mar 28, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/editorial-hooked-on-bidding-for-tow-trucks/article_29a17808-75be-5fac-8e2d-684aadc56493.html
Some 23 towing firm contractors are bidding to be on a list of preferred towing companies for Lake County government work. This is a big improvement in the way these contracts have been handled in the past.

Though it may not be perfect, it’s a change in the right direction from the private deals cut by Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, who now is under federal indictment for bribery in the matter. Buncich pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

The Lake County Council voted in January to reform the county's towing business by shifting authority to award contracts to the commissioners, rather than the sheriff.

The commissioners, to their credit, had promised to use the Indiana State Police vendor qualifications as a guide for setting up the new system.

Commissioner President Mike Repay, D-Hammond, said this month the county would create a new map of districts where an undetermined number of winning firms will operate. That's fair, as tow operators must be available to respond quickly whenever police need their services. The sheriff had set nine districts.

The new boundaries are to be apportioned equally to avoid creating some districts that were more lucrative than others for tow operators.

Earlier this month, 23 tow operators submitted their bids. Repay said at least five of the applicants had done work for the sheriff, and will continue to do so until the new system is in place.

The new system has more transparency, under a bidding process that is easier for the public to see and understand. The possibility of backroom deals is lessened under this system.

Throughout this process, the county should keep in mind that the goal is to get traffic moving again quickly. It is not about how much revenue the county can get out of the deal. Customers should be treated fairly in the process.









Judge: Request to compel release of Buncich's documents 'moot'
Post-Tribune
March 21, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-property-release-st-0322-20170321-story.html
A federal judge Tuesday declined to compel authorities to release Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's documents as the two parties are already exchanging information.

Judge Paul Cherry said the argument made by Buncich's attorney, Bryan Truitt, that sought judicial intervention for federal authorities to turn over the sheriff's personal documents is moot as both parties have started to exchange information in preparation for trial.

"Because the government has produced discovery and defendant has not raised any objection to the production, the court finds that the motion is moot," Cherry wrote, in his order.

In February, Truitt filed a motion that asked for a judge's intervention to get Buncich's personal documents returned, which he also argued hampered his ability to prepare for trial.

"The delay in returning Sheriff Buncich's belongings is hindering the preparation of the defense," Truitt wrote, in a motion. "Additionally, it is making it impossible for him to timely prepare and file campaign disclosure forms, income taxes and provide helpful evidence to his attorneys."

Federal authorities seized documents and other material from both Buncich's office and home in November, according to court documents, and Truitt said he's repeatedly asked for copies of that material to be turned over.

The U.S. Attorney's Office, in a March motion, said the government has made that material available to Buncich and his defense attorneys, even arranging meetings to accommodate their requests.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson, in his motion, said that Buncich reportedly went to the FBI office to identify documents he wanted returned but asked for all the material and left, according to court documents.

Benson said federal authorities then sent a thumb drive holding more than 100 recordings, 200 surveillance photos, search warrant inventories, diagrams and reports and payments associated with a confidential source.

"Buncich's motion fails to accurately state the attempts the government has made to accommodate Buncich's oral request to obtain some of the seized property," Benson wrote.

The back and forth over the documents came as Buncich's attorney sought to delay the start of the sheriff's jury trial, tentatively set to start in early April.

Truitt said, in his motion, the defense team is still reviewing material provided by federal authorities but is still missing some of the documents they need.

"There is no way that the defense can be adequately prepared by April 6, 2017 to try this case," Truitt said, in the motion.

Truitt said he thinks a July or August trial date is more realistic.

A judge has yet to make a final ruling on whether the trial will get pushed back pending Buncich's defense attorneys filing a new motion to continue.

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

Downs pleaded guilty in December.










Gallery: A history of corruption in government in Lake County
NWI Times
March 20, 2017
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/a-history-of-corruption-in-government-in-northwest-indiana/collection_129b4f32-0da3-11e7-b654-5f53cc4d5bc3.html
From former Lake County sheriff Rudy Bartolomei in the mid 1980s to current Portage Mayor James Snyder, Northwest Indiana officials have been the targets of federal investigations of bribery, theft of public money and other allegations of public corruption for decades. 

1 - Kollintzas flees for Europe - February 25, 2005
EAST CHICAGO Feds say former E.C. councilman flew to Switzerland two days before being sentenced to 11-plus years

Former City Councilman Frank "Frankie" Kollintzas fled the country and a prison term that he warned in a letter he couldn't face.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Miller pronounced a sentence of 11 years and four months Thursday to an empty chair at the defense table in his South Bend courtroom after being told the 62-year-old man used either a false passport or a possibly a Greek passport, under the name Fotios Kollintzas, to board a Swissair flight Tuesday afternoon to Zurich, Switzerland.

Kollintzas wrote a letter to the court the day he fled complaining he hadn't slept well since his arrest in 2003 in the sidewalks-for-votes case and that he didn't deserve "to go to prison until I die or become an old man."

The judge issued an arrest warrant for Kollintzas.

U.S. Attorney Joseph Van Bokkelen said, "I will vigorously pursue him." Kollintzas, however, could find sanctuary in Greece, since that nation doesn't return American fugitives who receive Greek citizenship, he said.

He said Kollintzas is a native-born American, but his parents immigrated from Greece. Kollintzas' cousin, Evangelos Kollintzas of Schererville, fled there two years ago to avoid trial on a federal extortion charge.

The judge said Frank Kollintzas' sentence was a "just punishment" for misappropriating nearly $24 million in public funds five years ago to give free concrete driveways, patios and sidewalks to voters to ensure his re-election and that of the former Mayor Robert Pastrick's administration in the 1999 primary election.

There was no reaction Thursday to the announcement of Kollintzas' disappearance from the crowd of his supporters in the courtroom.

A work associate of Kollintzas, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Times Thursday she and another fellow worker last saw Kollintzas Tuesday afternoon. He met with one of his lawyers that day at the city school administration building, where Kollintzas was on the payroll as director of facilities.

Kollintzas apparently left his car in the school parking lot outside an administration building called the warehouse. A member of his family came to drive it away.

His 62nd birthday was Tuesday, and his family had planned a celebration at his home that evening. "But he never showed up," she said. She said his family told others they didn't know where he was. "No one has heard anything. This is like a bad dream," she said.

Van Bokkelen, who was present in court for the sentencing, and Theodore Poulos, lead counsel of Kollintzas' defense team, both said they suspect Kollintzas fled after the judge sentenced his co-defendants, Edwardo Maldonado, former city controller, and Joe De La Cruz, former fellow city councilman, to eight years and six years in prison, respectively.

Poulos said in his sentencing argument, "I don't know why he isn't here, but he continued to insist on his innocence and facing a sentence in such a draconian range... that would put him in prison until age 73 or 75."

He said Kollintzas would have received the same sentence if he had robbed and wounded a bank teller.

Van Bokkelen said the sentence was fair and a warning to others under investigation to cooperate or face a similar price.

He said, "I think the Maldonado sentence (Friday) did scare him. I think Kollintzas hedged his bets up to the last moment."

Kollintzas was supposed to have been sentenced Friday along with Maldonado and De La Cruz, but the judge granted Kollintzas a six-day delay because Poulos had to appear in another court Friday.

Van Bokkelen said he doesn't think that was a ruse. "I think Ted was as shocked as anybody. Ted's client betrayed him. I take him at his word that he wanted to (be sentenced) first."

Van Bokkelen said he never considered detaining Kollintzas before sentencing, despite vague rumors he might flee. He said no federal judge was likely to detain someone like Kollintzas who had lived and worked in Northwest Indiana all his life.

The three-hour sentencing -- described as surreal by one government source -- featured defense lawyers praising Kollintzas' integrity. "He's done a world of good," Poulos said.

The judge ran through the ritual of explaining how he arrived at the sentence, the amount of restitution ($25.5 million) and the right of appeal to an absent defendant.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Hollar argued that with Kollintzas "getting on an airplane and leaving the country, there was no more powerful statement he could make" in answer to evidence Kollintzas led and organized the corruption that swept the city.

The judge read out a long list of witnesses who implicated Kollintzas in the sidewalk scheme and said that his escape counterbalanced all the good attributed to his private and public good works over the last four decades.

Miller said 25 people wrote him to praise Kollintzas. "He did not return their support today," the judge said.

2 - Markovich gets 18 months in sidewalk case - March 10, 2005
HAMMOND | "I'm here, and I'm on time," former Lake County Councilman Joel Markovich proudly told a federal courtroom at his sentencing.

U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano rewarded the 43-year-old businessman with leniency -- an 18 month sentence -- for his cooperation in the sidewalks-for-votes case and other public corruption investigations.

Markovich also must repay East Chicago the $755,088 he overbilled the city for work JGM Enterprises, his landscaping and contracting service, did. He also must pay the federal government a $6,000 fine.

He is scheduled to report to prison May 17. He will be eligible for parole after 15 months.

Markovich's sentencing was in sharp contrast to that of Frank Kollintzas, a former East Chicago city councilman, who fled to Greece two weeks ago to avoid an 11 year and four month sentence as a leader of the sidewalk scandal.

U.S. Attorney Joseph Van Bokkelen said afterward Markovich deserved a break. "He came to us. He received the benefit of cooperation," Van Bokkelen said. He also said Markovich could have received more than double the prison time if he hadn't cooperated.

3 - Fifes headed to federal prison - April 01, 2006
HAMMOND | A former East Chicago mayoral adviser and his wife are going to prison for hiding hundreds of thousands of dollars of income funneled to him by fellow officials.

"One of the hogs at the public trough," was how U.S. District Court Judge James Moody described the crime of 48-year-old James H. Fife III, who must begin next month serving a 47-month sentence.

His wife, Karen L. Krahn-Fife, 37, must serve a 24-month sentence for her role in helping hide their income from the IRS through a baffling array of five shell corporations they created to receive under the table payments from former East Chicago Mayor Robert Pastrick and former North Township Trustee Gregory Cvitkovich.

The two also must reimburse the IRS a total of $627,000 in back taxes.

Moody didn't mince words with Fife when pronouncing his sentence. "This is an egregious crime. You should be ashamed of yourself. You did a disservice to your profession (as a lawyer), the city of East Chicago, your family and friends. Shame on you."

Merrillville lawyer Nick Thiros, who defended the couple and is a longtime acquaintance of Fife, said, "The biggest disappointment for Jim is that he feels he dragged Karen into this. Unfortunately, he did wrong by her. That is his biggest shame."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch III said Fife was "entrusted to make (East Chicago) better," but instead of stopping others in City Hall from misappropriating public funds Fife "was loading his pockets."

Government presented evidence at the nearly four-hour sentencing showing the couple received more than $1 million between 1998 and 2001 when he was a special assistant to former mayor Pastrick.

Kirsch said Fife did little if any legitimate work for the dollars, but milked his relationships with former mayor Pastrick and Cvitkovich, a longtime friend of Fife, a political ally of Pastrick and a cousin of Krahn-Fife.

Kirsch said Fife was a deal maker. The government alleged Fife received $135,000 from Cvitkovich "for arranging a contract between the city (of East Chicago) and Clark Material Terminals, owned by Dan McArdle, for the removal of sludge." The government alleges that deal was "in violation of the Indiana bribery law."

McArdle isn't charged with any wrongdoing. He was a major contributor to Pastrick's campaigns and is best known for owning a tire recycling business that caught fire in 1994 and polluted local skies for many days.

Former mayor Pastrick isn't charged with any criminal wrongdoing, although he is defending himself against a civil racketeering suit filed by the Indiana attorney general, which claims Pastrick and others operated the city as a corrupt enterprise.

Cvitkovich pleaded guilty last October to tax fraud and was forced to resign as township trustee. He is awaiting sentencing.

Kirsch said Cvitkovich and the city of East Chicago would have had to report their payments to the IRS if they had been made personally to Fife and his wife, so instead they took advantage of a loophole in tax law and the payments were made to five sham corporations that didn't have to be reported to the IRS.

Thiros argued Fife was disorganized and guilty only of negligence. He said the wife trusted her husband and didn't realize he was committing a crime.

Kirsch said the wife had to know because she was benefiting from the illicit income too, drawing out $40,000 out of the sham corporations to buy herself a new Mercedes-Benz.

Fife said, "I'd like to apologize to the court, my family and friends. My intention was to help my family." Krahn-Fife said, "I'm deeply sorry for all my wrongdoing. Our marriage was based on love and trust. There was never a reason to question anything."

The couple left the courtroom hand in hand. They have a 3-year-old son who will be without his parents beginning next month.

Moody said he will recommend sending Fife and Krahn-Fife to the Oxford Federal Correctional Institution, a medium security facility in south central Wisconsin.

There they can serve time with Kevin Pastrick, a son to the former East Chicago mayor, Peter Manous, another protege of Pastrick and a former state Democratic party chairman and two other convicted East Chicago officials.


4 - Smith, Powell, Harris Guilty - September 28, 2007


5- Cantrell sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison - Political fixer also must repay $68,000 stolen from North Township - April 01, 2009
HAMMOND | Blasting Robert Cantrell for using his talents to steal from taxpayers, a federal judge sentenced the former Lake County political power-broker to 6 1/2 years in federal prison.

Finishing Cantrell's long-delayed sentencing in Hammond federal court Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano seemed unconvinced by defense attorney Kevin Milner's portrayal of Cantrell, 67, of Schererville, as a benevolent patriarch, good Samaritan and patriot who deserved no prison time for his 11 fraud convictions.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Revisit coverage of Bob Cantrell's 2008 federal fraud trial.

RELATED: Read the federal indictment.

Milner argued Cantrell's crimes were "victimless" because Cantrell, a former political fixer based in East Chicago, can pay back the $68,000 he took from North Township through contract fraud.

Lozano disagreed. He called Cantrell a "blessed" man who stole from taxpayers.

"You were ahead of what most people had," Lozano told Cantrell. "But from the evidence in this case, it also appears that you fell into that ditch called politics."

Lozano sentenced Cantrell to 78 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. Lozano also ordered Cantrell to repay the $68,000 to North Township. Cantrell must report for prison May 13.

Milner drew smiles and quiet chuckles when he requested Cantrell be sent to a federal prison in Oxford, Wis., a common destination for local public servants convicted of federal crimes. Lozano agreed to recommend to the prison bureau that Cantrell be sent to a jail near Chicago.

"There are some people at the (Oxford) facility that are casual acquaintances," Milner said.

Milner said outside court he planned to file appeals to Cantrell's conviction and sentence Tuesday afternoon.

Cantrell was convicted June 6 of four counts of depriving the public of honest services, three counts of insurance fraud using the U.S. mail and four counts of filing false tax returns between 2000 and 2003. The indictment accused him of taking cash kickbacks from a contract between his then-employer, the North Township trustee's office, and a political ally's company.

The sentencing was delayed almost 10 months, most recently so that Lozano could review trial transcripts for evidence relevant to Milner's objections to sentence enhancements proposed in a pre-sentence report prepared by probation agents.

Milner argued unsuccessfully that his "friend Bob" deserved a lighter sentence, claiming the township lost no money in the fraud and that Cantrell had no decision-making or supervisory power at the township. Milner pleaded with Lozano to ignore advisory sentencing guidelines that called for a sentence of up to eight years in prison.

Assistant U.S Attorney Orest Szewciw asked for an eight-year sentence.

"Lake County, Ind., has a history of public corruption, and this case is just one more sordid chapter," Szewciw said.

In his statement to Lozano, Cantrell did not apologize. He reminded Lozano of his military service in the Gulf War.

"No matter what happens here today, I am proud to be an American," Cantrell said.

6 - Dozier Allen gets 18 months in corruption case - Former Calumet Township trustee, two deputies convicted of fraud last spring - April 28, 2010
HAMMOND | Citing former Calumet Township Trustee Dozier Allen Jr.'s 36-year record of public service and failing physical and mental health, Hammond federal Judge Philip Simon sentenced the 79-year-old fraud convict on Tuesday to 18 months in federal prison. The term falls one year short of the low end of the congressional advisory sentencing guideline range.

Allen, who suffers from hypertension, bipolar disorder and an as-yet unclear condition involving blood-clotting, will have 120 days to surrender, an unusually long delay Simon granted because of Allen's medical uncertainty. Allen will split a $143,000 restitution bill with his three co-defendants, two of whom also were sentenced Tuesday. Simon sentenced Allen to two years of supervised release after his prison term closes.

Simon sentenced former top deputy Wanda Joshua to 15 months in prison. The judge placed former aide Albert Young Jr., who signed a plea agreement and admitted guilt, to two years on probation. The final former deputy, Ann Marie Karras, is slated for sentencing Wednesday.

Defense lawyer Scott King said Allen, who continues to deny criminal wrongdoing, plans to appeal his conviction. King had asked Simon to put Allen on home detention, while prosecutors sought a 30-month sentence.

Allen, Joshua and Karras were convicted at a jury trial in April 2009 of two counts each of mail fraud. Prosecutors said Allen, Karras, Joshua and Young intentionally committed fraud by taking checks worth $143,000 from a contract linked to federal welfare-to-work programs. Prosecutors said the defendants routed unearned checks to their own bank accounts without permission of the Calumet Township Board and did not properly disclose their interests in the contract.

Defense lawyers argued the defendants were told they could legally take the payments.

Allen, noticeably thinner than he was last spring but speaking stridently in full voice, reiterated his disagreement with the jury verdict Tuesday in court. He said he signed the contract hoping to help the poor of Calumet Township. He said he administered more than $300 million in funds during his 32 years as township trustee. He noted he reported the welfare-to-work contract payments to the Township Board. He voiced remorse at his "hasty" behavior and acknowledged his decisions were "flawed," but he denied knowingly committing fraud.

"I absolutely did not violate federal law with any willful intent of deception," Allen said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Bell pointed out that Allen's crime was committed against impoverished residents of Calumet Township. He called the crime, which spanned years, "brazen" and "shocking."

King, a former Gary mayor defending a man who was briefly mayor of Gary after King resigned, eulogized Allen's political career in a speech redolent of King's own political experience. He said Allen, a decorated Korean War veteran, entered politics at a time when a black man would not have been welcome in certain Gary neighborhoods. King observed that Lake County Democratic politics set a low standard for cordiality, but he said Allen drew respect from his peers. Allen was "legendary" among local politicians, King said.

"You don't get elected that many times unless you can accurately be called a warrior," King said.

King said last year's conviction sent Allen into a "spiral." King challenged as "delusional" a Bureau of Prisons doctor's testimony Tuesday that the bureau can appropriately treat Allen's ailments. Simon said court records indicate a pattern of "bizarre behavior" followed Allen's conviction. Allen showed up at church "dressed inappropriately" and "lashed out at his wife," Simon said. King said Allen's record and his deteriorating health justified leniency.

"Mercy and justice are coequals in this particular case," King said.

Simon disagreed with King's argument that the prison bureau can't appropriately treat Allen. He lauded Allen for his public service, but Simon decried corruption as "corrosive" to the public trust in democracy. Simon described Allen's "cover story" as "ridiculous."

"I do think that this was motivated by greed," Simon said.

In sentencing Joshua, Simon said he had to balance factors including the support of family and friends -- who turned in an exceptional volume of letters praising Joshua -- with Joshua's prior embezzlement conviction and tax issues discovered by Internal Revenue Service investigators after the criminal investigation started. Joshua pleaded guilty to failing to file tax returns in 2001 and 2002.

Joshua plans to appeal, said her lawyer, Karen Freeman-Wilson.

Simon said Young, now of Mississippi, was "clearly less culpable" than his co-defendants. Young's plea agreement precludes an appeal.

7 - Former E.C. Mayor Pabey sentenced to 5 years in prison - Former E.C. mayor chastised for greed, breaking trust - May 05, 2011
HAMMOND | East Chicago's most recent former mayor joined the ranks of about 10 other city politicians Friday who have been sentenced for committing federal crimes.

A judge sentenced George Pabey, 61, to five years in prison and ordered the former chief of police to pay a $60,000 fine for his role in a conspiracy to steal money from East Chicago.

"You, sir, did not make a mistake," Senior Judge James Moody said before a packed courtroom. "You knew exactly what you were doing, and you knew exactly what you wanted to achieve. Money."

Pabey was indicted last year after pouring government funds and city labor into remodeling his home in Gary's Miller Beach neighborhood -- and putting the house on the market for more than twice what he paid for it. The assessed loss to East Chicago was about $14,500, which Pabey posted in restitution prior to the hearing.

In September, a jury found Pabey and a former city supervisor, Jose Camacho, guilty of conspiracy and theft of government funds. In April, Camacho was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison with a $50,000 fine.

Pabey's sentence was more than his calculated 27- to 33-month guideline range, which Moody said was necessary to prevent the spread of the region's public corruption epidemic. The enhanced sentence also was a result of prosecutors' argument that Pabey's wife, Hilda, lied under oath to protect her husband.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Bell quoted from trial testimony in which Hilda Pabey claimed to have bought with cash items found at the Gary home – but she did not have the receipts to prove it. Bell contrasted her words with photos and receipts showing Camacho bought those same items using a city account.

Pabey's attorney, Scott King, said no intentional misrepresentations were made, and the serious illnesses of some family members at the time caused a memory lapse. King called the accusations "petty" and "vindictive."

But Moody agreed with the prosecutors.

"Her language, her demeanor, did not indicate she did not remember things or was confused," Moody said.

In arguing for a higher sentence, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Nozick said Pabey took advantage of the trust voters had placed in him to end the corruption that had plagued the city for decades.

While East Chicago was facing severe budget issues, laying off 50 city employees and forcing others to retire, Pabey gave his friend Camacho a raise and siphoned off taxpayer money to finish his kitchen and put a bar in his basement, Nozick said.

To give the case "context" before reading the sentence, Moody read excerpts from a 2005 Times article on Pabey's victory in the mayoral race. Public figures and residents at the time were quoted describing their hopes in Pabey breathing life back into the city.

King asked Moody to consider Pabey's life of public service, as well his devotion to family, in determining his client's fate. Moody said he read the 28 letters supporting Pabey but would not give much weight to the good he did while in office because it was expected of him.

At the end of the two-hour hearing, Pabey sat expressionless, staring at his folded hands while Moody explained his reasons for the 60-month sentence.

In the next 14 days, King said he will file an appeal and request that Pabey maintain his freedom while the case makes its way through the appellate court.

"I have a lot of respect for Judge Moody, but I have to say in this particular case I could not disagree more," King said. "We have a great deal of confidence (the case) will be viewed differently in the court of appeals."

King has argued Pabey did not know that Camacho used city money on the house or that city employees were working there while on the clock. He said Pabey was paying Camacho with cash or checks to work on the home during off hours, as Camacho did not have a structured day in his 24-hour, on-call position.

If Pabey's request to be released pending the appeal is denied, he must report to prison June 1.

And while some appeared to cry after the hearing, others said they were happy justice was served.

"He ruined the reputation of East Chicago when it could have been restored," said Jesse Gomez, vice chairman of East Chicago's Democratic Party.

8 - Philpot sentenced to 18 months for public corruption - February 21, 2013
HAMMOND | Former Lake County Clerk Thomas Philpot was sentenced to 18 months in prison Thursday for stealing thousands of dollars in public child support incentive funds over which he had control.

Philpot, who also served as Lake County coroner, was ordered to surrender April 3 to a federal correctional camp in Pekin, Ill. Federal defendants usually serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, which means Philpot likely will spend at least 15 months in prison.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge James Moody asked himself out loud, why did Philpot, an intelligent, well-trained man familiar with the proper workings of local government commit his crime, and concluded that the evidence pointed to "arrogance, greed and a warped sense of entitlement."

Philpot, 55, a podiatrist and attorney, served 10 years as Lake County coroner and six years as county clerk between 1992 and 2012.

"I apologize to the court and all the citizens of Lake County. I should have been more careful and done more to ensure I deserved these bonuses," an emotional Philpot said during his two-hour sentencing hearing, attended by a number of family and friends.

He also apologized to his family. "The thought of being separated from my son just kills me," Philpot said.

Philpot will be analyzed for mental health and alcohol abuse issues at the request of defense lawyer Kerry Connor. After he serves his term, he will spend two years on supervised release, similar to parole.

Federal prosecutors said Philpot began making plans to pocket bonuses from federal IV-D child support incentive money within months of taking office and taking control of the money.

State Rep. Shelli Vandenburgh, D-Crown Point, who as a deputy under Philpot, testified she warned Philpot that IV-D money was meant only to compensate deputy clerks who performed daily work of recording and accepting child support payments to needy children.

However, Philpot drew up a list of bonus recipients and ordered the money be paid, including $24,000 to himself between 2004 and 2009.

Earlier this week, Moody threw out two felony counts related to bonuses Philpot pocketed prior to 2008 on grounds there wasn't enough evidence to prove he knew taking the bonuses was illegal.

However, he remains convicted of three other theft and mail fraud counts for bonuses after that date because Philpot admitted to his lawyer at the time he thought his supplemental pay might be problematic.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said Philpot violated state law by declining to get the approval of the seven-member County Council to boost his pay with the IV-D money.

Philpot only attempted to get council approval in 2008 and even withdrew that request immediately after Councilwoman Christine Cid questioned the legality of Philpot's maneuvers.

Philpot and his lawyers argue he was misled by an opinion from his longtime attorney David Saks that the IV-D bonuses were legal, but Benson said Saks later admitted the opinion was in error because Philpot withheld important information from him.

Benson adds Philpot also gave large, unnecessary bonuses to a group of favored employees "who did the least for the IV-D program" bonuses to camouflage his own enrichment.

Connors said Philpot already had suffered enough in terms of public humiliation and loss of his public and professional careers.

Philpot's wife, Anne-Marie, said Philpot became so depressed she had to encourage him to even get out of bed and shower, she found him walking in circles in his driveway and that he began drinking alcohol heavily.

She wrote in a letter to the court he has undergone therapy and hasn't had a drink in months.

9 - Calumet Township Trustee Elgin, three employees, indicted for fraud, extortion - December 19, 2014
Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin and three "key" employees of her office are charged with federal counts of fraud and extortion for allegedly using taxpayer resources for political gain, the U.S. attorney announced Friday.

Federal prosecutors said Elgin expected her government employees to either purchase or sell campaign fundraiser tickets, enlisted subordinates to sell the tickets to employees during government office hours and placed employees who couldn't afford the tickets on payment plans.

Employees who failed to purchase tickets received unfavorable treatment by supervisors, including being given undesirable work and threatened with layoffs, an indictment in the case alleges.

"You gotta take that stick out and bust some damn heads," deputy trustee Alex Wheeler is quoted in the indictment as saying in the presence of Elgin as a way of motivating campaign fundraiser ticket sales.

Wheeler also is charged in the conspiracy.

Elgin did not immediately respond Friday to calls from The Times seeking comment.

Elgin, whose primary duty as trustee was managing emergency relief to some of the region's poorest residents, also used township employee work for personal gain by requiring some to create banners and signs for her high school class reunion during government office hours, the indictment states.

The announcement of the indictment, which was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, Hammond, comes about two weeks before the end of Elgin's term in the Gary-based elected office.

It also followed a raid of her government offices earlier this year during which FBI and IRS agents seized several boxes of evidence and at least one computer.

Elgin, 70, faces charges of wire fraud, extortion, tax offenses and making false statements to federal agents, according to the indictment. Three of her office employees, Ethel Shelton, Steven Hunter — who is Elgin's son — and Wheeler, also face wire fraud and extortion charges.

Elgin and the co-defendants conspired to commit wire fraud by ordering other employees to raise funds and perform other Elgin re-election efforts while on the clock, the U.S. attorney alleged.

Elgin also faces counts of failing to file federal tax returns in 2012 and 2013, even though she earned more than $100,000 each of those years; providing false statements to the FBI during an investigation into her alleged wrongdoing; and attempting to extort a vendor who sought to do business with the trustee's office, federal prosecutors said.

Elgin was first elected trustee in 2003 on a platform of "integrity and principle," the federal indictment states.

But after election to her first term, "Elgin installed the individuals who spearheaded her campaign into the most lucrative supervisory positions" within the trustee's office, the indictment states.

Shelton, Elgin's personal trustee's secretary, collected money for political fundraiser tickets and kept track of the government employees who did or did not purchase tickets as part of her duties, the indictment alleges. She earned about $40,000 per year in compensation on the trustee's payroll, state records show.

Hunter, Elgin's son, served as deputy of information systems for the office, despite having "little or no experience in this area," the indictment states.

Hunter earned $50,000 per year in this post as of 2013, state records show.

As part of his duties, Hunter distributed fundraising tickets to his subordinates on government time, the indictment states.

Wheeler, who ran the trustee's job search program for about $46,000 per year in compensation, also distributed campaign fundraiser tickets on government time and turned in any money he was able to personally collect to Shelton, prosecutors allege.

The indictment also alleges Shelton and Wheeler each used township office time and resources when they sought elected seats on the Calumet Township Board.

Under Elgin's system, the higher the salary of an employee, the more fundraiser tickets he or she was expected to either buy or sell, prosecutors alleged.

Defendants in the case would attempt to conceal the campaign work on government time by announcing they were "on break" — or telling subordinates they were on break — before engaging in political activities, the indictment states.

They also tried to conceal the illegal activities by issuing "interoffice memos claiming to prohibit political activity" on government time, the indictment alleges.

Elements of the conspiracy occurred from Elgin's first election in 2003 until fall 2014, prosecutors allege.

In May, Elgin, a Gary Democrat, lost her bid for reelection to Democratic challenger and now trustee-elect Kimberly Robinson.

10 - Van Til sentenced to 18 months in prison - February 12, 2015
HAMMOND | Former Lake County Surveyor George Van Til was sentenced Thursday to 18 months in prison for making his employees to do his campaign work on county time.

U.S. District Judge James Moody also ordered Van Til to serve three years on supervised release after he leaves prison and pay more than $26,500 in restitution to Lake County. He reports to prison April 30.

In his statement to Moody prior to the imposition of his sentence, Van Til admitted to wrong-doing, but also said he had accomplished much good during his time in office before finally breaking down in tears as his attorney Scott King patted him on the back.

"The legacy I hoped to leave -- I have none," said Van Til, who also referred to himself as a "broken person" whose "reputation is gone."

"I am sorry to the court, I am sorry to my family, I am sorry to the people who voted me into office time and time again," said Van Til.

He told the court he has lost 55 pounds in the last several months and has dealt with health issues. At the request of King, Moody will recommend Van Til serve his time at a federal prison in Terre Haute.

While agreeing he was guilty of the charges, Van Til resented what he described as embellishments made by the U.S attorney's office in regard to his action. He also told the court that he never took a bribe or threatened anyone.

King said if Van Til's entire body of work is considered, the good overwhelmingly outweighs the bad.

"His remorse is genuine, his pain is real," King said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson, however, said "the conduct of Mr. Van Til strikes a the very heart of why some people don't want to go into public service."

Benson said workers were "forced to break the law to keep their jobs and that is wrong." 

Attorneys for the government and Van Til spent much of the day wrangling over the amount of the lost to the county from Van Til having employees do political work on government time and over whether Van Til should be given credit for acceptance of responsibility.

The government pointed to a document that contained a report of a phone call made to the FBI in June 2012 by Speros Batistatos, president and chief executive officer of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority. According to the report, Batistatos told of a conversation on a trip to a White Sox game where a worker in Van Til's office spent her time doing political work.

The document, which was not supposed to be disseminated, was given by Van Til to Gregory Sanchez, who went from being deputy chief surveyor to interim surveyor in December 2013 after Van Til pleaded guilty to the charges and resigned. Sanchez said he was asked by Van Til to give the document to Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., which he did in late December just prior to a pre-caucus meeting to determine who was to become Lake County surveyor until the next election. McDermott was the Democratic Party's County Chairman at the time and ran the caucus.

Sanchez said Van Til "wasn't real happy" about Batistatos making the call. McDermott notified FBI agents after receiving the document and Bill Emerson Jr. was selected at the caucus to by Lake County Democratic precinct committee members to take over as surveyor for the next election.

Benson raised the specter the release of the report could have resulted in political retribution to Batistatos, whose board is comprised of political appointees, for doing the right thing in reporting what he believed was illegal activity to the government.

Under questioning from King, Sanchez said Van Til did not give him any direct directions of what to tell McDermott, who he indicated had been contacted earlier by Van Til. Van Til said he never threatened anyone. He indicated he was just surprised someone "could just pick up and willy-nilly call up an FBI agent."

Van Til, 67, was previously charged with six counts counts of wire fraud and aiding and abetting over a scheme in which he used county employees to do his campaign work on county time. He pled guilty Dec. 5, 2013.

Prosecutors said Van Til ordered at least three county employees to complete re-election campaign work for which the employees were compensated from the county's payroll between 2007 and 2012.

The crimes constituted wire fraud, in part, because the county employees received their pay through direct deposit, which constitutes an electronic transfer, according to prosecutors.

Van Til also was accused of telling an employee to swap out a county computer's hard drive to conceal evidence in case federal authorities ever made inquiries, although those charges were dropped in exchange for his guilty plea.

His guilty plea ended Van Til's 42-year career.

Van Til's attorney asked Van Til be sentenced to a combination of probation and home detention because of the work he has done for Lake County residents and his poor health. The government provided documents that indicated Van Til's medical conditions could be accommodated while in prison.

Highland Clerk-Treasurer Michael Griffin, who was one of a number of local politicians and others who wrote letters in support of Van Til, testified at the sentencing hearing. He said Van Til was supported him early in his career and was also a supporter of Lake County becoming a member of the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission. He said he never thought he would find Van Til in the situation he was in Thursday.

11 - Lake County justice has had a drinking problem - July 10, 2016
Lake County's system of justice for drunken driving is receiving a new sobriety test.

State police recently began gathering records and conducting interviews into whether someone in Lake Station City Court intentionally withheld alcohol-related convictions over a four-year period from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles for inclusion on drivers' records — and all the consequences that imposes.

No one has yet been charged with criminal wrongdoing in that case. In Indiana, the charge is called operating while intoxicated, or OWI.

But three decades ago, an investigation by state and federal police called Operation Bar Tab bagged Lake County Court judges, a county clerk, a deputy prosecutor, a former director of the county court's alcohol counseling service and several minor court officials and attorneys.

They were convicted for their roles in fixing driving tickets, the bulk of them for drunken driving, for political favors.

Bar Tab, in connection with Operation Lights Out, a simultaneous federal investigation of non-court corruption, resulted in the conviction of more than 15 elected officials and county government employees.

Shaken Democrats at the time beheld the state replace two judges and the county clerk with Republicans, the first to occupy countywide offices in half a century.

Testimony from more than a dozen Operation Bar Tab trials and guilty pleas demonstrated drivers connected to Lake's sprawling patronage system could avoid the embarrassment of being judged in open court, and then fined, jailed, and having their licenses suspended and auto insurance premiums increased.

John Hoehner, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Indiana, is quoted in a 1986 Times story as calling this practice "an aged cancer that permeates the political system of Lake County and casts an ugly pall over its system of justice."

Birth of Bar Tab
Bar Tab began in the early 1980s under former U.S. Attorney R. Lawrence Steele who assigned a major role to his assistant, James Meyer. Both are now private lawyers.

Meyer recalls, "(State) troopers noticed they were arresting drunken drivers who they had arrested just six months earlier who shouldn't have had a license. Further checking showed one guy pleaded guilty, but nothing showed up on the police record."

They tracked the problem to Lake County Courts, created in the mid-1970s to put on the bench judges who had formal legal training. They replaced justices of the peace, quasi-judicial officials who weren't required to have law degrees to handle traffic violations.

However, these new judges, unlike their Superior Court counterparts, were elected through Lake's powerful Democratic party with all the partisan influences and obligations that come with having to marshal campaign funds and voter support.

Meyer said, "It wasn't the whole county, but certain individuals were known to, not so much stop a prosecution, but keep the records from going downstate ... if you bought $1,500 in (campaign fundraising) tickets." 

Another former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Gregory Vega, complained in 1986 of "the use and sale of political tickets, which has been called the currency of corruption, and which has perpetuated the stigma of Lake County throughout the state."

A federal court document indicates that Bar Tab's earliest inroads came the summer of 1982 when Kenneth Anderson received a call from a Dan Mingo, complaining he had just been jailed for OWI. Anderson was a Crown Point barber who had an inside connection to the courts.

Anderson invited Mingo to the shop. They agreed to fix Mingo's problem for $1,600, much of which Mingo put in a blue envelope.

Anderson then called John Marine, a county courts administrator with access to court records. Marine was seen leaving the shop later that day with a blue envelope in his pocket.

Mingo was a state police informant. He was wearing a wire. The FBI had tapped the phone. The fabricated ticket was bait.

Anderson assured Mingo he wouldn't have to appear in court. But Anderson and Marine did — after they were indicted and brought to trial in 1984 in U.S. District Court. 

The racketeering and mail fraud charges against them also alleged that a trucker who knew Anderson, got his driver's license back in the mail without ever appearing in court. Another trucker who did go to court, later said a deputy prosecutor there noted the trucker must know somebody, because he didn't have to go to jail or pay a large fine.

Marine's lawyer attempted to bolster his defense at trial by calling to the witness stand Lake County Court Judge Orval Anderson, no relation to Kenneth Anderson, to talk about court procedures.

Federal investigators believed Judge Orval Anderson, elected on a promise of being tough with drunken drivers, had presided over several of the fixed-ticket cases.

Orval Anderson was asked, under oath, if he ever disposed of drunken driving cases behind closed judicial chamber doors without a prosecutor present.

"No, no. Always prosecutors there," the judge answered, according to a court document.

Not only did the jury convict Kenneth Anderson and John Marine, a federal grand jury also indicted Judge Orval Anderson for lying under oath and obstruction of justice.

Months after that, Marine reportedly was cooperating with federal authorities to lighten his 20-year sentence. Bar Tab was picking up steam.

More indictments, convictions
Orval Anderson's trial, which ended in his conviction in June 1985, featured nine offenders accused of driving under the influence. 

They testified Orval Anderson gave them breaks behind the closed doors of his judicial chambers, after they had contacted Lake County officials to petition Judge Anderson for leniency.

Former county Clerk John Krupa, former county Recorder William Bielski and then St. John Township Trustee Gerry Scheub, now a county commissioner, were among those who intervened for the offenders. The three testified for the government and were never charged with wrongdoing.

Bielski said officeholders were always asking one another for favors. Edward Lukawski, the county clerk, was called to testify at Orval Anderson's trial, but refused under his right against self-incrimination.

He was trying to avoid Orval Anderson's earlier mistake of boldly denying wrongdoing under oath. Nevertheless, the U.S. Attorney charged Lukawski seven months later of conspiring with judges and other court personnel to secretly dispose of at least 30 driving under the influence cases as personal favors, or in exchange for political fundraising tickets.

Lukawski's defense lawyer said Lukawski never solicited anyone to buy fundraising tickets, but accepted them when someone who benefited from a fixed case rewarded Lukawski for having done them "a good turn."

Indictments over the the coming months also included the following: Judge Steven Bielak and Robert Balitewicz, Bielak's court administrator; Lee J. Christakis, lawyer and occasional county courts judge; William Huber, a former county courts bailiff; Paul Kutch, former Gary police officer, county court bailiff and director of the county courts alcohol counseling service; defense lawyer Stephen Goot; and former Deputy Prosecutor Nick Morfas.

Bielak, Balitewicz and Morfas pleaded guilty. So did Huber and Kutch, who it later was revealed, had been working for several months undercover for federal authorities and wore body recorders in return for leniency.

Goot chose trial and was convicted of conspiring with Morfas to make 10 OWI tickets disappear under a scheme in which Goot challenged the legal validity of OWI  tickets his clients received. A judge properly dismissed the tickets, but gave the prosecutor several weeks to file new charging documents.

Morfas used his position in the prosecutor's office to steal and destroy the case files associated with the dismissed tickets. No one noticed because of disarray in the prosecutor's office and the Lake County Courts records system; the dismissed tickets were never refiled, and the drivers were off the hook.

Jack Crawford, then prosecuting attorney for Lake County and now a private attorney in Indianapolis, said recently his office cooperated with Operation Bar Tab. He declined to comment further.

Christakis prepared for his trial by lining up at least 22 or 23 of his drunken driving clients to testify they never paid him to keep their record from going downstate. "Their records were already downstate," he recently recounted.

He changed his strategy when the federal trial judge dismissed some of the fraud counts against him. He and his defense lawyer thought the judge had essentially crippled the government bribery case. However, he learned too late the judge would permit the bulk of the of the government cases to go to the jury. "So there I was with the witnesses gone home," Christakis said.

The federal jury did acquit Christakis of a tax violation, but convicted him of two fraud and two obstruction of justice counts.

Attorneys convicted in the scandal lost their law licenses, as did Christakis.

But four years after Christakis' conviction, a federal judge overturned Christakis' fraud convictions on grounds Christakis never received money for anything improper.

Eight years later, the Indiana Supreme Court followed up by letting Christakis recover his law license. He is practicing law these days in Crown Point.

Christakis said, "(U.S. Attorney) Steele thought he was going to prove up bribery. He wasted a lot of investigatory resources."

Steele said recently, "The investigation was very successful in discovering what was going on at the time and taking steps to alleviate the problem. At least back in those days, the problem was solved."

Former Gov. Robert Orr, a Republican, appointed Republicans to replace the disgraced Lake County officials, including Kenneth Peterson as the first Republican county clerk in decades. Peterson initiated reforms to prevent future corruption, including closer tracking of traffic tickets. Previously, tickets were held in a file cabinet for a month before they were forwarded to court.

Former federal prosecutor Meyer said current electronic record-keeping has probably made it even more difficult for corrupt officials to lose or tamper with drunken driving cases.

Five years ago, the Indiana General Assembly voted to remove Lake County Court judges from partisan political elections. Its judges now will run for election without party labels.

Fresh problems convicting drivers of OWI?
A recent Times review of police arrests in 2014 in Lake County showed more than half of those arrested had their charges reduced from operating a vehicle while intoxicated to reckless driving, a lesser violation. This is unlike neighboring Porter County, where 81 percent were convicted of operating while intoxicated, The Times found.

Leal Hill, lead victim-services specialist for Indiana's Mothers Against Drunk Driving office, said, "We have had three calls in the last two years from concerned citizens who have expressed concern about leniency for drunk driving charges. Lake County is one place where we have received the most calls."

Hill said, "Over 300 people are killed in drunk driving-related crashes every year in Indiana. Thousands more are injured and thousands more are victimized, so for every one person killed in a drunk driving crash, 10 to 15 family members get a life sentence of grief.

"We have to show the public that if you drive drunk, we are going to take it seriously. You are going to jail, possibly prison, if you repeat. People are going to be more likely to designate a driver and drink responsibly, than if they think they are just going to get a slap on the wrist," Hill said.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter has said the sheer volume of cases, more than 800 in 2014 alone, compels his office to plea bargain charges down, or risk having most of the cases dismissed for failing to meet speedy-trial deadlines mandated by state law.

While such reductions are opposed by MADD, it is perfectly legal under the discretion the state permits local officials. But state law does compel local court officials to report traffic convictions and court-ordered driving restrictions to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Carter initiated a state police investigation in May after discovering Lake Station City Court failed to report to the BMV a 2011 reckless driving conviction for Randolph L. “Randy” Palmateer, 37, business manager for the Northwestern Indiana Building and Construction Trades Council.

Carter said that wasn't an isolated incident, and that hundreds of convictions from that city court may not have been transmitted downstate between 2008 and 2012. State police have said they are gathering court records and interviewing potential witnesses in their ongoing investigation.

12 - UPDATE: Former Lake Station mayor sentenced to 4 years - September 28, 2016
HAMMOND — The former Lake Station mayor who wagered and lost the public trust is going to prison.

U.S. District Court Judges Rudy Lozano and James Moody on Wednesday sentenced 47-year-old Keith Soderquist to 48 months, and ordered him to pay $4,184 in restitution to the city of Lake Station and $22,571 to the IRS.

Soderquist’s 58-year-old wife, Deborah Soderquist, was sentenced to 24 months in prison and was ordered to share in restitution payments. She ran Lake Station’s food pantry and was treasurer of her husband’s election campaigns.

The Lake Station couple misused tens of thousands of dollars from the mayor’s re-election campaign fund and the city’s food pantry account to gamble at nearby casinos. The former mayor received a 42-month sentence for that fraud.

He received an additional six-month sentence for attempting to cover up his stepdaughter Miranda Brakley’s embezzlement of Lake Station City Court money.

Federal prosecutors had asked that he be sentenced to prison immediately, but Moody agreed to allow him to self-report at a specified date. The former mayor is scheduled to have neck surgery Oct. 13.

However, Moody did give the former mayor a tongue lashing.

“You stole from the food pantry? That’s obscene. I’ve sentenced many politicians in my 40 years here, but what you have done. ... Your city is full of people who are unemployed, underpaid and on welfare. What the hell were you thinking of? Are you goofy? Answer me!” the judge demanded.

The former mayor answered “no.” Moody continued, “So what you did is all right?” Shame on you.”

Soderquist, who had served nearly eight years in office, came under state and federal scrutiny four years ago following a public feud between him and former Lake Station City Judge Christopher A. Anderson, who was elected to replace Soderquist in the mayor’s office.

Anderson fired Miranda Brakley, the mayor’s stepdaughter, for stealing money held by the court from those arrested and posting bond in Lake Station.

Soderquist defended his stepdaughter and supported efforts to abolish City Court. Anderson called for an investigation of the Soderquists.

Federal authorities discovered Keith and Deborah Soderquist lost more than $100,000 between 2009 and 2012 at casino slot machines. They made dozens of withdrawals during the three-year period totaling $35,304.25 from his campaign fund and $5,040 from the city’s food pantry account.

A federal grand jury charged Keith and Deborah Soderquist in 2014 with 11 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud and filing false tax returns for criminal misuse of the public funds and covering it up.

A jury last year also found the former mayor and his wife guilty after an eight-day trial of all counts.

Afterward, the government became aware the former mayor had installed in the Lake Station City Hall a system to secretly record telephone conversations and listened to about 30 of the recorded calls made or received by potential government witnesses.

The Soderquists have dropped plans to appeal their convictions, and the former mayor admits to his role in the telephone recording scheme under an agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office to forestall the government from filing additional charges against him or his wife.

Lawyers for both Soderquists argued Wednesday for leniency on grounds their health will deteriorate in prison. Deborah Soderquist suffers from diabetes, muscular dystrophy, degenerative bone disorders and a cancerous lesion on her left kidney.

Brakley, 35, of Lake Station, received six months home detention followed by two years probation July 7 for her guilty plea to the theft.

13 - Portage Mayor Snyder indicted on bribery, tax charges - November 18, 2016
PORTAGE — Mayor James Snyder has been indicted in federal court in Hammond on bribery and obstruction charges.

U.S. District Attorney David Capp announced the indictments in a press conference Friday morning.

While the charges were being read from the federal courthouse in Hammond, Snyder met with city department heads and employees at his home.

U.S. marshals escorted Snyder, 38, into court about 3:30 p.m. Friday. He flashed smiles at his lawyers, Thomas Kirsch and Thomas Dogan.

He pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Cherry to felony bribery, extortion and tax dodging counts, which carry long prison terms if he is convicted.

He was freed on a $20,000 recognizance bond, but has to surrender his passport and firearms he owns. When the judge asked Snyder if he has a passport, Snyder smiled and said, “We’ve been looking for it since 7 a.m.”

Snyder’s administrative assistant, Amanda Lakie, said he would not be making a statement and directed The Times to Snyder’s attorney. Lakie said Snyder met with employees to encourage them to continue their work for the city.

“Mayor James Snyder has been under investigation for nearly two and half years and today was indicted on three counts,” said Snyder’s attorney, Tom Kirsch, of Chicago. “Mayor Snyder believed that this extremely lengthy federal investigation had been concluded without charges being sought. Today’s indictment comes as a complete surprise. This is particularly so because these charges are meritless. Mayor Snyder has always been cooperative with federal agents throughout the relentless investigation. Mayor Snyder looks forward to fighting these charges in a court of law and to complete vindication. Mayor Snyder and his family are grateful for the outpouring of support they have received from residents, friends, and family and asks that they continue to believe in him through this time.”

Federal authorities arrested and arraigned John Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body, 5409 U.S. 6, Portage, earlier Friday. He is pleading not guilty to his role in the scheme and is also free on bond.

Cherry set their trial to begin the week of Jan. 23, although the date could change if the defense needs more time to prepare.

The charges
The first charge names Snyder and Cortina.

Snyder and Cortina are both charged with a violation of the federal bribery statute. Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totaling $12,000 from Cortina, in exchange for a towing contract in the city of Portage, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice. Cortina is charged with corruptly offering those checks to Snyder.

Cortina’s business was raided last week by Indiana State Police and U.S. Treasury Department agents. Cortina told The Times then that his business was not the subject of the raid, that a towing company which leases property from Cortina was being investigated.

Snyder is also charged with a second violation of the federal bribery statute. That count alleges that between Jan. 1, 2012 and Jan. 10, 2014, Snyder corruptly solicited and agreed to accept a bank check in the amount of $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and other consideration, stated the release.

The final charge against Snyder alleges obstruction of the internal revenue laws. This count sets forth an alleged scheme, undertaken by Snyder between January 2010 and April 2013, to obstruct and impede the Internal Revenue Service’s collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC. Snyder is alleged to have diverted funds away from FFTM to a sole proprietorship he created, and submitted three forms to the IRS which failed to disclose, among other things, the existence of the sole proprietorship and its bank account – all during a time when the IRS was attempting to collect the aforementioned tax debt.

Lengthy investigation
The indictment comes after more than two years of investigation by the FBI into the city and Snyder and less than two months after Snyder attempted to get the city’s Utility Service Board to pay some $93,000 in legal fees involving the investigation.

In September, Snyder had two checks cut by the department and sent to two legal firms without approval by the board. The legal firms allegedly returned the checks because they were not from Snyder directly. The funds were returned to the department and Mark Oprisko, City Council president and utility board vice chairman, called for an investigation by an independent attorney into the claims.

While state law allows Snyder to request the reimbursement it can only be done if he was cleared of the investigation and there were no impending indictments.

Reactions
Oprisko said he had the “wind knocked out of me” when he heard about the indictments and was “disheartened,” thinking that the investigation was over a couple of months ago.

“It is a black eye to the city. The investigation is what it is. He is innocent until proven guilty. He still has a job to do. He has to pick it up and move forward,” Oprisko said, adding the same is true for city employees and other elected officials. “Our job is to serve the citizens of Portage, and we will continue to do that.”

“While this is a sad day for the city of Portage, Jim Snyder deserves his day in court,” said Portage Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham. “However, I am focused on ensuring myself and the City Council continue to lead Portage forward despite the mayor’s troubles. Now, more than ever, Portage needs good leaders. We are more than any one person and the issues of one won’t derail our progress.”

“Today’s indictment issued by the United States Attorney in connection to Portage Mayor James Snyder is deeply concerning,” said Portage Councilman Collin Czilli in a written statement, promising residents that city business will continue unimpeded. “However, like any other individual, Mayor Snyder deserves his day in court and the right to defend himself. As a city Councilman, I am of the mindset that we must allow the judicial process to continue and to not interfere in that process for political purposes.”

“These investigations are not over. Our public corruption team will continue its work, particularly into the towing contracts in both Lake and Porter counties,” Capp said in the press release.

Anyone with information related to these public corruption charges is encouraged to call the FBI at (219) 769-3719.

14 - Bunich, his chief deputy indicted on corruption charges - November 18, 2016
HAMMOND — A U.S. attorney indicted Lake County Sheriff John Buncich Friday on public corruption charges.

Buncich and Tim Downs, Buncich’s chief of police and second in command, are charged with wire fraud. Buncich also is charged with receiving bribes. They face prison terms of up to 20 years if convicted.

U.S. marshals arrested and escorted Buncich and Downs into a federal courtroom about 10:30 a.m. Buncich initially appeared nervous, but later regained his composure and winked at two supporters in the audience. The rest of the courtroom was filled with federal agents and media.

Buncich, 70, Downs, 65, and William “Willie” Szarmach pleaded not guilty to a five-count indictment alleging they deprived the public of honest government services. A judge magistrate ordered them to surrender their passports and personal firearms. They are free on bond.

Buncich is accused of receiving more than $30,000 in bribes from towing firms wanting work from county police. Szarmach owns and operates CSA Towing in Lake Station.

Authorities arrested Szarmach Friday in Hobart. The government asked for him to be detained pending trial, which is now set for Jan. 17, but could be delayed. Szarmach will appear in a detention hearing Tuesday.

The indictment alleges that between February 2014 and last month Buncich set in motion a scheme to enrich himself and Buncich Boosters, his political campaign committee.

The government alleges the sheriff has sole authority in Lake County to designate towing companies his officers can use to remove cars from the public streets. County records indicate that between 10 and 12 firms removed thousands of vehicles in the past two years.

The government claims Buncich accepted bribes allegedly from towing firms for cash and campaign contributions, although he didn’t record all those contributions in his campaign finance reports, as state law requires.

The government said Downs collected some of the bribes for Buncich. Sometimes Buncich is alleged to have personally grabbed the cash and put it in his pocket.

Firms that paid bribes got on the sheriff’s approved towing list and received a larger district in which they could collect large fees from people seeking to recover their towed vehicles.

The indictment lists seven bribes over the last two years, the last being $7,500 paid Sept. 2.

The government alleges bribes were paid by Szarmach and an unidentified firm, referred to in the indictment as “Individual A” that U.S. Attorney David Capp said was the whistleblower who started the multi-year investigation rolling.

Capp warned that he expects that investigation to continue and more are likely to be charged. “We are coming after you. Time is running short.”

Buncich is the county’s highest elected law enforcement official as well as the chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party.

He gave no indication he is stepping down as the county’s top cop or as party boss. Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington, who has been a sharp critic of Buncich, said Friday night he isn’t calling for Buncich’s removal at this time. “I believe the party will come together and be stronger.”

15 - A county government history of bribery - November 27, 2016
CROWN POINT — Once upon a time, Lake County had a sheriff indicted for mail fraud.
Last week, it was Sheriff John Buncich, who has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in January on allegations he solicited and received bribes from towing firms doing business with his department.

Three decades ago, it was Rudy Bartolomei, for wide-ranging bribery solicitation.

Bartolomei, better known to his friends as Rudy Bart, cooperated with federal investigators who sent many other high-ranking county government officials to prison under Operation Lights Out.

Bartolomei’s whereabouts have been unknown since he entered the federal witness protection program in 1986 at age 62, although the rumor among political circles is that he died years ago.

But between 1976 when he was first elected a Lake County commissioner and 1985 when he resigned as sheriff following a guilty plea in U.S. District Court, he was one of the best known and most powerful politicians in Lake County.

In his younger days, he helped his mother run the family’s grocery store in Gary’s Glen Park section. He became a Democratic precinct committeeman and worked eight years in the county assessor’s office.

‘Helping people’
A Times story about the new commissioner portrayed him as having a handshake and a warm greeting for the common man. He told a Times reporter, “I’m really excited about helping people, now. Most of the time, it is people asking for help, and you do your best to help them.”

He had a jar of licorice on his desk for his many visitors.

Years later, his other side was revealed in court testimony about forcing county employees to buy political fundraising tickets and shaking down those who wanted business with the county.

A federal court document recounts Bartolomei meeting a then-up-and-coming politician, Frank A. J. Stodola, who had just been elected county commissioner in 1980 and wanted to know if rumors about county government graft were true.

It states, “Stodola approached Commissioner Rudy Bartolomei on several occasions and asked Bartolomei where the commissioners made their money.”

Bartolomei answered that the cleaning service for the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point inflated its bills to the county to cover the bribes paid all three members of the Board of Commissioners at that time.

Moving up
Bartolomei saw his opportunity to become the county’s chief law enforcement officer in 1983 when Sheriff Chris Anton died in office. A caucus of the county’s Democratic precinct committee members picked Bartolomei over Anton’s widow, Anna, to replace him.

A Times reporter asked him after his victory celebration about reports the FBI was looking into him. Bartolomei denied knowing anything about it.

Shortly after becoming sheriff, court documents state Bartolomei began offering protection to the owners of video poker machines, which were illegal at the time, but popping up at local taverns.

Bartolomei and other county police officials promised protection for those willing to pay, not knowing one of their petitioners was wearing a wire and recording conversations for the FBI.

A second federal investigation focused on Bartolomei’s stolen gun collection. U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents raided a safe in the Sheriff’s Department and seized 50 weapons and an unregistered .38-caliber handgun silencer.

After months of speculation, a federal grand jury returned a 15-count indictment against Bartolomei March 1, 1985, accusing him of:

Ordering five county employees in 1980 to assemble political signs for his re-election at public expense

Ordering three county employees in 1981 to do repair work on his summer cottage on Lake Michigan

Paying his housemaid with $2,300 from federal revenue sharing funds belonging to the county

Extorting political contributions from employees, including $650 from a heavy-equipment operator who asked Bartolomei for a raise

Bartolomei pleaded not guilty, blamed the allegations on political enemies and disgruntled county employees and wouldn’t compromise his ability to remain sheriff.

Six months later, he pleaded guilty to two felony counts, received a 28-month sentence, and was shackled and marched out of a federal courtroom.

Two months later, he was briefing federal investigators and a grand jury on the web of public corruption over which he and his fellow county officials had presided.

He would return to the federal courthouse over the years to testify as the government’s star witness, helping win convictions against a number of officials, including: County Assessor Michael Jankovich, county Commissioners Noah Atterson Spann and Frank A.J. Stodola and Michael Mokol Sr., chief of police under Bartolomei.

To protect his new identity outside the courthouse, he wore a Halloween mask resembling Skeletor, a character from the Masters of the Universe cartoons.









Towing firms crowd in to win Lake County business
NWI Times
Mar 15, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/towing-firms-crowd-in-to-win-lake-county-business/article_e129ca5a-ef05-5956-92fb-dfd745ccc680.html
CROWN POINT — Some 23 towing truck operators converged on the Lake County Government Center on Wednesday in hopes of hauling away lucrative work contracts.

The Lake County Board of Commissioners received their applications and now are reviewing which are the most qualified for government concessions to be rewarded this spring. The winner will work with county police to remove vehicles from public streets and highways.

County government's reputation for integrity was totaled late last year when a federal grand jury indicted Sheriff John Buncich on bribery and fraud charges alleging he gave towing firms work based on how much they paid him personally.

Buncich is pleading not guilty and awaiting trial.

Two towing businesses that aren't in the running for new county contracts are CSA Towing of Lake Station or Samson Towing of Merrillville.

William Szarmach, CSA's owner, is awaiting trial on allegations he paid Buncich bribes. He is pleading not guilty.

Scott Jurgensen, Samson’s Towing's owner, has been identified as a cooperative federal witness who paid the sheriff for towing work. Jurgensen isn't charged with any wrongdoing.

Commissioner President Mike Repay, D-Hammond, said Wednesday that no firms that did business under Buncich were excluded from bidding on future work.

Repay said at least five of the 23 applicants were previously selected by the sheriff and currently do towing for county police under the old rules until the commissioners make their final choices.

The written standards, established before invitations went out, do require applicants to be "reputable."

The Lake County Council voted in January to reform the county's towing business by taking authority to award contracts away from the sheriff and giving it to the commissioners.

Commissioners said last month they would model their towing vendor qualifications on those used by the Indiana State Police.

The firms responding to this invitation include those headquartered in Cedar Lake, Crown Point, East Chicago, Gary, Griffith, Hammond, Hobart, Lake Station, Merrillville, Schererville and Whiting.

Repay said the county will create a new map of districts where an undetermined number of winning firms will operate.

There are currently nine districts that were drawn up by the sheriff.

Repay said commissioners will draw new district boundaries to ensure the towing work is apportioned equally to avoid creating districts that generate more profits for some vendors.










23 tow companies apply for Lake County contracts 
Post-Tribune
March 15, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-county-towing-st-0316-20170315-story.html
Twenty-three towing companies have submitted surveys and bids to the Lake County commissioners for the chance to become one of the businesses used for sheriff department tows.

Eight of those companies currently are approved vendors under the existing sheriff's department contract, Commissioner Michael Repay, D-Hammond, said.

Commissioners in February made available the survey and guidelines to help select potential tow companies after the county council in January stripped the power to award towing contracts from Sheriff John Buncich in the wake of federal corruption charges stemming from the towing operation.

The guidelines list 23 specific criteria each tow company – included those already contracting with the sheriff's department -- must meet to be considered. Criteria include items such as hours of operation, liability coverage and compliance with regulatory standards.

Repay said he expected to see a larger number of potential vendors apply. Now it will be up to officials to review the qualifications of each company, weed out any that do not meet the proposal terms and then decide how many it may choose to hire.

Approved companies will have to have the ability to quickly respond to dispatches.

"The police tow is a matter of public urgency," Repay said.

The county currently operates under the terms of the existing sheriff's department contract while the survey and bid process is underway. There are nine towing districts under the current contract. Repay said a map will be drawn with the locations of the qualifying tow companies included to determine if any tweaks to the existing districts or the addition of new districts are needed. There likely will be more than one operator assigned to each district, he said.

"Our 911 has the technology to do whatever we want," Repay said. For example, they can dispatch tow companies by assigned district and in a rotation so the same company is not used over and over while other approved towing contractors are not.

He said towing companies already under contract with the sheriff's department had to submit the survey and meet the guidelines to be considered for continued work in the wake of the sheriff's towing scandal.

In November, Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty during their initial appearances in November.

Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Buncich to solicit brides from tow truck operators for favorable treatment.









FBI even seized Buncich's Bears tickets
NWI Times
Mar 11, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/fbi-even-seized-buncich-s-bears-tickets/article_8fb196f6-85e3-5202-9b2a-dbd1dbd688ed.html
HAMMOND — Federal prosecutors say they have hundreds of photographs and recordings of bribery evidence they can use against Sheriff John Buncich.

The U.S. Attorney's office recently outlined the volume of their material in court papers filed earlier this week in U.S. District Court, as the sheriff's attorney and the government jockey for position prior to trial.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to a five-count indictment alleging he deprived the public of honest government services by soliciting and receiving thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from towing firms wanting work from county police.

The government alleges their case is built on months of federal surveillance, cooperating witnesses and an extensive inventory of property seized last November from Buncich's office and home in Crown Point.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson, who has been spearheading the government's prosecution, stated in a court filing this week, the government has provided Buncich's lawyers with more than 100 recordings and transcripts and more than 200 surveillance photos.

The government's evidence trove includes: location diagrams and WJOB radio interviews, as well as reports and payments "associated with the confidential human source used in the investigation."

The government also inadvertently seized the sheriff's Chicago Bear's football season tickets, when agents carried away a filing cabinet they were in.

Benson is responding to complaints Buncich's defense attorney, Bryan M. Truitt, of Valparaiso, made earlier to a federal judge, claiming the government hasn't returned financial records the sheriff needs to file taxes, campaign reports required by state election laws and other documents to help his lawyers prepare his defense.

Truitt argued last month the delay in sharing documents "is providing the government with an unfair advantage and would result in a trial by ambush, should this case proceed to trial in April."

Truitt couldn't be reached Friday for comment.

Benson disclosed in this week's filing that the government returned Buncich's football tickets shortly after Buncich's Nov. 18 indictment.

Benson states his office has been attempting to share evidence with the defense since mid-January and sent them 40 Gigabytes of evidence in a digital storage device, called a thumb drive, Feb. 15 through a private delivery service.

Benson states Truitt and Buncich had an opportunity Feb. 1 to review Buncich's campaign material in the FBI's possession and select what he needed to be copied.

Truitt, who didn't accompany Buncich, stated in his written motion to the court that "Buncich was sent away without any documents."

Benson states Buncich demanded copies of everything he saw in several boxes and filing cabinets of seized evidence and left. Benson argues the copying should be done at Buncich's expense.

Although the court has yet to rule on the evidentiary dispute, it ordered Friday afternoon a delay in the March 16 sentencing of Timothy Downs, former second-in-command under Buncich, until Sept. 20.

Benson asked for the delay, because he anticipates Buncich's trial is likely to be moved, at the defense's request, to sometime in July or August and to last approximately three weeks.

Downs pleaded guilty Dec. 16 to a fraud count, admitting he used his public office to do political fundraising for Buncich.

Benson states Downs will be called as a government witness to testify against Buncich at trial. Downs has been promised leniency, but only if he is a cooperative witness.









Police policies aim to curb towing abuses
NWI Times
Mar 8, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/police-policies-aim-to-curb-towing-abuses/article_62356e8a-7991-5c99-ac87-dc5f5cc7394b.html
The recent federal indictments of Portage Mayor James Snyder and Lake County Sheriff John Buncich concern allegations of inappropriate business dealings involving tow truck operators. The public corruption charges against both men include allegations that each personally profited financially, as well as politically, by showing favoritism to specific towing operators.

But police departments around the Region have policies in place designed to head off abuses by establishing guidelines and procedures to fairly distribute tow jobs.

"The tow firms are chosen for each case based on a set rotation and by jurisdiction," said Mark Back, spokesman for the Lake County Sheriff's Department.

The companies making the rotation list now are chosen outside the department by the Lake County Board of Commissioners, he said.

That policy stands in contrast to what a federal indictment alleges Buncich did. The government claims Buncich accepted bribes allegedly from towing firms for cash and campaign contributions.

Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totaling $12,000 in exchange for a towing contract in the city of Portage.

Policies to avoid such potential corruption vary by department. 

Each of the police departments contacted had a similar approach in place with different rates of rotation.

The Valparaiso Police Department uses the same company for one month at a time, and the schedule is set in advance, said Sgt. Mike Grennes.

The eligible companies are selected by the city's board of works, he said, using standards that vary by community.

The LaPorte County Sheriff's Department divides its rotation list into the areas of Michigan City, LaPorte and south county, said Capt. Mike Kellems.

"When a deputy has a need for a wrecker, a request will be for one to be sent via radio," he said. "Dispatch checks the list and sends the next one on the list."

The Porter County Sheriff's Department also dispatches from a rotating list based on the area of the county, but its list is maintained by the sheriff, said Sgt. Jamie Erow.

The department dispatches tow trucks from its own list in emergency situations, during criminal calls and when motorists are unable to arrange a timely response, she said.

"Otherwise, the motorist may choose," Erow said.

The Griffith Police Department tows cars when "the drivers, the cars, or the issues prevent the vehicle from being removed from the scene such as arrest of the driver, when they are a traffic hazard, when they are in violation of town ordinance or state statute ... and when vehicles are being impounded due to investigation," said Public Information Officer Keith Martin.

Police fees
Portage is among the police departments contacted that requires tow companies to charge the same fee for services, said Chief Troy Williams.

Others who set the fees in advance include Porter County, Griffith and Valparaiso. Departments like Michigan City, Lake County and LaPorte County leave the pricing up to the individual companies.

Some local communities collect an additional fee for their own coffers, including Lake County, which charges an additional $75 per tow as determined by the Board of Commissioners, according to Back.









EDITORIAL: Voters, officials must break corrupt patterns
The Times Editorial Board  
NWI Times
Mar 7, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/editorial-voters-officials-must-break-corrupt-patterns/article_7c700f5e-80ab-5ed1-9e17-87fcedb04423.html
The threshold for political embarrassment was redefined Saturday as the Lake County Democratic Party elected its new chairman.

The winner, Region attorney Jim Wieser, deserves a chance to repair the reputation of a party reeling from the embarrassment of political corruption.

But if he's to attempt this important feat, it will be in the shadow of the very process through which he was selected.

It's a tall task and a warning cry to all voters and sitting elected officials of the emergent need to break with past leadership patterns and political allegiances if Northwest Indiana is ever to shed this dubious reputation.

Party precinct committeemen were tied Saturday in their vote for a new chairman — with Wieser and Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay in a voting deadlock.

So the tie-breaking vote, per party rules, went to then-sitting Chairman John Buncich, who also is Lake County sheriff.

Buncich is under federal indictment for allegedly soliciting and accepting bribes in the awarding of towing work sought by the sheriff's office.

In the end, the embarrassment doesn't arise from who Buncich selected but rather that Northwest Indiana politics, once again, was in a dubious position.

Most reasonable people would agree a public official under federal felony indictment isn't the ideal person to be casting a deciding vote for the head of a powerful political party.

Of course, that person shouldn't retain the mantel of the county's chief law enforcement officer, either, and we've argued Buncich already should have resigned his sheriff's post as he mounts a criminal defense.

It's clear Buncich is intent on continuing to drag his law enforcement office and the county's reputation through the mud of his federal criminal case. Only a felony conviction, at this point, would forcibly remove him from office under Indiana law.

Exacerbating this latest embarrassment is a county government and political history wherein more than 60 elected officials or politically connected cronies and contractors have been convicted of crimes against taxpayers since the 1980s.

There are two cures to this cycle that have proven elusive:

Voters must remember incumbents and candidates who forge allegiances with past criminals and use that information accordingly in the voting booths.

Elected and party leaders must stop supporting and elevating colleagues who have been formally charged with breaking the law or have otherwise tarnished the reputation of local government.

Until that happens, our political system will continue defining new thresholds of embarrassment further from the boundaries of ethics, morality and good government.









Lake sheriff seeks trial delay
Post-Tribune
March 06, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-snyder-motions-st-0307-20170306-story.html
Attorneys for Lake County Sheriff John Buncich on Monday asked a federal judge to delay the start of his criminal trial.

Citing the amount of material in need of review to prepare Buncich's defense, attorney Bryan Truitt requested the court agree to push back the intended April 6 start date set for the sheriff's jury trial, according to court documents. A judge has yet to rule on the request.

The U.S. Attorney's office did not file any response the request Monday.

Truitt said, in his motion, the defense team still is reviewing material provided by federal authorities but still is missing some of the documents they need.

"There is no way that the defense can be adequately prepared by April 6, 2017, to try this case," Truitt said in the motion.

Truitt said he thinks a July or August trial date is more realistic.

Buncich's defense team asked the U.S. Attorney's office to release personal documents confiscated in November by the FBI, according to court documents. A final decision is still pending on whether those documents will be released.

The sheriff and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were tentatively set for April 6 trials.

Buncich was indicted along with Szarmach and former Lake County Chief of Police Timothy Downs, who pleaded guilty in December.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach were named in multicount indictments alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three faced charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the government alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the Nov. 18 indictment.

Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Buncich to solicit bribes from tow truck operators for favorable treatment. In addition, Downs, per the terms of the agreement, resigned from the Lake County Sheriff's office.









EDITORIAL: Embracing cronyism sends wrong message
NWI Times
Mar 1, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/editorial-embracing-cronyism-sends-wrong-message/article_ebe95886-6d39-5b04-9d1f-00c506babb20.html
It's a pattern that should alarm all of us: Region government and political leaders forging allegiances and associations with those convicted of crimes.

Right now, it's rearing its head in the race to determine the next chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party — the clear party of power in the county's local government network.

Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay, one of two candidates for the chairmanship, should disavow an element of political corruption he’s accepted into the fold of his campaign.

The race will be decided in a party caucus Saturday.

Current Chairman John Buncich, who is Lake County sheriff and is facing felony federal bribery charges related to his sheriff's post, won't be seeking another term as party head.

Repay, a reasonably young face in Lake County politics, has pitched himself as a fresh voice who could change a good-old-boy party structure.

He's left us with little confidence he can deliver on that promise based on his political associations.

Repay confirmed this week he enjoys the support of longtime political operative and federally convicted felon Robert Cantrell.

Cantrell, a longtime Region political power broker, worked in various capacities for the North Township trustee's office in the early 2000s.

At the same time, Cantrell accepted kickbacks while steering contracts for county court defendants' drug and alcohol counseling to a politically connected service.

In 2009, Cantrell was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in federal prison for using his position in public office to steer contracts in the scheme. He also was convicted of insurance fraud for "deceptively procuring" township-funded health insurance coverage for two of his children and filing false income tax returns.

In short, Cantrell has the type of history any respectable leaders should want to distance themselves from.

But not Repay.

"I'm not in a strong position to kick anybody's support away," Repay told The Times this week when asked if he embraced Cantrell's support.

Repay then went on to attack political affiliations and allegiances of the other candidate for chairman, Lake County lawyer Jim Wieser.

Wieser admits to being a close personal friend of former Lake County Surveyor George Van Til, also a federally convicted felon.

However, Wieser also said he told Van Til, who recently completed a federal prison term for essentially stealing from taxpayers, that Van Til could not be a part of Wieser's campaign for chairman.

"I said, 'George, we will be friends forever, but you cannot be involved in this campaign. It would be hypocritical of me,'" Wieser said. "He agreed and understood. That just sends the wrong signal to people."

The Times Editorial Board makes no endorsement in the race for Lake County Democratic Party chairman.

But Repay's embrace of Cantrell as a political ally shows a complete lack of sound judgment and a perpetuation of an embarrassing culture of political corruption.

Repay's acceptance of sharing a political fold with Cantrell comes a little more than two months after Repay attended a questionable social gathering with Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington.

The gathering occurred at a Merrillville restaurant one day after Washington pleaded guilty to battering his wife. Some local leaders invited to the gathering characterized it as a "victory party" for Washington after he avoided felony charges by pleading guilty to misdemeanor battery.

Earlier this week, Repay told The Times that the county chairmanship race "is not about the past. It's about the future. It's about putting somebody in the office of chairman who has the guts to speak truth to whoever the truth needs to be spoken to."

If he wants to show true fortitude, he'll stop kissing the rings of political cronies and distance himself from those who have harmed the fortunes of taxpayers and reputation of local government.









Buncich stepping back as party boss
NWI Times
Feb 23, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/buncich-stepping-back-as-party-boss/article_8bbcdfa7-fc2c-5477-b7ad-7872cb9932d4.html
CROWN POINT — Lake Sheriff John Buncich's won't seek a new term as the county Democratic party leader.

Lake County Democratic precinct committeemen will meet March 4 at SS Helen and Constantine Church in Merrillville to elect Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, or Schererville attorney James Wieser as their next county chairman.

Buncich declined to run before the deadline passed Wednesday morning.

Buncich took over the party's reins in 2014 after Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott stepped down.

Buncich's future leadership role was called into question when a federal grand jury indicted him Nov. 18 on allegations he solicited and received campaign contributions and bribes from towing firms seeking his approval to do business with county police. Buncich is pleading not guilty and awaiting trial.

Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, 41, has served as one of county government's chief executives for four years and ran unsuccessfully for chairman two years ago.

James Wieser, 69, a Schererville attorney, has been a party adviser for decades and serves as counsel for the county election board. Wieser served on the Highland Town Council and Lake County Council more than three decades ago.

Michelle Fajman, the county's elections director, and Gary City Councilwoman Lavetta Sparks Wade will compete for the party position of vice chairwoman. Candidates for party treasurer are County Treasurer Peggy Katona and Tammi Davis.

Candidate for party secretary are: Hobart City Councilman John Brezik, Lake County Councilwoman Christine Cid, Mike Ball and Catherine Hadow and Lake County Auditor John Petalas.









Oversight committee digs into sheriff's finances
Post-Tribune
February 21, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-county-sheriff-oversight-st-0222-20170221-story.html
Lake County officials on Tuesday pressed the Sheriff's Department to explain its accounting practices in an effort to curb continual budget overages.

The Lake County Sheriff and Jail Budget Oversight Committee probed for explanations into any past due payments, ordering and billing practices, and forecast for potential shortfalls in 2017.

"I think there's a lot we need to delve into," said Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington, D-Merrillville. "This is not a witch hunt."

The Lake County Council last week created a new oversight committee, with subpoena power, to delve into the Sheriff Department's finances. The council decided to create the committee after the department asked to pay almost $170,000 in 2016 bills out of the 2017 budget, which was a part of a trend of budget overages the county has seen during the last few years.

"Every time you do that you set your current year budget up for a shortfall," Washington said. "We cannot keep doing the same."

Melanie Dillon, the department's finance director, said throughout the 2016 budget year, she transferred money to cover overages in some of the line items after being told to find the money within the budget.

With the food bills, Dillon said those are always paid a month late and she tried to do as much as possible to cover that budget line.

"I knew I was going to have a shortfall," Dillon said.

The department is like a multi-million dollar business, Washington said, but can't manage its expenses.

"My biggest gripe since day one has been our inability to manage our bills," Washington said.

Sheriff John Buncich said his department cannot fully anticipate what its expense will look like because of emergency costs that come up throughout the year.

"There's so many unforeseen things that come up," Buncich said.

In December, Buncich said he got a call early in the morning that the boiler at the jail went out and that needed to get fixed immediately.

The jail has 650 security cameras, mandated by the Department of Justice, and if one goes out, it must get fixed, Buncich said.

The population at the jail was 815 inmates Tuesday morning, Buncich said, and he anticipated buses from Gary, Hammond and East Chicago that would only increase that number. Buncich said he's getting more inmates with several heroin and alcohol addiction issues that further tax the jail's resources.

"There are just so many things that come up in the middle of the night we cannot predict," Buncich said.

Auditor John Petalas said knowing the fluctuation in the jail population, the department almost has to budget for a higher number of inmates.

"If you don't, you're going to have this problem every year," Petalas said.

County Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, questioned why the department didn't use a purchase order for its expenditures.

Dillon said, for example, an October purchase order to one vendor was for food delivered in September.

Repay said he didn't understand why someone doesn't place the orders with a purchase order.

"That's what we need," Repay said.

Lake County Councilman Eldon Strong, R-Crown Point, said he looked through the reports and found a number of budget lines that already appeared to be heading for a shortfall.

Dillon said the costs associated with overtime, garage and motors and other items come out of several budget lines. With overtime, Dillon said it's paid out of two overtime lines.

"With those two combined, I personally don't see where there could be a shortfall," Dillon said.

County Councilman David Hamm, D-Hammond, asked why the budget still shows purchase orders and invoices from 2014 and 2015.

"That concerns me," Hamm said.

Dillon said she just received a bill last week from services in 2014.

Buncich said the excuse he hears most often from vendors who are late submitting bills is that it's the government and they're going to get their money.









Lake County is calling all towing firms
NWI Times
Feb 18, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/lake-county-is-calling-all-towing-firms/article_6fe35a4a-e081-5a74-8e5d-b039e9f29536.html
CROWN POINT — Lake County Commissioners said they are setting high standards for towing firms working in the future with the sheriff's department.

Commissioners are taking over from Sheriff John Buncich the job of selecting towing companies working with county police to remove vehicles from public roads and property.

They voted this week to invite all towing firms in the county to apply for a contract and set rules for which ones would be eligible for serious consideration.

It comes three months after the U.S. Attorney filed bribery and fraud charges alleging Buncich chose towing firms to work with county police based on how much money they paid him in campaign contributions. Buncich is pleading not guilty and awaiting trial.

The Lake County Council last month passed an ordinance taking towing contracts away from the sheriff and restoring them to commissioners to award in the future.

John Dull, the county attorney, said the new guidelines for electing firms are modeled on those the Indiana State Police use.

They state eligible towing firms "shall be reputable and in good standing with any and all regulatory agencies," open 24 hours per day and seven days a week, have been in been in business for at least five years, must have a business address in Lake County.

Eligible towing firms must make it their goal to respond to towing calls within 30 minutes, have enough marked towing trucks to be able to respond to three calls simultaneously, must have a secured storage lot and employees available to release towed or stored vehicles any day of the week.









Lake Council to investigate sheriff's books
NWI Times
Feb 15, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/lake-council-to-investigate-sheriff-s-books/article_e1f41ff1-eb1c-5205-a94b-bcf6f15394ec.html
CROWN POINT — The Lake County Council voted to police the sheriff — at least in fiscal matters.

The council refused Tuesday to immediately pay about $180,000 in food, police uniforms and services vendors provided late last year.

Instead, the council created an oversight committee to investigate the sheriff's costly overruns.

Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, pleaded with fellow council members not to delay payments.

He said it would be unfair to businesses that already have provided products and services to the county. "I would have to have the government turned over to a collection agency," Bilski said.

Councilwomen Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, and Elsie Franklin, D-Gary, said it was unfair to single out the sheriff for overdue bills when others did the same.

The council did agree Tuesday to pay 2016 bills totaling about $5,300 for the county fairgrounds director, recorder, elections board, coroner, juvenile court and the economic development department.

The sheriff didn't appear before the council Tuesday, but did write a letter last week arguing his bills were emergencies due to a surge of additional jail inmates and unforeseen equipment and auto repairs.

Council members Dan Dernulc, R-Highland; David Hamm, D-Hammond; Eldon Strong, R-Crown Point; and Jamal Washington, D-Merrillville, voted against any payment of the sheriff's late bills until the oversight committee look into them.

Dernulc said they had given the sheriff all the money he requested last year.

Washington said he sponsored the ordinance establishing a seven-member oversight committee that will have subpoena powers to "determine the cause of budget shortfalls and the lack of timely payment of invoices and related budgetary issues."

Hamm, Strong and Washington will serve on the investigative body as would two from the Lake County Board of Commissioners, one from the county auditor as well as the sheriff's bookkeeper.

The council also voted to give the Lake County Board of Commissioners permission to seek bids from private real estate firms to commercially develop about 6 acres of the Lake County Government Center's lawn at 93rd and Main (Taft) Street.

The land has remained an open field since the county government center opened at this site 43 years ago.

Commissioners attempted in 2015 to interest a developer in the site. Hawk Development of Crown Point offered to entice fast-food and service station tenants to locate on the Main Street frontage, but commissioners declined to act at that time.









Council in pursuit of sheriff's runaway spending
NWI Times
Feb 10, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/council-in-pursuit-of-sheriff-s-runaway-spending/article_2dc740c9-d1c9-5548-a26a-22435a3729b3.html
CROWN POINT — The Lake County sheriff is in trouble again for overspending his department's budget.

Melanie Dillon, the sheriff's supervisor of bookkeeping, asked the Lake County Council on Thursday during a workshop meeting for $179,700 to pay for food, cleaning, the purchase of police uniforms and repair services vendors provided late last year.

"We ran out of money," she said when asked why she didn't pay these bills earlier.

Buncich didn't appear before the council. He has been absent from council meetings since being indicted in November on federal bribery and fraud charges. He is pleading not guilty and awaiting trial.

Councilman Jamal Washington, D-Merrillville, said, "Now we have to find this from the 2017 budget. To me, that is an insult. This is an ongoing thing, and I'm not taking this lightly."

Councilman Eldon Strong, R-Crown Point, said there is little point in drawing up an annual budget if the sheriff spends more than his allotment and comes back to the council month after month with bills.

The council didn't indicate whether it would vote at Tuesday's regular meeting to find more money to meet this shortfall.

"Our patience is running out," Strong said.

A year ago, the council dressed the sheriff down for medical bill overruns for county jail inmates that approached $2 million. An angry council transferred the sheriff's financial duties on medical bills to a consultant.

Councilman David Hamm, D-Hammond, said the council may have to ask the Lake County Board of Commissioners to take over non-medical accounting for the sheriff.

The council is set to vote Tuesday to override a veto by commissioners last month of the council's policy to require officeholders to get the council's permission to fill job vacancies.

The council hopes to use the money saved from delaying new hirings to give employees a pay raise,

Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, said the policy didn't apply to public safety employees, who comprise the largest number of county employees, and created needless paperwork for other officeholders.

The council also is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a resolution supporting victims of domestic violence and establishing a policy to encourage minority and women's businesses.

Council members Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, and Washington have proposed an ordinance encouraging county government to solicit work from vendors who have certified themselves as minority and women's businesses.









Judge shoots down request to return sheriff's guns
Guns.Com
February 09, 2017
guns.com/2017/02/09/judge-shoots-down-request-to-return-sheriffs-guns/"/judge-shoots-down-request-to-return-sheriffs-guns
A federal judge Wednesday denied Sheriff John Buncich’s request to have his guns returned.

Magistrate Judge Paul Cherry ruled that Buncich, indicted in November for public corruption charges, could not alter the conditions of his release to have his firearms returned.

The Chicago Tribune reports Buncich’s attorneys had argued that Buncich, a sheriff in Lake County, Indiana, needed his firearms while on duty. The U.S. Attorney’s office disagreed, saying agents had never seen Buncich carrying a firearm.

Buncich’s attorney Bryan Truitt said the government’s argument was completely false and that his client always carried a gun while on duty.

“This is false. Buncich wore a firearm continually throughout his service as sheriff,” Truitt argued in his response. “He kept a gun in his pocket as well as his sock. He always was armed with a service weapon.”

When Buncich was released on bond in November, federal authorities took his firearms away, and the U.S. Attorney’s office has argued that federal law prohibits Buncich from possessing guns since he is under indictment.

Truitt responded that the government has not taken into account the fact that the sheriff is not charged with a violent crime and argued Buncich does not pose a dangerous threat to himself or the community.

Buncich was charged with wire fraud and bribery last year for allegedly taking thousands of dollars of bribes into his campaign fund, Bunchich’s Boosters. Former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were also named in the multicount indictment.








Sheriff Buncich - Court Order denying Buncich's request to posses firearms
US District Court - Northern District of Indiana - Hammond Division
Case 2:16-cr-00161-RL-PRC
February 08, 2017










Judge denies request to return sheriff's guns
Post-Tribune
February 07, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-guns-ruling-st-0209-20170208-story.html
A federal judge Wednesday denied Sheriff John Buncich's request to have his firearms returned.

Judge Paul Cherry ruled that Buncich, who was indicted in November on public corruption charges, could not amend the conditions of his release to allow the return of his firearms, which his attorney argued he needs to perform his duties. Shortly before the judge's ruling came down, Buncich's attorney, Bryan Truitt, pushed for the U.S. Attorney's Office to release documents seized from the sheriff that are needed to prepare his defense.

"The delay in returning Sheriff Buncich's belongs is hindering the preparation of the defense," Truitt wrote, in a motion. "Additionally, it is making it impossible for him to timely prepare and file campaign disclosure forms, income taxes and provide helpful evidence to his attorneys."

Federal authorities seized documents and other material from both Buncich's office and Crown Point home in November, according to court documents, and Truitt said he's repeatedly asked for copies of that material.

Aside from Buncich's personal documents, Truitt said the defense team has not received any other information on what the U.S. Attorney's Office plans to present at the trial, including more than 45 DVDs and CDs of recordings.

Tuitt said the U.S. Attorney's Office has not turned over a single document during the discovery process and the trial is tentatively set to begin in April.

"…Whether intended or not, this delay is providing the government with an unfair advantage and would result in a trial by ambush should this case proceed in April," Truitt's motion read. "Sheriff Buncich is effectively being denied his ability to defend himself."

Truitt previously raised concerns that the U.S. Attorney's Office was not disclosing discovery material in a timely fashion in a prior motion. Truitt said federal attorneys' opposition to the request for the release of Buncich's firearms was an attempt to get him to accept a plea agreement.

"This is a continued attempt at intimidation to attempt to gain a guilty plea from Buncich; combined with withholding his personal belongings and not providing Rule 16 discovery items to the defense," Truitt wrote, in a motion.

Truitt asked a federal judge to amend the conditions of the terms of the sheriff's bond, which would allow the return of his firearms. When Buncich was released on bond, federal authorities confiscated his firearms.

Truitt argued, in the motion, that Buncich needs access to firearms to perform his duties as a law enforcement officer, and that he's not been charged with a violent crime and does not pose a danger to himself or others.

Federal authorities on Friday questioned Truitt's contention, according to court documents, and stated that during their three-year investigation, they never observed him carrying a firearm.

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.








Judge: No guns for Sheriff Buncich
NWI Times
Feb 8, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/judge-no-guns-for-sheriff-buncich/article_1ad8b44a-0d65-57c1-bd6a-5982a4cb535c.html
HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich will have to carry on without his side arms.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Paul R. Cherry denied Wednesday a request by the county's top law enforcement officer for the return of his personal firearms.

Cherry made Buncich surrender them as a condition of releasing him on bond following a federal grand jury indictment alleging the sheriff solicited and received campaign contributions from towing firms in return for business from county police.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to the fraud and bribery counts.

Bryan M. Truitt, who is defending Buncich, argued late last month that Buncich, who has served 40 years in law enforcement and has won election as sheriff four times since 1994, "needs his firearms to carry out his employment."

The U.S. attorney's office stated earlier this month the sheriff hadn't been seen using a gun before his indictment and doesn't need one now. Truitt responded last week the sheriff was carrying concealed weapons.

The judge didn't offer a reason for his decision, which could remain in place until Buncich goes to trial, which could be as early as April 10.

Truitt said Wednesday, "We obviously disagree but respect the judge's decision. We feel a sheriff needs his gun. This isn't Mayberry."

Truitt also requested Wednesday the court order the U.S. attorney's office to provide the sheriff with copies of documents the FBI seized during a raid Nov. 10 of the sheriff's office and home in Crown Point.

Truitt argues the government's refusal to turn over the papers in question, "is making it impossible for (Buncich) to timely prepare and file campaign disclosure forms, income taxes and provide helpful evidence to his attorneys."

Truitt states the government also has yet to identify all of their witnesses against Buncich or release to the defense approximately 45 video and audio discs of evidence.

The judge hasn't ruled on this defense motion.








Lake County, Ind., sheriff wants his guns returned while fighting bribery charges
Post-Tribune
February 07, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-guns-release-st-0206-20170206-story.html
Attorneys continued to spar over the release of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's guns on Monday, arguing that federal authorities' opposition to the request is retribution for the sheriff not taking a plea deal.

The U.S. attorney's office filed a motion Friday in opposition to the release of the sheriff's guns and questioned the necessity of his having a service weapon since agents never saw him carrying a weapon, according to court documents.

But attorney Bryan Truitt said, in a response filed Monday, Buncich always carried a weapon while on duty.

"This is false. Buncich wore a firearm continually throughout his service as sheriff," Truitt wrote in his response. "He kept a gun in his pocket as well as his sock. He always was armed with a service weapon."

The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on the filings.

Truitt asked a federal judge to amend the conditions of the terms of the sheriff's bond, which would allow the return of his firearms. When Buncich was released on bond, federal authorities confiscated his firearms.

Truitt argued, in the motion, that Buncich needs access to firearms to perform his duties as a law enforcement officer, and that he's not been charged with a violent crime and does not pose a danger to himself or others.

Federal authorities Friday questioned Truitt's contention, according to court documents, and stated that during their three-year investigation, they never observed him carrying a firearm.

The U.S. attorney said that since the sheriff is under indictment, federal law prohibits him from taking possession of firearms, and taking possession of the guns he surrendered in November would violate that statute, court documents said.

In Truitt's response, he said that federal authorities did not address the fact that Buncich is not charged with a violent crime and does not pose a danger to himself or the community, and are attempting to bully the sheriff into pleading guilty.

"The facts are so different than Buncich's request as to only expose the vindictiveness and desperation of the government because Buncich won't plead guilty," Truitt's response read. "He won't plead guilty because he is not, in fact, guilty of anything."

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records.

All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

"Buncich persists in his innocence and as a result the government opposes his motion, has not provided any discovery and refuses to release his personal documents (either original or in copy)," Truitt's response said. "The government cites no risk of non-appearance or public safety in its opposition. It makes a ludicrous argument that if he takes possession of items taken from him (which he possessed and properly owned at the time of indictment), he is violating federal law."

"That the government's response, on its face, belies the frivolity and meritless nature of their position," Truitt wrote. "This is a continued attempt at intimidation to attempt to gain a guilty plea from Buncich."









Sheriff fires back at federal prosecutor over gun
NWI Times
Feb 6, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/sheriff-fires-back-at-federal-prosecutor-over-gun/article_603ed4ed-be69-512e-9017-65b8839cd4ae.html
CROWN POINT — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich says he doesn't need a holster to be packing.

A lawyer for Lake County's top law enforcement officer told a U.S. District Court judge Monday that Buncich has been carrying a concealed weapon in the past and needs his guns back now.

Buncich is pleading not guilty and awaiting trial on felony fraud and bribery charges alleging he solicited and received campaign contributions from towing firms seeking business from county police.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Paul R. Cherry required Buncich Nov. 18 to surrender his firearms and passport as a condition of releasing Buncich on bond.

Bryan M. Truitt, who recently took over Buncich's defense, said Buncich's previous attorney didn't object to the condition of bond at the time. Truitt made a request for the guns late last month, arguing Buncich needs them to carry out his employment.


Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson, who is opposing the weapons' return, stated to the court last week that federal investigators kept Buncich under observation for nearly three years and never saw Buncich carrying a firearm.

Truitt responded Monday in a court filing, "Buncich wore a firearm continually throughout his service as sheriff. He kept a gun in his pocket as well as his sock."

Truitt argues the government is trying to intimidate Buncich, "because Buncich won’t plead guilty. He won’t plead guilty because he is not, in fact, guilty of anything."

The court has yet to rule on Buncich's firearms request.








PODCAST: Byline - Fixing corruption's mark on NWI
NWI Times
Kale Wilk, Digital Producer
February 06, 2017
nwitimes.com/digital/audio/byline/podcast-byline---fixing-corruption-s-mark-on-nwi/audio_0372c6a9-083c-571e-80c3-ad00e4a2e6fa.html


Northwest Indiana politics, particularly in Lake County, has a rough history. It's marked by its highs, but also by its lows as civic leaders go down in history and besmirch the Region's reputation. Although their trials haven't started, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder's recent indictments haven't helped the Region's perception. What is the fix for stopping the temptations in public corruption? Byline examines a mix of efforts at both the local and state levels as well as even the newspaper's role in making ethical decisions commonplace.









Public officials' conduct matters
Post-Tribune
Feb 03, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/opinion/ct-ptb-editorial-public-officials-conduct-st-0205-20170203-story.html
Disenchantment with Northwest Indiana's elected officials who stand accused of public corruption or have admitted to breaking the law is ratcheting up.

Finally.

Don't expect resignations from Portage Mayor James Snyder, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich or Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington anytime soon. All have come under fire recently for failing to step aside from their public service jobs. Yes, they have no legal obligation to do so, and let's not forget they likely will need deep pockets to pay off attorney bills. So those taxpayer-funded paychecks might come in handy.

Sadly, as calls for their resignations echo throughout the region, this trio seem steered by moral compasses that point toward their own self-interests, not those of the citizens and communities who elected them.

Taxpayers should expect public officials to conduct themselves properly, follow the law and — at the very least — not put themselves in compromising positions.

Yet, here we are.

It's the right time for a strong public outcry. Loud voices and protests can lead to change.

Snyder, a second-term Republican in Porter County's largest city, is rejecting calls from his City Council to resign, or even to just stay away. According to public records, the Portage mayor earns $53,466 from the city and $30,000 annually as chairman of the Utility Service Board. He is accused in federal court of taking a $13,000 bribe in exchange for a city towing contract. He's also accused of obstructing IRS laws in connection with his personal and business taxes. He has pleaded not guilty.

"No Resigning!" was Snyder's crisp retort in an email after returning with his wife and four kids from a trip to President Donald Trump's inauguration that he billed to taxpayers. Snyder took along a security detail that included the Portage police chief and assistant police chief. The trip's total cost to taxpayers was at least $2,692. You're welcome, mayor.

Buncich, the most powerful Democrat in Lake County, who pulls in $143,926 annually, must not see much reason to walk away from that paycheck, either. The sheriff is facing a multicount indictment alleging he took bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund from a towing contractor who sought the county's business.

Buncich also isn't leaving his post as chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party. Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., a Buncich critic, and Lake GOP Chairman Dan Dernulc, a Lake councilman, issued calls for Buncich to resign.

Buncich, who remains free on bond while he oversees the county's largest law enforcement unit, is asking a federal judge to return his firearms. He contends the weapons are necessary to carry out his duties as sheriff. Buncich has pleaded not guilty and faces an April trial.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Charlie Brown, a Gary Democrat, said last week that Washington should step down as a Lake County councilman following his December guilty plea to misdemeanor charges of battery and invasion of privacy.

Brown rightfully called for Washington to resign. "Washington's actions are distasteful to not only women but to anyone else who respects women," Brown stated.

Both of Washington's charges were bargained down from felony strangulation counts. Washington admitted to "losing his cool" in an argument with his wife and pushing her. His sentence of one year was suspended, and he's serving a year on probation.

Washington, who earns a salary of $32,681 plus health benefits, did agree to step down from his role as vice president of the County Council, a position his fellow council members incredulously entrusted him with last month. So there's that.

Snyder and Buncich have not had their day in court, but either way, the clouds that hang over them are embarrassments to themselves and the region. Their decisions to remain in their current capacities are troubling as the public trust crumbles.

Taxpayers deserve public officials who conduct themselves in a manner that's beyond reproach. We demand it.









Feds oppose sheriff's request to get guns back
Post-Tribune
February 03, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-guns-reply-st-0204-20170203-story.html
Federal authorities on Friday questioned Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's need to have a firearm to do his job, given they never observed him carrying one at work.

The U.S. attorney's office said that during its three-year investigation into Buncich, federal agents never saw him carry a weapon during his work duties, court documents said, but the sheriff, who was indicted in November, argued that having his firearms are necessary to perform his job.

"Based on these observations, it appears that a firearm is not necessary for Buncich to carry out his official duties," the U.S. attorney's motion said.

Buncich's attorney, Bryan Truitt, last week asked a federal judge to amend the conditions of the terms of the sheriff's bond, which would allow the return of his firearms. When Buncich was released on bond, federal authorities confiscated his firearms.

Truitt argued in his motion that Buncich needs access to firearms to perform his duties as a law enforcement officer and that he's not been charged with a violent crime and does not pose a danger to himself or others.

"During the initial hearing, defendant did not inform the court he needed a gun to perform his job. In fact, he did not dispute any of the bond conditions," the U.S. attorney's motion said. "In the recent motion, defendant provided no insight into why it is now necessary to carry a gun."

The U.S. attorney said that because Buncich is under indictment, federal law prohibits him from taking possession of firearms, court documents said, and taking possession of the guns he surrendered in November would violate that statute.

"Bottom line, he needs his service weapon," Truitt said in an email, adding that Buncich had agreed to the terms so he could be released.

"His possession of firearms does not compromise his risk of non-appearance or a threat to (the) community," Truitt said. "The government suggests nothing to prevent the granting of the petition."

Truitt said there's no harm in returning the firearms, under the statute.

"The government is simply being vindictive because Buncich won't capitulate," Truitt said.

Buncich, former Lake County sheriff's Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, have been named in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty during their initial appearances in November.

Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Buncich to solicit bribes from tow truck operators for favorable treatment. In addition, Downs, in the agreement, said he submitted his resignation from the Lake County sheriff's office.

As a part of the plea agreement, Downs would cooperate with federal authorities and provide any information relative to the commission of any crime.

Buncich's trial is tentatively set to start in April.









Government's reply to accused sheriff is disarming
NWI Times
Feb 3, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/government-s-reply-to-accused-sheriff-is-disarming/article_d8c58469-0e98-56c8-8ece-19ad721cb359.html
HAMMOND — Federal prosecutors want to keep Lake County's top cop unarmed.

A defense attorney for Sheriff John Buncich petitioned a U.S. District Court judge last week for the return of the weapons he surrendered last year when he was charged with fraud and bribery.

The U.S. attorney's office responded Friday the sheriff hadn't been using a gun before his indictment and doesn't need one now.

A federal grand jury indicted Buncich Nov. 18 on felony fraud and bribery charges alleging he solicited and received campaign contributions from towing firms seeking business from county police.

Buncich is pleading not guilty and awaiting a trial, now scheduled to begin as early as April 10.

U.S. District Magistrate Judge Paul R. Cherry has released Buncich on bond under the condition he surrender any firearms and not possess while awaiting trial.

Bryan M. Truitt, who is defending Buncich, argued last week Buncich has served 40 years in law enforcement and has won election as sheriff four times since 1994, "needs his firearms to carry out his employment."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson said the government opposes their return.

"During the almost three-year investigation of this matter, at no time did agents ever observe Buncich carry a firearm on his person," he argues.

The judge has yet to rule on the request.









Lake County sheriff facing corruption case wants guns back
AP News
January 28, 2017
apnews.com/3acb4ac5ef734e019f63b9b871481f61
CROWN POINT, Ind. (AP) — An attorney for John Buncich has asked a federal judge if the indicted Lake County sheriff can have his guns back.

Buncich's defense attorney filed the petition in U.S. District Court Friday. The (Northwest Indiana) Times reports the attorney is asking for the return of weapons the sheriff surrendered last year when he was charged with fraud and bribery. The sheriff's attorney argues Buncich isn't charged with a violent crime and "needs his firearms to carry out his employment."

Buncich and others were named in a multicount indictment Nov. 18 alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes. Buncich has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

A federal magistrate released Buncich on bond with the condition he surrender firearms and not possess any while awaiting trial.









Lake County sheriff wants feds to return his firearms
Post-Tribune
January 27, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-wants-guns-returned-st-0128-20170127-story.html
As he awaits trial in April on corruption charges, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich wants the federal government to return his firearms.

Buncich filed a motion to modify conditions of his bond in U.S. District Court on Friday, seeking return of his firearms on the basis he needs them to carry out the duties of his job, according to court documents. Buncich's attorney, Bryan Truitt, said it is a small number of weapons and a sidearm is necessary to carry out his duties at the Lake County Sheriff's Department.

One of the conditions of his bond is that he is not allowed to possess any weapons, court documents stated. Buncich states in the motion that he has never been charged with a crime before and that the current charges do not involve a crime of violence.

Buncich, former Lake County Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment Nov. 18 alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff allegedly accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

Buncich, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and Downs allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty during their initial appearances in November.

Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office, admitting he cooperated with Buncich to solicit bribes from tow truck operators for favorable treatment.

Downs, who is scheduled for sentencing on March 16, has resigned from the Lake County Sheriff's Department.









Lake County sheriff wants his guns back
NWI Times
Jan 27, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/lake-county-sheriff-wants-his-guns-back/article_e89eecd9-c969-57fd-b1b1-69de17b7697b.html
CROWN POINT — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich would like his sidearms back.

A defense attorney for the sheriff is petitioning a U.S. District Court judge for the return of the weapons he surrendered last year when he was charged with fraud and bribery.

The U.S. attorney's office charged Buncich Nov. 18 with felony fraud and bribery charges alleging he solicited and received money from towing firms seeking business from county police.

Buncich is pleading not guilty and awaiting trial, which is now scheduled to begin as early as April 10.

U.S. District Magistrate Judge Paul R. Cherry released Buncich on bond on the standard condition that he surrender any firearms and not possess while awaiting trial.

Bryan M. Truitt, who is defending Buncich, filed the request for the guns' return Friday.

He argued Buncich has never previously been charged with a crime, isn't being accused of a crime of violence now, isn't a danger to others and "needs his firearms to carry out his employment."

Buncich has served 40 years in law enforcement and has won election as sheriff four times since 1994.









MARC CHASE: Tailspinning Buncich can't fix party nosedive
NWI Times
Jan 22, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/opinion/columnists/marc-chase/marc-chase-tailspinning-buncich-can-t-fix-party-nosedive/article_d166677f-452e-5d17-819c-81c4223b9bb9.html
Organizations plagued by scandal and spinning out of control need a steady pilot — a firm-handed leader to end the nosedive.

But a chief aviator can't right a swooning aircraft when his focus remains out in the clouds and not on the controls.

In many ways, aspects of the Lake County Democratic Party are descending into a lame-winged descent.

There's no better example than the recent guilty plea by Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington to charges he battered his wife.

He pleaded guilty on a Thursday in December, and then one day later had what some county officials referred to as celebratory cocktails with other county political officials and allies.

It seems Washington was happy he was able to plead guilty to misdemeanor battery to avoid the felony strangulation charges he had faced.

Then, nearly a month to the day after the guilty plea, Washington's fellow County Council members voted 4-3 to elevate what should have been a scandal-plagued untouchable to the prestige of Lake County Council vice president.

Lake County government and its penchant for political corruption notwithstanding, most of us expect more out of our leaders.

Some of us also pine for a Democratic Party leader to step in and channel World War II Gen. George S. Patton, slapping helmets to knock its soldiers back in line.

And man, have some of the county's Democrats really fallen out of line.

It doesn't get much more out of line than celebrating victory after pleading guilty to domestic battery and then having your political cronies — plus one really misguided Republican swing vote — elevate you to a position of higher power and prestige.

So where is the Patton who can smack helmets and reorient the local Democratic Party's course with a bona fide moral compass?

"Why, that hard-handed field general ought to be the party chairman," many of us likely have said to ourselves.

And to be sure, the Lake County Democratic Party Chairman John Buncich has expressed no real love, in the past, for Jamal Washington and his indiscretions.

As the county's chief lawman — Buncich also is Lake County sheriff, in addition to party chairman — one would expect Buncich to have extra motivation for dropping the hammer on Washington's embarrassments and all party members who've fed into them.

But he can't, and it's just one more reinforcement of why Buncich should abdicate his roles as both sheriff and party chairman.

By now, most of you also know Buncich was indicted in late 2016 for an alleged indiscretion of his own.

Buncich awaits a federal felony trial on charges alleging he took bribes related to towing contracts funneled through the sheriff's office.

Unlike Washington, who already had his day in court and pleaded guilty to the state battery charge, Buncich has not yet entered any pleas nor faced trial in the unrelated federal bribery case.

Buncich is presumed innocent unless proven — or pleading — guilty.

But the very nature of a federal bribery indictment creates a distraction that would render any leader ineffective.

Yet proven or not, federal indictments erode credibility in the minds of most people. That's because the Hammond-based U.S. attorney filing the charges doesn't tend to seek grand jury indictments unless he has plenty of evidence. The U.S. attorney's success rate in winning guilty convictions or prompting guilty pleas in a plethora of Region public corruption cases has been near-perfect in recent decades.

Buncich can't lead in the wake of these allegations — not his party and not his law enforcement office.

So we wait to see if a leader will emerge — someone with both the will and power to quell such extraordinary embarrassments as a wife batterer being rewarded by his peers.

We all need to be transmitting a mayday call and hoping a fit pilot from Lake County's party of power is listening.









Lake County sheriff called to step aside
NWI Times
Jan 19, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/lake-county-sheriff-called-to-step-aside/article_4b0e40fc-1b5b-50b5-a93c-3996949c3dfa.html
CROWN POINT — A former Lake County official is asking Sheriff John Buncich to take a leave of absence while awaiting trial on federal corruption charges.

Gerry Scheub, who served as county commissioner for 20 years until his defeat last fall by Republican Jerry Tippy, has written an open letter to Buncich and other Democratic leaders proposing Buncich step aside for a "retired administrative person" to take over the department's 550 employees and $30 million budget.

Scheub states in the letter, dated Wednesday, the arrangement would spare the party negative public relations, let the interim administrator give full attention to law enforcement and let Buncich concentrate on defending himself.

Buncich couldn't be reached Thursday for comment.

The U.S. Attorney's office charged Buncich Nov. 18 with felony fraud and bribery charges alleging he solicited and received money from towing firms seeking business from county police.

Buncich is pleading not guilty. His jury trial now is set to begin the week of April 10.

Scheub's letter indicates he was sending copies to Democrats in local government, the party's community chairmen and women, and precinct captains.

Scheub suggested Buncich's pay be put in an escrow account and would only be paid to Buncich if he is found not guilty. Scheub suggested the interim administrator serve without pay.









Commissioners take over tow contract administration 
Post-Tribune
January 18, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-county-towing-st-0119-20170118-story
Lake County commissioners now have control of the county's towing operations.

Commissioners signed off Wednesday on the two ordinances approved by the county council last week that transfer control to the three-man panel.

Commissioners did not take any action in proposing a new contract or making any changes to the existing contract, postponing any action until the February meeting, or possibly, an earlier special meeting if necessary.

New commissioner Jerry Tippy, R-Schererville, said he supports rescinding the ordinance that gives towing authority to the sheriff and moving the money collected from the nonreverting towing fund to the general fund. The three commissioners will be responsible for all towing contacts.

"(This means) we will continue with the original ordinance until we put something new in place," Tippy said.

He also said he would like to discuss removing the two towing companies involved in the indictment from any contract commissioners might approve.

"We've got to give that consideration," Tippy said.

The county council last week in first and second readings moved to strip responsibility of the towing contracts from Sheriff John Buncich in the wake of a towing scandal alleging bribes and misappropriation of funds.

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment on Nov. 18 alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records.

All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

Buncich and Szarmach have pleaded not guilty.

Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Buncich to solicit brides from tow truck operators for favorable treatment.

Commissioners President Michael Repay, D-Hammond, said he agrees with his fellow councilman concerning what companies may be allowed to participate in future towing contracts with the county.

He said commissioners are working on changing the contract to improve how the operation works.

The terms of the existing contract as it relates to the two operators will remain in place until commissioners approve a new deal.

"What I desire to do is professionalize the selection process … ," Repay said.

John Dull, commissioners' attorney, said work is underway to create a list of criteria for tow operators.

Officials also are working with Lake County E-911 to establish the best way to dispatch tow trucks when they are requested by sheriff's deputies.









EDITORIAL: Buncich, Snyder selfishly hold posts
The Times Editorial Board  
NWI Times
Jan 15, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/editorial-buncich-snyder-selfishly-hold-posts/article_dc7f2c86-7e55-5c11-8195-336982e2ac74.html
The Times recently reported that Lake County Sheriff John Buncich sought a continuance in his federal criminal case in which the county's top lawman faces felony bribery charges.

In court filings, Buncich argued he needed more time to prepare his defense against the criminal indictment in Hammond federal court.

If Buncich would do the right thing and resign now, he would have more time to focus on his criminal charges, which will only cause further distractions and obstacles to the important business of serving as sheriff.

We've argued this before, but it's worth restating.

Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder, who faces a separate and unrelated federal bribery case, both should resign and stop hauling their constituents through the legal distractions and drama.

Both men face unrelated felony bribery charges related to towing contracts under the stewardship of their respective public offices.

It’s only going to get worse the longer they wait to step down.

One of Buncich’s chief deputies already has pleaded guilty in the scheme and pledged to aid federal prosecutors.

In the meantime, how many local and federal law enforcement agencies will want to continue partnering — or funding — an agency run by a leader facing federal felony charges?

The Lake County Sheriff's Department, like other local police agencies, frequently relies on federal funds for various law enforcement initiatives, including overtime money for special patrols.

It's hard to fathom any branch of the federal government looking favorably on granting money to a police agency whose leader is operating under such a dark shroud.

In both the case of Buncich and Snyder, abdicating office, guilty or not, is the right thing to do for both government reputations and taxpayers.

Mounting a defense against federal criminal charges will take immense time, effort and attention. It's impossible to conceive of there being much time left to focus on the important duties they were elected to execute.

Federal grand jury indictments accuse both Buncich and Snyder of illegally enriching themselves via their public offices. It's a clear allegation of greed infecting government.

If they're interested in showing their intentions are pure — which their pleas of not guilty portend — they'll take the selfless act of resigning.

Right now, they're showing nothing by selfishness in refusing to abdicate.

Nearly two months have passed since these charges were leveled. Constituents and fellow government leaders should apply more pressure for these men to do the right thing and step down.









Sheriff needs more time to prepare bribery case
NWI Times
Updated Jan 13, 2017  
nwitimes.com/news/crime-and-court/sheriff-needs-more-time-to-prepare-bribery-case/article_237ec2a0-f0a8-5c3f-998d-9b923ebc014a.html

HAMMOND — An attorney for Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is asking for more time to prepare for a trial on bribery charges.

Valparaiso defense attorney Bryan M. Truitt, who represents Sheriff John Buncich, said he has yet to receive any of the government's evidence, which includes more than 45 compact discs containing numerous video and audio recordings.

Truitt said Valparaiso lawyer Larry Rogers is only now joining the sheriff's defense team. He said it would take at least six months to get ready for trial.

U.S. Attorney David Capp has charged Buncich, Tim Downs, the sheriff's former second-in-command, and a Lake Station towing firm owner on allegations Buncich solicited thousands of dollars in bribes and campaign contributions from towing firms.

Buncich has pleaded not guilty. Downs pleaded guilty last month to soliciting political contributions from towing firms under Buncich's order and is expected to testify against Buncich at trial.

The court postponed a pre-trial hearing that was to have taken place Friday morning, but hasn't set deadlines for the case.

Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Magistrate Paul Cherry granted a request for more time by an attorney for Portage Mayor James Snyder, who is pleading not guilty to charges of soliciting bribes for towing and public works projects.

Snyder's trial now is scheduled to begin April 10 before U.S. District Court Judge Judge Rudy Lozano.









Tow operations control shifted to Lake commissioners
Post-Tribune
January 10, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-county-towing-ordinance-20170110-story
The Lake County Commissioners now are responsible for the county's towing contracts.

The Lake County Council on Tuesday approved in first and second readings two ordinances that transfer control over the county's towing contracts to the commissioners and a second that eliminates the Sheriff Department's non-reverting tow and franchise fee fund, redirecting towing money the general fund.

Officials moved to strip responsibility of the towing contracts from Sheriff John Buncich in the wake of a towing scandal alleging bribes and misappropriation of funds.

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty during their initial appearances in November.

Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Buncich to solicit brides from tow truck operators for favorable treatment.

Dan Dernulc, R-Highland, said residents deserve to know county officials are working to improve transparency regarding the county's towing program. By stripping the program from the sheriff's department and placing control of towing contracts with commissioners, there will be more oversight.

"Now we will have three people looking at this," Dernulc said.

Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said the sheriff's department now will have to move the two staff positions and other bills paid from the non-reverting tow and franchise fee fund to the general fund to clean up the accounting. While the transition is underway, the positions paid through the fund will continue to be paid.

Resident Joe Hero questioned the oversight of the program once it is switched to the commissioners, saying without increased controls the county is setting itself up for additional trouble.

Prior to Tuesday's ordinance passing, the Sheriff's Department collected the money from towing operations and accounted for the details of the funds received, according to Lake County Auditor John Petalas. The Auditor's Office received the checks from the Sheriff's Department, according to Petalas, but didn't get any detail on what those funds were for.

Leading up to the annual audit, Petalas said the funds processed by the county would need to match with what the Sheriff's Department recorded.

Hero said the county should add language to the ordinance to provide better accounting for where the money from towing operations comes from and who is responsible for collecting those funds.

"I think that's a mistake to leave that up in the air," Hero said.









Judge agrees to move sheriff's trial to April
Post-Tribune
January 10, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-delayed-st-0111-20170110-story.html
A federal judge on Tuesday agreed to push back the trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich to April.

The sheriff, who was indicted in November on a series of corruption charges, was slated for his trial to begin Jan. 17, according to court documents, but Judge Paul Cherry consented to delaying the court proceeding until Buncich's defense team has had adequate time to prepare his defense and review information collected by federal authorities during their investigation.

Cherry, in his order, wrote that not moving the trial date would make it difficult for Buncich and his attorneys to prepare their case.

Buncich's attorney, Bryan Truitt, filed a motion last week in federal court that aimed to move the sheriff's trial from Jan. 17 to April, according to court documents, and cited the potential for needing to review "voluminous" material, including more than 45 CDs of audio and video recordings.

Truitt, in his motion, said that Buncich's defense team has yet to receive discovery material from federal authorities and would not be able to prepare for a January trial. Without being prepared, Buncich would not receive a fair trial, Truitt said.

"The government represents that the discovery is massive and the defense would not be able to sort through it all by Jan. 17, 2017, even if the same were received today," Truitt wrote.

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty during their initial appearances in November.

Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Buncich to solicit bribes from tow truck operators for favorable treatment. In addition, Downs, in the agreement, said he submitted his resignation from the Lake County Sheriff's Office.









EDITORIAL: Local party must break corruption's mold
The Times Editorial Board  
NWI Times
Jan 8, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/editorial-local-party-must-break-corruption-s-mold/article_c517e4d9-8eea-5768-84d2-4726c74f42ba.html
Protecting taxpayer dollars and repairing the foundering reputation of some Region government institutions are more important than political allegiances.

It's a simple message every Northwest Indiana resident should be delivering to political leaders, some of whom perennially just don't seem to get it.

The Lake County Democratic Party, in particular, is at an important crossroads at which a change in leadership is likely imminent in 2017.

The destructive consequences of each and every county taxpayer and political leader not pushing for a change in direction for the county's majority party of power are clear.

For generations, political allegiances in some Region government bodies have contributed to a climate in which more than 60 public officials or their connected contractors have been convicted for felony crimes against taxpayers.

It's why the Lake County Democratic Party has a chairman, who also happens to be county Sheriff John Buncich, under federal indictment for allegedly accepting bribes in a towing contract scheme related to the sheriff's office.

Misplaced allegiances, a sickness really, are why Democratic Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington is feeling little to no party pressure to resign his post after pleading guilty last month to battering his wife.

The potential crossroads for a new direction for the county's party of power comes in the likelihood that Buncich will be forcibly removed from his government office in 2017 — if he doesn't resign of his own volition.

If he is convicted or pleads guilty in 2017 of the felony bribery charges, Indiana law will automatically revoke his position as sheriff.

It would seem, at that point, his party chairmanship would be untenable as well.

Now Lake County Democratic Party members must be pushing for a new direction.

In 2016, we were disheartened to learn of some new names being bandied about in political circles as potential future party chairmen.

One of those names, Michael Pannos, surfaced when Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. suggested he would like to see Pannos take the party's reins at some point.

Pannos was central to the corrupt East Chicago administration of former Mayor Robert Pastrick. Pannos was central to a civil lawsuit, which he settled out of court in 2014, that was filed by the Indiana attorney general's office in the last decade.

The lawsuit accused Pannos and his business of enriching themselves with millions of East Chicago taxpayer revenues siphoned to his private company with little taxpayer benefit to show for it.

If this is the type of leader top party officials turn to for potential leadership, our Region is doomed to continue experiencing a cycle of corruption that's long plagued Northwest Indiana's political reputation.

Talk of Pannos being a future party leader has died down. But who else will be considered as Buncich's successor?

With one voice, all Region residents and officials, Republican and Democrat, should be demanding a strong county Democratic Party leader bent on quashing corruption at its root.

This leader should not be a current officeholder like past chairmen. It must be someone who can focus on cleaning house and promoting candidates who stand for responsible government.

It must be someone who can apply the right pressure to oust or force resignations of officials who've admitted to crimes or otherwise sullied the reputations of their offices.

Republican officials, leaders and voters in Lake County should be part of the chorus. The Democratic Party continues holding majorities in county and municipal government offices and therefore holds sway over all people within its borders.

It's time for a healthy vetting and thorough considerations of the next Democratic party leader in Lake County, and the state party should be applying pressure as well.

If the Lake County Democratic Party truly concerns itself with the needs and well being of constituents, it will get serious about selecting a future chairman who won't become the next criminally indicted politico.









Sheriff needs more time to prepare bribery case
NWI Times
Jan 6, 2017 
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/sheriff-needs-more-time-to-prepare-bribery-case/article_237ec2a0-f0a8-5c3f-998d-9b923ebc014a.html
HAMMOND — An attorney for Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is asking for more time to prepare for a trial on bribery charges.

Valparaiso defense attorney Bryan M. Truitt, who represents Sheriff John Buncich, said he has yet to receive any of the government's evidence, which includes more than 45 compact discs containing numerous video and audio recordings.

Truitt said Valparaiso lawyer Larry Rogers is only now joining the sheriff's defense team. He said it would take at least six months to get ready for trial.

U.S. Attorney David Capp has charged Buncich, Tim Downs, the sheriff's former second-in-command, and a Lake Station towing firm owner on allegations Buncich solicited thousands of dollars in bribes and campaign contributions from towing firms.

Buncich has pleaded not guilty. Downs pleaded guilty last month to soliciting political contributions from towing firms under Buncich's order and is expected to testify against Buncich at trial.

The court postponed a pre-trial hearing that was to have taken place Friday morning, but hasn't set deadlines for the case.

Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Magistrate Paul Cherry granted a request for more time by an attorney for Portage Mayor James Snyder, who is pleading not guilty to charges of soliciting bribes for towing and public works projects.

Snyder's trial now is scheduled to begin April 10 before U.S. District Court Judge Judge Rudy Lozano.











Lake County sheriff seeks delay in corruption trial
Post-Tribune
January 05, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-snyder-trials-st-0106-20170105-story.html
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich asked a federal judge to delay his trial on corruption charges.

Buncich's attorney, Bryan Truitt, filed a motion in federal court Thursday that aims to move the sheriff's trial from Jan. 17 to April, according to court documents, and cited the potential for needing to review "voluminous" material, including more than 45 CDs of audio and video recordings.

Truitt, in his motion, said that Buncich's defense team has yet to receive discovery material from federal authorities and would not be able to prepare for a January trial. Without being prepared, Buncich would not receive a fair trial, Truitt said.

"The government represents that the discovery is massive and the defense would not be able to sort through it all by Jan. 17, 2017, even if the same were received today," Truitt wrote.

Buncich, former Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment Nov. 18 alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and Downs allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty during their initial appearances in November.

Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Buncich to solicit brides from tow truck operators for favorable treatment. In addition, Downs, in the agreement, said he submitted his resignation from the Lake County Sheriff's Office.

As a part of the plea agreement, Downs would cooperate with federal authorities and provide any information relative to the commission of any crime.

During Downs' plea hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said authorities have a series of recordings between "Individual A," Downs and Szarmach that reportedly detail the scheme to solicit and collect bribes in exchange for towing jobs.

As Buncich seeks to have his trial delayed, a federal judge agreed to move the trials of two Porter county men charged with corruption.

On Wednesday, Judge Paul Cherry granted Portage Mayor James Synder and John Cortina, of Kustom Auto Body in Portage, a continuance for their trials, which were set for January. Trials are now set to begin April 10, according to court documents.

Snyder and Cortina were charged with allegedly violating a federal bribery statute. Capp said the mayor solicited money from Cortina and "Individual A" and gave them a towing contract for Portage.

Snyder received an additional bribery indictment for alleged accepting $13,000 in connection with a Board of Works contract, and allegedly obstructing Internal Revenue laws.









County poised to strip sheriff of towing authority
Post-Tribune
January 05, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-county-towing-change-st-0106-20170105-story.html
The Lake County Council moved forward with ordinances that strip authority over towing contracts from Sheriff John Buncich after allegations of his involvement in a kickback scheme with tow operators.

Councilmen David Hamm, D-Hammond, and Jamal Washington, D-Merrillville, introduced two ordinances Thursday in a council workshop: one that would strip power from the sheriff regarding towing matters and a second that would redirect any funds collected from towing the Sheriff's Department budget to the county.

The 2017 vehicle towing ordinance would give authority to award towing contracts to the Board of Commissioners instead of the sheriff, Washington said. A second ordinance would repeal and replace the sheriff's towing fee and towing company franchise fee non-reverting fund, where moneys collected from towing companies now go, and redirect those funds to the county's general fund.

Councilman Dan Dernulc, R-Highland, said the change is necessary to restore public confidence in how the county operates towing vehicles through the Sheriff's Department.

"We are trying to make sure the public, the residents have more confidence in what we are doing," Dernulc said. "The perception with the public is this is an issue. We have to get this issue resolved."

The county's move to take more control over the towing contracts follows allegations of corruption federal authorities leveled against Buncich and former Chief of Police Timothy Downs for taking bribes from tow operators.

Buncich, Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

Downs, in December, pleaded guilty and both Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Buncich said Thursday he had not seen the ordinance and declined to make a comment until he has had a chance to review the document.

"This is the first I heard about it," Buncich said.

Council attorney Ray Szarmach said the ordinances will bring the county back to the way towing was originally handled. When first approved 17 years ago, the towing ordinance gave the power to award towing contracts to the county commissioners. Over the years that changed and it was redirected to the sheriff. The council, at the request of the sheriff, created the non-reverting towing fund in 2011. Monies in that fund were used to pay for several officer positions.

Officials over the past two budget seasons have worked to move those positions out of the towing fund because the fund never generated the revenues expected. There is still at least one position being paid from that fund.

Local politicians react to federal corruption indictments of Lake, Porter officials
Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said once the ordinances are approved, any bills being paid from the non-reverting towing fund would have to be paid from the general fund. He requested a list of those payments for Tuesday's meeting.

Bilski said moving forward the best option for the county may be creating a county-run tow operation with a county-owned impound yard somewhere on the government complex in Crown Point. The operation could possibly be run through the Highway Department.

Washington agreed and said officials should take steps to conduct a feasibility study on what it would take in staffing and funds for the county to do its own towing.










Lake Sheriff could lose towing authority amid scandal
NWI Times
Jan 5, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/lake-sheriff-could-lose-towing-authority-amid-scandal/article_a3bdb6e8-b293-53a9-9d4d-81feb7b53d23.html
CROWN POINT — The Lake County Council is preparing to take towing away from the scandal-ridden Sheriff's Department.

The County Council announced Thursday at its first workshop meeting of 2017 that it is preparing an ordinance to be read as early as Tuesday removing from Sheriff John Buncich the authority to hire towing firms county police use to remove cars from public streets.

The ordinance would transfer that power to the Lake County Board of Commissioners.

County Councilman Dan Dernulc, R-Highland, said, "We are doing this because of the things that have been happening."

That is a reference to the federal investigation into towing bribery that became public Nov. 10 when the FBI and state police raided the Sheriff's Department for towing records.

A week later, U.S. Attorney David Capp charged Buncich, Tim Downs, the sheriff's second in command, and a Lake Station towing firm owner on allegations Buncich solicited bribes and campaign contributions.

The government alleges Buncich personally chose which towing firms were on the department's approved list and gave the more lucrative assignment to the firms that gave him the most money.

Buncich has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. Downs pleaded guilty last month to soliciting political contributions from towing firms under Buncich's order.

Ray Szarmach, the council's attorney, said the commissioners used to control towing contracts until the council changed the rules 17 years ago and gave it to the sheriff.

Buncich didn't attend the workshop meeting and couldn't be reached Thursday for comment.

Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, said Thursday, "I welcome this." He said the commissioners will be preparing specifications similar to those used by state police to ensure only the most qualified towing firms work for the county.

The ordinance states a qualified towing firm must be open for business 24 hours a day and carry at least $1 million in liability insurance.

"We may want them to have a certain number of trucks or have been in business for a certain length of time," Repay said.

Repay said he would expect commissioners to debate and hire towing firms at public meetings. Buncich had named approved towing firms without any public input.

The ordinance also will take from the sheriff's department the $50 "franchise fee" towing firms pay to the county for each vehicle they remove. The sheriff said in the past he has been using those fees, which have brought in between $160,000 and $200,000 a year to pay the salaries of some county police officers.

The ordinance would direct the fees to the county's general fund, where most of the county's money is held.

The Portage City Council is looking at measures to make the process of choosing towing firms for their community more transparent.

The U.S. attorney also charged Portage Mayor James E. Snyder late last year with soliciting and receiving $12,000 in bribes in exchange for a towing contract with the city of Portage. Snyder is pleading not guilty.









EDITORIAL: Resolve to push out corruption, promote civility
The Times Editorial Board  
NWI Times
Jan 1, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/editorial-resolve-to-push-out-corruption-promote-civility/article_9ac1aa89-c933-5303-a8bf-9236f2b7bf85.html
Looking ahead with hope is one of the greatest opportunities a new year provides.

If 2016 is any indication, the Region has much to look forward to.

Here are a number of things Northwest Indiana, its leaders and citizens should resolve to work toward or realize in 2017:

Losing the chip
Our Region is notorious for its "us against them" mentality when it comes to relations with Indianapolis, state leaders and just about any other neighboring state or region.

Let 2017 be the year when the collective chip on our shoulders diminishes.

Northwest Indiana enjoys the economic and social benefits of a world-class city to our north with a far more attractive tax rate than Chicago — or our Illinois neighbors as a whole.

The Region hotel industry is booming, home construction is strong and our opportunities for economic growth remain within reach.

We enjoy one of the most beautiful freshwater coastlines in the world, with all of the recreational and natural resource benefits.

Region leaders from Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties are beginning to click with the important notion of our connected borders, economies and the need to share resources and ideas.

We have nothing about which to feel inferior. Lose the chip.

Clean government house
Despite the growing number of Region positives, a strong negative remains in some government leaders who believe public service is synonymous with self-enrichment.

Region leaders and residents should resolve to press for the resignations of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder in 2017.

Both men face felony criminal charges in Hammond federal court in separate bribery schemes.

Guilty or not — and both will have their days in court — Buncich and Snyder should be pressured to resign by fellow public officials and party leaders.

The shroud of their criminal cases will continue to damage the reputations of their respective political offices and constituencies.

Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to battering his wife, also should be pressed to resign.

Washington pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery count, thus avoiding trial on the original felonies he faced in Porter County Criminal Court.

But our elected leaders shouldn't have the repugnant embarrassment of a battery conviction looming over local government.

Washington remaining on the council continues to send a message that battering women holds little consequence.

Commuter rail
The economic benefits of expanding the South Shore commuter rail line have been demonstrated time and again.

We know commuter rail expansion attracts young professionals and their families to communities. It also further connects existing residents with the jobs and social opportunities afforded by Chicago.

Communities not already fully on board with expanding the line to Dyer and double-tracking the Region line for speedier commutes should punch their tickets in 2017.

Civility Counts
This is a no-brainer.

Mocking people, calling them names or degrading them is bad social and political policy and shows poor character.

The Community Civility Counts initiative began as a partnership between the Gary Chamber of Commerce and The Times and has grown to a nationally recognized movement.

Resolve to strive for more civility in 2017.

It's a smarter, kinder and more thoughtful way of conducting ourselves.









Scandal and dissension racked Lake Democrats
NWI Times
Dec 30, 2016
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/scandal-and-dissension-racked-lake-democrats/article_985b8ea8-dcb2-5c83-a69f-34715379303a.html
CROWN POINT — It was a hard year for local Democrats.

Lake County Commissioner Roosevelt Allen died unexpectedly Jan. 6 after 20 years in public service. A Democratic Party caucus Feb. 3 crowned Gary City Councilman Kyle Allen as his successor.

Marissa McDermott further surprised the party in late January by announcing she would mount a rare challenge to a sitting judge and unseat incumbent Lake Circuit Court Judge George C. Paras.

Her appearance on the spring ballot set off a rancorous inter-party debate.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., the prior Democratic county chairman and Marissa McDermott's husband, chided 70-year-old Sheriff John Buncich, the current Democratic Party chairman, for a lack of party support for its youngest stars.

McDermott said it should be backing 40-year-old Marissa McDermott. Buncich rejected that story line, arguing Paras, 67, and other, older Democratic candidates were just as deserving of votes.

But Marissa McDermott's use of social media and her husband's overflowing political and financial wherewithal — $110,000 from his political war chest — staged an upset victory over Paras in May.

One party veteran had reason to cheer
George Van Til, 68, finished his 18-month federal prison term mid-year. He earlier had pleaded guilty to six counts of fraud alleging he assigned political work to his public employees in the county surveyor's office.

The summer saw the obligatory departures of town and city council members on the losing side of a fight over a new state law making it illegal to be both an elected official and employee of the same government unit.

The ban fell on Susan Pelfrey, a New Chicago councilwoman and water department manager; Michael Opinker, a Hammond councilman and fireman; Juda Parks, an East Chicago councilman and policeman; and Matthew D. Claussen, a Hobart councilman and police officer.

They sued in federal and state court, but couldn't convince a judge to overturn the law as an unconstitutional burden on their political activities.

Opinker surrendered his 5th District Hammond City Council seat, and a Democratic Party caucus selected David Woerpel, as his replacement. Pelfrey left her council seat to her daughter, Tara Pelfrey.

Parks vacated his East Chicago City Council at-large seat, and Democratic precinct committeemen named Ronald London, his successor. Matthew D. Claussen's Hobart City Council at-large seat passed to Dan Waldrop.

A giant of Lake County politics
Robert Pastrick died Oct. 29.

He was the longest-serving mayor in East Chicago history — from Jan. 1, 1972, to Dec. 31, 2004, and county chairman of the Democratic Party for a quarter of a century, but his last two elections were tainted by voting irregularities that resulted in convictions of city and party officials.

Pastrick never faced criminal charges, but a federal judge did brand Pastrick’s administration as corrupt and ordered Pastrick and former political allies to pay $108 million in damages in 2011, forcing Pastrick into bankruptcy.

Democratic control of county government suffered a body blow in the Nov. 7 general election when Republican Jerry Tippy defeated Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub.

Scheub's 20 years of experience in office couldn't overcome a Republican-inspired redrawing of commissioner district borders that robbed Scheub of much of his former voter support.

The biggest stunner of the year took place Nov. 10 when the FBI and state police raided the Lake County Sheriff's Department and Sheriff John Buncich's home for records of county police-ordered towing.

Only a week later, U.S. Attorney David Capp announced the indictment of Buncich, Tim Downs, the sheriff's second in command, and a Lake Station towing firm owner on allegations Buncich solicited bribes and campaign contributions.

Capp soon disclosed Scott Jurgensen, owner of Merrillville-based Samson’s Towing, was cooperating with the government as a witness to payments he made to Buncich. Jurgensen hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing.

Downs gave the government further ammunition earlier this month when he pleaded guilty to doing political fundraising for Buncich, under Buncich's order, while on duty and using a publicly provided police car.

Downs admitted he has been helping investigators and will cooperate in any future prosecutions in return for the government's promise of leniency.

Rumors and damage abound
McDermott said the party's reputation has suffered collateral damage from the indictment.

The year was ending in the midst of unsubstantiated rumors about more public corruption indictments or a quick exit of Buncich as sheriff and Democratic county chairman.

Buncich remains in both posts, but the party is scheduled to elect a new boss in an all-county caucus of committee members in March.

Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington was spared having to resign from office in early December when a special prosecutor dismissed felony domestic violence charges against him.

He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery and invasion of privacy over a dispute with two women, one of them his wife, at their Merrillville home.









EDITORIAL: E.C. lead crisis shows cost of corruption
The Times Editorial Board
NWI Times
Dec 18, 2016
nwitimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/editorial-e-c-lead-crisis-shows-cost-of-corruption/article_90fccb2d-b48e-5772-b87d-f056f78b5518.html
A history of public corruption paved the way to East Chicago's lead contamination crisis, and now real lives are on the line.

Northwest Indiana is no stranger to kickbacks, bribes and political corruption convictions.

More than 60 public officials or their allies and preferred contractors have been convicted of various corruption charges in U.S. District Court in Hammond since the 1980s.

Right now, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder face federal charges for bribery in separate towing schemes. Many more have been convicted of other public corruption crimes over the years.

In most of these cases, the crimes impacted taxpayers' wallets, often including the misuse of public funds or property for the personal gain of others.

Those elements were present in spades during the creation of East Chicago's West Calumet Housing Complex during the 1970s, as shown by the reporting of Times reporters Sarah Reese and Lauren Cross last week.

Resulting court testimony revealed the authority's director took more than $100,000 in kickbacks for helping steer various contracts related to the low-income housing project to friends and associates.

One of the alleged bribes was for demolishing a shuttered lead factory at the site.

It's unclear whether the bad actors associated with the complex's creation knew of the potential health risks.

But the stark reality in 2016, more than 40 years later, is a low-income housing complex that has exposed hundreds of residents, many of them children, to unsafe lead levels for decades.

The crisis has been well documented in The Times dating back to summer months.

The area is now seen as an imminent health emergency. More than 1,000 residents are being relocated, and untold health damage already has been done.

The history of the West Calumet neighborhood's creation through the fire and anvil of corruption reminds us all of an unacceptable price tag connected to unscrupulous, political greed.

The U.S. attorney's office in Hammond must continue to hunt down and weed out such elements that persist in today's political landscape.

Voters must demand, with a new and unified voice, the resignation of all who are implicated in such schemes.

Tax dollars and public resources aren't the only things at risk. Human well-being can hang in the balance.









I “Woefully” Broke the Law: LC Police Chief Tim Downs
The Northwest Indiana Gazette
Ken Davidson
December 17, 2016
nwigazette.com/2016/12/woefully-broke-law-lc-police-chief-tim-downs/
Lake County Police Chief Tim Downs became the latest in a long line of Sheriff’s officials to stand in front of a judge and admit to breaking the laws they are sworn to uphold. For his part, Downs placed the blame on Lake County’s top cop, Sheriff John Buncich. Downs said he was ordered to solicit towing companies for campaign contributions in exchange for county work. In short, he was the bagman for bribes. Downs admitted that he solicited these contributions during regular working hours, using a county provided vehicle. In fact, the charge for which he plead guilty involves wire fraud-receiving a pay check via direct deposit while not working.

The Campaign Finance:
The plea agreement mentions three specific dates-April 8, 2014, October 21, 2014 and June 3, 2015. Campaign finance reports filed by Sheriff John Buncich show no contributions on April 8, 2014. Midnight Blue Towing in Crown Point and Stan’s Auto Body Shop and Towing in St. John each appear on the campaign finance report on April 30, 2014 with a $1,000.00 contribution. On October 21, 2014 the campaign finance report shows two contributions, one from Assistant Police Chief Daniel Murchek in the amount of $200.00 and another from an individual not involved in towing. No contributions are shown on June 3, 2015 and shows only one towing related contribution on June 29, 2015. That contribution was from Z’s Incorporated, in Gary in the amount of $1,000.00

It is important to note that contributions do not equate to alleged bribes. In fact, the indictment clearly states that some contributions were listed on the campaign finance report and some were not. Buncich reported raising approximately $170,000 in 2014 and $72,000 in 2015. Notably, Buncich was re-elected in 2014 and could not run for Sheriff again. The question seems to be not only why would he be raising such a large amount of money, but more important, why would anyone be giving that much money to someone who could not run again? This is not unusual in Lake County politics but never seems to garner the attention of local or federal prosecutors.

History of Corruption:
The Lake County Sheriff’s Department has a long history of corruption in its upper ranks. Under former Sheriff Roy Dominguez, officers were selling machine gun parts out of the county building and he didn’t notice. In 2011, Lake County Officers Joseph Kumstar, Ronald Slusser and Joseph Kabella were convicted of selling barrels of guns and gun sights which were for use by the military and police only. No one has ever traced any of those gun parts and we don’t know if they ended up on the streets of Lake County or elsewhere. Again, Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter was eerily silent during the prosecution. Dominguez maintains to this day that he knew nothing about the gun-running operation which happened on his watch.

Former Lake County Police Chief Mike Mokol was convicted of taking bribes in 1991 and former Sheriff Rudy Bartolomei was similarly convicted. Bartolomei ultimately entered the witness protection program and helped to convict 18 other politicians and crony contractors.

Where do we go from here?
It is very likely that more Lake County Sheriff’s Police Officers will be indicted, or at the very least implicated, in the towing for bribes scandal. According to the plea agreement, Downs visited towing companies to collect bribes while being paid by the taxpayers. Sources close to the investigation indicate that he did not do this alone. If someone else was in the car with Downs, is that person cooperating or will that person be indicted? Is it possible the person was in the car and did nothing illegal?

We have three towing operators involved so far and we know there were at least 12 companies that did towing for the county. Will we see more indictments of towing operators? What about other contractors? Did the pay to play scheme only apply to towing company operators or did some of the other county contractors provide illegal kickbacks to the Sheriff? If the investigation broadens to other contractors, is it possible that the feds will begin to look at contributions to other local politicians? What about Mayors who had similar relationships with towing companies?

2017 is certain to be an interesting year in Lake County, Indiana.









Sheriff's top commander pleads in bribery case
NWI Times
Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328  
Updated - December 17, 2016 - 12:30AM 
nwitimes.com/news/crime-and-court/sheriff-s-top-commander-pleads-in-bribery-case/article_0fe49552-c2b9-54f0-bc2a-c88db716c4d3.html
HAMMOND — The sheriff's Chief of Police is resigning and pleaded guilty Friday afternoon to his role in the Lake County Sheriff Department towing bribery scandal.

Timothy Downs, 65, admitted to cheating the public of honest government services by using his authority within the Lake County Sheriff's Department to do political fundraising for Sheriff John Buncich while he was on duty and using his publicly provided police car.

Downs said he knew what he was doing was prohibited by county government directives, but did so under orders of Buncich.

"I did wrong, and I want to clear it up," he told U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano during a nearly two-hour hearing.

Downs admits he has previously been helping investigators and will cooperate in any future prosecutions in return for the government's promise to recommend he receive the minimum possible prison time under federal sentencing guidelines.

U.S. Attorney David Capp disclosed last month Scott Jurgensen, owner of Merrillville-based Samson’s Towing, also has been cooperating with his office as a witness to payments made to Buncich.

Valparaiso defense attorney Bryan M. Truitt, who represents Buncich, said Friday his client disagrees with the allegations contained in the plea agreement.

"Sheriff Buncich is very proud of his honest public service and his good works, and is completely innocent," Truitt said.

Downs' plea hearing comes only two weeks after the government arrested Buncich, 70, Downs and William "Willie" Szarmach, who operates CSA Towing, of Lake Station.

All three pleaded not guilty at the time to an indictment alleging they took part in the exchange of tens of thousands of dollars in illicit payments between February 2014, and last month, to enrich the sheriff and the Buncich Boosters campaign committee.

It was disclosed for the first time that some of the political contributions went to the Lake County Democratic Central Committee, which assists a number of Democratic candidates.

Buncich is chairman of the Lake County Democratic party and oversees the central committee's financial transactions.

Downs will remain free on bond. His sentencing was scheduled for March 16, 2017, but could be delayed until after all the trials in the case are finished to ensure his continued cooperation.

Downs, who had served as Buncich's second-in-command since 2011, said he soon became aware the sheriff was using his control over the department's tow list to extract political contributions and cash bribe payments in exchange for favorable treatment for certain Lake County towing firms.

Buying more tickets assured more business
Downs said the more fundraising tickets a firm bought, the more lucrative business they could expect from county police.

Downs said he sold the tickets during regular business hours using his government-provided sheriff's vehicle.

He said he didn't keep any of the money himself, but instead turned over more than $22,000 in cash and checks to Buncich and kept track of who bought tickets, and how many.

"Oftentimes, the owners of these companies did not even want the fundraising tickets or take physical possession of them, but simply wanted to make sure that the sheriff knew that they had contributed to his fundraiser," Downs said.

Downs said he later learned that many of the cash payments weren't recorded on the sheriff's campaign finance report as required by law.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson indicated a lot of the evidence against Downs was collected by Jurgensen, who recorded conversations among Downs, Szarmach and himself.

Benson recited evidence from the recordings that Downs promised Jurgensen and Szarmach a bigger share of the "heavies," a reference to towing tractor trailers stopped on Cline Avenue and found in violation of state weight restrictions.

Benson said the towing firms wanted assurances from Downs there would be enough trucks stopped and towed to make a larger profit for the towing firms.

Benson said Downs is overheard saying, "Don't worry. We are going to take care of you." One of the tow truck drivers said, "One every week would be fine." Downs replied, "We can pump that up."

Benson said towing firms that wouldn't return Downs' telephone calls about fundraising ticket sales were struck off the sheriff's list.

The conversations took place in fall 2014 when Buncich and a number of county and municipal officials were running for re-election.









Lake sheriff's 2nd-in-command pleads guilty to wire fraud
Herald - WHIG
The Associated Press
Posted: Dec. 16, 2016 7:00 am 
Updated: Dec. 16, 2016 9:01 pm
whig.com/article/20161216/AP/312169640#
HAMMOND, Ind. (AP) — The second-in-command at the Lake County Sheriff's Department pleaded guilty to wire fraud Friday in a bribery case in which the sheriff and a tow truck operator also are charged.

Chief of Police Timothy Downs admitted using his position to solicit campaign donations from tow truck operators in exchange for giving them towing contracts.

"I did wrong. I want to clear it up," Downs told U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano.

Downs, 65, also resigned Friday from the sheriff's department, ending a tenure of more than 37 years, according to court documents.

Downs said he performed political fundraising while on duty and while using his publicly provided police car on the orders of Sheriff John Buncich.

Buncich attorney Bryan Truitt said his client disagrees with the allegations contained in the plea agreement.

"Sheriff Buncich is very proud of his honest public service and his good works, and is completely innocent," Truitt said.

Buncich, Downs and William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station were named in a multicount indictment last month alleging the sheriff accepted more than $32,000 in bribes for towing contracts. All three were charged with wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also were charged with bribery. Buncich and Szarmach have pleaded not guilty.

Downs said he sold fundraiser tickets to tow truck operators and would meet with them to make those transactions.

"The more they bought, the better they were treated," Downs said.

Downs said he has been helping investigators and will cooperate in any future prosecutions in return for the government's promise to recommend he receive the minimum possible prison time under federal sentencing guidelines. Downs also could face up to 20 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine for the crime, said Lozano, who took the plea agreement under advisement.









Lake County chief pleads guilty to corruption charge
Post-Tribune
December 16, 2016
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-county-downs-plea-st-1217-20161216-story.html
Judge Rudy Lozano had a question for Lake County Sheriff's Department's chief of police Friday as Timothy Downs pleaded guilty to a wire fraud charge: "Why?"

"I did wrong. I want to clear it up," said Downs, during a court hearing at U.S. District Court in Hammond. "I'm in fact guilty."

Downs, 65, pleaded guilty to a count of honest service wire fraud, using his position at the Sheriff's Department to solicit campaign donations from tow truck operators in a scheme to give more territory to those companies in exchange for the money, according to court documents.

Downs resigned Friday from the Lake County Sheriff's Department, ending a more than 37-year career with that agency, court documents said.

U.S. Attorney David Capp announced charges against Downs, Sheriff John Buncich and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing, at a Nov. 18 press conference.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach were named in the multi-count indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three were charged with wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach were also charged with bribery.

Buncich, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and Downs allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in the 14-page indictment.

Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges during their initial appearances.

Downs said he sold fundraiser tickets to tow truck operators and would meet with them to make those transactions.

"The more they bought, the better they were treated," Downs said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said authorities could prove Downs' role in a series of transactions with tow truck operators, and "Individual A" provided them with a series of meetings between himself, Downs and, on occasion, Szarmach.

Benson said, on one occasion, Downs met with "Individual A" to collect money -- $2,000 in checks and $500 in cash.

As a part of the plea agreement, taken under consideration by Lozano, Downs would cooperate with federal authorities and provide any information relative to the commission of any crime.

"Is that what you want to do?" Lozano asked.

"Absolutely, your honor," Downs said.

Downs could face up to 20 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine for the crime, Lozano said. The judge acknowledged that the U.S. attorney could seek a lower sentence based on Downs' compliance with the terms of the agreement, though that would ultimately be Lozano's decision.

"Even though I knew it was in violation of the law to accept direct cash payments or campaign contributions in exchange for favorable towing contract consideration, I did so to continue receiving my salary as chief of police for the Lake County Sheriff's Department," Downs said in court documents.









Sheriff's No. 2 takes plea deal, agrees to testify
NWI Times
Dec 16, 2016 
nwitimes.com/sheriff-s-no-takes-plea-deal-agrees-to-testify/article_549c18ae-12e8-5658-94c8-5f2ee414538c.html
HAMMOND — The Lake County sheriff's second-in-command, Timothy Downs, was cooperating with federal officials before they indicted him, Sheriff John Buncich and a towing operating last month on corruption charges.

A plea agreement says Downs resigned Thursday from the Sheriff's Department after attorneys filed the document in U.S. District Court.

In the plea agreement, Downs says Buncich ordered him to sell campaign fundraising tickets to towing companies and collect cash or checks from some of the owners.

Downs knew such activities were illegal, but did it to continue receiving his salary from the department, court records say.

As part of his plea deal, Downs agreed to testify during any grand jury or judicial proceedings.









LC Police Chief Downs to Plead Guilty
The Northwest Indiana Gazette
Ken Davidson
December 16, 2016
nwigazette.com/2016/12/lc-police-chief/
“The government acknowledges that I have furnished pre-indictment cooperation with the investigation of this case”-Plea Agreement signed by Lake County Police Chief Timothy Downs

December 15, 2016-Lake County Police Chief Timothy Downs has agreed to plead guilty to one count of honest services wire fraud in connection with the Sheriff’s towing scandal. Downs was charge along with Sheriff/Democratic Party Chair John Buncich in a multi-count indictment on November 17, 2016. The timing of the agreement is a surprise, but most surprising is a statement that Downs was working with federal officials prior to the charges in this case. “The government acknowledges that I have furnished pre-indictment cooperation with the investigation of this case.”

Downs provides details as to the towing for cash scandal the Government has alleged:
"At all times between approximately February of 2014, and continuing through August of 2015, I knew the following to be true:
Between the above dates, I served as the Chief of Police for the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff John Buncich appointed me to the position when he took office in 2011. I continually served in that position until the filing of this plea agreement. Upon the filing of this plea agreement, I am tendering my resignation to the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.

In my capacity as Chief of Police, I became aware that the Sheriff was using his control over the Sheriff’s Department tow list to extract political contributions and cash bribe payments in exchange for favorable treatment for certain Lake County towing firms. Pursuant to a County ordinance, the Sheriff had exclusive control and authority to determine who provided towing services for Lake County when County Police officers needed to tow a vehicle. Under the Sheriff, the Lake County tow list contained between approximately 10 to 12 tow firms. Each tow firm operated in a specific region of Lake County, and was obligated by contract to pay certain fees to the County for each tow provided at the request of the Sheriff’s officers.

As time progressed under the Sheriff, it became apparent that in order to get on the Lake County tow list, stay on the list, or obtain additional towing area, a tow company owner had to contribute to the Sheriff’s fundraisers. I was directed by the Sheriff to sell campaign fundraising tickets to the various towing companies working for Lake County. As part of this process, I would go to meet the various owners of these tow companies, deliver the tickets, and collect either cash or checks from some of the owners. Although I did not want to sell the fundraiser tickets, or collect the proceeds for these tickets, the Sheriff directly ordered me to engage in these activities, even though they were in direct contravention of County policy directives prohibiting such activity. Some of the tow owners paid the Sheriff directly. I sold these tickets during regular business hours using my government provided Sheriff’s vehicle. After getting this money, I would deliver the checks or cash to the Sheriff and provide information to him regarding who bought tickets and how many tickets were purchased by each company. Often times the owners of these companies did not even want the fundraiser tickets or take physical possession of them, but simply wanted to make sure that the Sheriff knew that they had contributed to his fundraiser.

Specifically, on or about April 8, 2014, October 21, 2014, and June 3, 2015, I obtained political contributions in the form of checks, and/or additional cash payments, in exchange for specific current or future favorable consideration regarding towing contracts for the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. I gave these checks and cash payments to the Sheriff knowing that the payments were obtained with the expectation of favorable treatment regarding towing for Lake County.

Even though I knew it was in violation of the law to accept direct cash payments or campaign contributions in exchange for favorable towing contract consideration, I did so to continue receiving my salary as Chief of Police for the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. I continued to receive my Lake County Sheriff’s Department salary while accepting these bribe payments, even though at times, rather than enforcing the law I was breaking the law. I later came to learn that many of the cash payments I gave to the Sheriff were not recorded on his campaign finance report as required by law.

I further acknowledge that I was accepting bribe payments in the form of campaign contributions or cash, and giving these payments to the Sheriff,during the time period listed in Counts 1-3 of the indictment, while I was being paid my Lake County Sheriff’s Department salary via electronic direct deposit.

The plea agreement must be accepted by the Court and is contingent on Downs’ continued cooperation. The charge of Honest Services Wire Fraud carries a term of up to 20 years in prison. According to the Agreement, the parties agree that the sentencing range pursuant to federal guidelines will apply. Without cooperation, the guidelines would provide a sentence in the range of 41-51 months. Based on the severity of the offense, it is likely that Downs will still see significant incarceration even with cooperation.









Lake County chief to plead guilty to bribery charge
Chicago Post Tribune
Craig Lyons
December 16, 2016 - 8:24AM
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-county-downs-plea-st-1217-20161216-story.html
A northwest Indiana police chief pleaded guilty Thursday to accepting bribes in a towing scheme and resigned his position with the county.

Lake County Chief of Police Timothy Downs struck a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's office, which a federal judge has not yet accepted, admitting he allegedly cooperated with Sheriff John Buncich to solicit brides from tow truck operators for favorable treatment.

In addition, Downs, in the agreement, said he submitted his resignation from the Lake County Sheriff's Department.

Downs said he sold fundraising tickets to tow truck operators, according to court documents, and took both cash payments and checks from the businesses.

"Even though I knew it was in violation of the law to accept direct cash payments or campaign contributions in exchange for favorable towing contract consideration, I did so to continue receiving my salary as chief of police for the Lake County Sheriff's Department," Downs said in court documents.

On Nov. 18, U.S. Attorney David Capp announced charges against Buncich, Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach were named in the multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three were charged with wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach were also charged with bribery.

Buncich, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and Downs allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in the 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich and Szarmach pleaded not guilty to the charges during their initial appearances.









Sheriff's top commander pleads in bribery case
NWI Times
Dec 16, 2016 
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/sheriff-s-top-commander-pleads-in-bribery-case/article_0fe49552-c2b9-54f0-bc2a-c88db716c4d3.html
HAMMOND — The sheriff's Chief of Police is resigning and pleaded guilty Friday afternoon to his role in the Lake County Sheriff Department towing bribery scandal.

Timothy Downs, 65, admitted to cheating the public of honest government services by using his authority within the Lake County Sheriff's Department to do political fundraising for Sheriff John Buncich while he was on duty and using his publicly provided police car.

Downs said he knew what he was doing was prohibited by county government directives, but did so under orders of Buncich.

"I did wrong, and I want to clear it up," he told U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano during a nearly two-hour hearing.

Downs admits he has previously been helping investigators and will cooperate in any future prosecutions in return for the government's promise to recommend he receive the minimum possible prison time under federal sentencing guidelines.

U.S. Attorney David Capp disclosed last month Scott Jurgensen, owner of Merrillville-based Samson’s Towing, also has been cooperating with his office as a witness to payments made to Buncich.

Valparaiso defense attorney Bryan M. Truitt, who represents Buncich, said Friday his client disagrees with the allegations contained in the plea agreement.

"Sheriff Buncich is very proud of his honest public service and his good works, and is completely innocent," Truitt said.

Downs' plea hearing comes only two weeks after the government arrested Buncich, 70, Downs and William "Willie" Szarmach, who operates CSA Towing, of Lake Station.

All three pleaded not guilty at the time to an indictment alleging they took part in the exchange of tens of thousands of dollars in illicit payments between February 2014, and last month, to enrich the sheriff and the Buncich Boosters campaign committee.

It was disclosed for the first time that some of the political contributions went to the Lake County Democratic Central Committee, which assists a number of Democratic candidates.

Buncich is chairman of the Lake County Democratic party and oversees the central committee's financial transactions.

Downs will remain free on bond. His sentencing was scheduled for March 16, 2017, but could be delayed until after all the trials in the case are finished to ensure his continued cooperation.

Downs, who had served as Buncich's second-in-command since 2011, said he soon became aware the sheriff was using his control over the department's tow list to extract political contributions and cash bribe payments in exchange for favorable treatment for certain Lake County towing firms.

Buying more tickets assured more business

Downs said the more fundraising tickets a firm bought, the more lucrative business they could expect from county police.

Downs said he sold the tickets during regular business hours using his government-provided sheriff's vehicle.

He said he didn't keep any of the money himself, but instead turned over more than $22,000 in cash and checks to Buncich and kept track of who bought tickets, and how many.

"Oftentimes, the owners of these companies did not even want the fundraising tickets or take physical possession of them, but simply wanted to make sure that the sheriff knew that they had contributed to his fundraiser," Downs said.

Downs said he later learned that many of the cash payments weren't recorded on the sheriff's campaign finance report as required by law.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson indicated a lot of the evidence against Downs was collected by Jurgensen, who recorded conversations among Downs, Szarmach and himself.

Benson recited evidence from the recordings that Downs promised Jurgensen and Szarmach a bigger share of the "heavies," a reference to towing tractor trailers stopped on Cline Avenue and found in violation of state weight restrictions.

Benson said the towing firms wanted assurances from Downs there would be enough trucks stopped and towed to make a larger profit for the towing firms.

Benson said Downs is overheard saying, "Don't worry. We are going to take care of you." One of the tow truck drivers said, "One every week would be fine." Downs replied, "We can pump that up."

Benson said towing firms that wouldn't return Downs' telephone calls about fundraising ticket sales were struck off the sheriff's list.

The conversations took place in fall 2014 when Buncich and a number of county and municipal officials were running for re-election.









County aims to give sheriff's tow contract authority the hook
Post-Tribune
December 13, 2016
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-county-towing-ordinance-20161213-story.html
The Lake County Council could soon move authority over towing contracts away from the Sheriff's Department.

Councilman David Hamm, D-1st, said an amendment to the towing ordinance would strip authority over Lake County's towing contracts from the sheriff and give that to the County Commission.

The county's move to take more control over the towing contracts follows the Nov. 18 indictments against Sheriff John Buncich and Chief of Police Timothy Downs, the department's top ranking officials, for allegedly taking bribes from tow operators.

"It's my intention to remove the towing from the sheriff and give that responsibility to the commissioners," Hamm said.

The Sheriff's Department did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Buncich, Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were named in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

Buncich, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach have all pleaded not guilty.

The county previously amended the tow ordinance, giving the Sheriff's Department the authority to select the roster of tow operators and collect the fees. The County Commissioners simply signed off on the contract based on the sheriff's recommendation.

"It's going to be more or less like it was done in the past," said Commissioner Mike Repay, D-3rd. The commissioners would likely determine a set of minimum qualifications for tow operators and evaluate how to distribute territory throughout Lake County, Repay said, but the logistics will have to be worked out later.

Hamm said the money from the towing fees, based on the ordinance revision, would go into the general fund and be under the supervision of the seven councilors and three commissioners.

St. John resident Joe Hero said he'd encourage the council to amend the ordinance to get more control and accountability over the income from tow jobs.

"You have no control over this," Hero said.

Right now, Hero said the county has private contractors collecting the fees, Hero said, and no control on how that's being paid to the county. He said the county should create a tracking system to monitor tow jobs.

"In light of what happened, that is something we will be doing," said Councilor Dan Dernulc, R-4th.









Critic calls sheriff's towing policy racial
NWI Times
Dec 15, 2016 
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/critic-calls-sheriff-s-towing-policy-racial/article_6b4d8b56-779f-54f0-b209-c2f4b9ddad01.html
GARY — City and county officials are debating whether the sheriff has any business towing residents' cars from this city's streets.

The U.S. Attorney's office is charging Lake County Sheriff John Buncich with soliciting bribes and campaign contributions from towing firms that removed cars for county police.

Buncich, who is pleading not guilty, is alleged to have awarded two bribe-paying towing firms a lucrative share in removing from Gary streets vehicles in violation of city ordinances, a job typically done by city police.

"I'm offended," Councilwoman LaVetta Sparks-Wade, D-6th, said in talking about county police targeting her impoverished constituents. "This looks like racial profiling." Gary is 90 percent black.

Lalosa Burns, a spokeswoman for Mayor Karen Freeman Wilson, said the Lake County Sheriff's Department has "the authority to tow," and the city had a memorandum of understanding with the sheriff about towing.

City council members Herb Smith, D-at large, and Ragen Hatcher, D-at large, who took office earlier this year and are rewriting the city's towing ordinances, expressed surprise that towing companies not authorized by city police were working city streets for county police.

"No one ever told me that," Smith said earlier this month. Hatcher said she was told only city police and private Gary firms were involved in towing.

Gary City Court Judge Deidre L. Monroe said her court wasn't connected to any towing by the sheriff's department.

Lake County Attorney John Dull said the sheriff can enforce state laws anywhere in the county.

County ordinance gives sheriff towing discretion?

The indictment, made public last month, alleges a county ordinance gives Buncich "exclusive control and authority to determine who provided towing services when officers working for the sheriff had the need to tow a vehicle."

It states Buncich's tow list contained between 10 and 12 firms at various times. Each firm operated in a specific region of the county.

U.S. Attorney David Capp alleges William "Willie" Szarmach, who operates CSA Towing, of Lake Station, and Scott Jurgensen, owner of Merrillville-based Samson’s Towing, made payments to Buncich and received a larger share of work in Gary and elsewhere, removing semi-tractor trailers.

Szarmach faces criminal charges in the case, but Jurgensen isn't accused of wrongdoing. The U.S. Attorney's office said he is a cooperating witness.

The indictment alleges bribes and campaign contributions, including $6,000 on or about April 22 this year. It states that within a week of the payment, Buncich "directed others within the Sheriff's Department to enforce ordinance violations in the city of Gary."

"After the original officer assigned to ordinance violations in Gary was injured, and Szarmach and (Jurgensen) began complaining about a decline in ordinance towing in Gary, Buncich assigned another Lake County patrol officer to enforce ordinance violations in Gary," the indictment said.

The sheriff's department hasn't responded to Times requests for: its general towing policies, district towing maps, district towing logs, a list of the sheriff's authorized towing companies, phone and dispatch call data for those towing companies, emails and any other electronic communications related to Lake County towing from 2010 to the present.

Lake County Councilman Kyle Allen, who was serving on the Gary City Council until earlier this year, said, "The sheriff would help the city police department with patrolling in Glen Park, Calumet Township, Ridge Road and the general area around (Indiana University Northwest) to supplement patrol responsibilities for the city police department."

Change in policy coming?

Sparks-Wade, whose district includes the city's Glen Park section, said although city officials appreciate the added presence of the sheriff's department when homicides were surging in the past, "I believe our police department is capable of doing the job to keep us safe."

She said county police "are pulling people over, and sometimes they don't get their car back. I had one constituent tell me they didn't know where their car was, and they couldn't afford the $75 the sheriff's department imposed on them to grant a release to the car and tell them where it was," she said.

The Lake County Council imposes a $75 fee on car owners and a $50 fee on towing firms for each car ordered removed by county police.

The fees collected across the county, which amounted to about $200,000 last year and at least $160,000 this year, support county police salaries. The amount of fees collected in Gary isn't known.

Allen said, "You could get pulled over by the Gary police Department and they could call a tow truck, too. I think that was the only reason the sheriff started towing cars, because he was assisting Gary police department with patrol.

"Nothing wrong with that, especially when you invite them in. Gary citizens pay taxes to county government, so they should derive some benefit from them if the benefit is public safety and the public good.

"I don't have a problem with any sheriff doing that as long as what is being done, is proper, legal and ethical," Allen said.

Sparks-Wade said she wants to review the memorandum of understanding behind the city's invitation to the sheriff.

"I heard there was one under (former) police Chief Wade Ingram and the sheriff," she said. But no one among the city's corporation counsel and Chief Larry McKinley and the Board of Works can find a written memorandum.

Sparks-Wade said, "My concern is Wade Ingram has been gone for nearly two years, so it should have been revisited with the new chief.

"Our police department is totally capable of writing ordinance violations and determining whether a car needs to be towed," she said. "Those fees and records need to be kept to ensure the city of Gary is receiving the fees they are due."









Tow operator in corruption case released
Post-Tribune
December 06, 2016
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-smarzach-gets-bond-st-1207-20161206-story.html
A tow truck operator allegedly involved in a corruption investigation in Lake County was released on bail Monday.

William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, was released on $300,000 bond after having remained in detention since Nov. 18 – the day U.S. Attorney David Capp announced a string of indictments against Szarmach, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Lake County Chief of Police Timothy Downs that alleged the three were involved in a scheme where money was accepted by law enforcement officials to bolster towing calls for certain operators.

Daniel Purdom, Szarmach's attorney, argued in a motion that the tow operator is able to post his personal property for the bond and is not a flight risk. Purdom said, in court documents, those assurances should assuage federal prosecutors.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach are named in a multicount indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

Buncich, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and Downs allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach all pleaded not guilty to the charges during their initial appearances.

Both Buncich and Downs were released on $20,000 bail, according to court records.

All three are set for trial Jan. 17, according to court records. Pretrial motions in the case are due Dec. 16 for Buncich and Downs and Dec. 20 for Szarmach, according to court records, with all three set for final pre-trial conferences on Jan. 6.

The Lake County indictments came at the same time as those for Portage Mayor James Snyder and John Cortina, of Kustom Auto Body in Portage.

Snyder and Cortina, named in a separate indictment, were charged with bribery.

Capp said Snyder allegedly solicited money from Cortina and "Individual A" and gave them a towing contract for Portage.

Snyder allegedly accepted $13,000 in connection with a Board of Works contract and obstructed tax laws by impeding the government's collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC.

Snyder and Cortina are set for trial Jan. 23, court records show. Pretrial motions are due on Dec. 16, according to court records, and a final pretrial conference is set for Jan. 13.









Man released on bond in public corruption case
NWI Times
Dec 5, 2016
nwitimes.com/news/local/lake/man-released-on-bond-in-public-corruption-case/article_e6484d5d-f400-57d7-8785-6893ef825812.html
HAMMOND — A towing firm operator, accused of paying bribes to Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and his second-in-command, was released on bond Monday.

William "Willie" Szarmach, operator of CSA Towing of Lake Station, was released on $300,000 bond secured by property he owns. He also must surrender a Lake County Sheriff's badge along with his passport and cannot have any firearms at his residence. Various law enforcement agencies issue honorary badges, although the practice can be controversial.

"The badge may be evidence in this case," Assistant U.S. District Attorney Philip Benson told U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Cherry at Monday's detention hearing for Szarmach.

Cherry also said that Szarmach is restricted to travel within the Northern District of Indiana and Illinois and is to have no contact with potential victims or witnesses in the case. He left the federal courthouse in Hammond shortly after the hearing.

Buncich and Timothy Downs, chief of police for the sheriff's department, are accused of wire fraud and receiving $34,500 in illicit cash payments. Szarmach, Buncich and Downs pleaded not guilty last month to the government charges.

Last month's indictment alleges that between February 2014 and October of this year Buncich set in motion a scheme to enrich himself and Buncich Boosters, his political campaign committee. The government contends that Buncich accepted bribes allegedly from towing firms for cash and campaign contributions, although he didn't record all those contributions in his campaign finance reports as required by state law. The government said Downs collected some of the alleged bribes for Buncich.

According to the indictment, Buncich's campaign reports don't mention $12,000 in donations Szarmach and his towing firm allegedly made to Buncich.

Both Downs and Buncich were released on bond last month. 









Editorial: Indicted 3 need to take leaves of absence
Post-Tribune
December 02, 2016
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/opinion/ct-ptb-editorial-indictments-st-1204-20161202-story.html
The Constitution implicitly guards against government abusing citizens with the power of courts by guaranteeing presumption of innocence.

It's an old Common Law standard and not a figurative protection.

Evidence is tested and judged in open court proceedings before citizens are held accountable. Guilt must be proved, not assumed. Not every country grants this protection. In some nations — China, for example — the defendant must prove innocence.

For all those reasons, the three Lake County senior public officials indicted in November for public corruption and bribery cannot only post bond and be released from jail but also keep functioning in their careers.

Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs and Portage Mayor James Snyder are free to conduct their lives until a court says otherwise.

But for the good of those they have sworn to serve, all three should step away from their jobs and take a leave of absence. At the very least, they should turn the authority of enforcing the law and managing a city over to others until charges are proved or disproved.

Such a move does not require they admit guilt, but only acknowledges that leadership imposes higher duties of service.

Besides the law, implicit common sense and human nature standards apply. Those who come before all three on official business – professional colleagues or average residents - have reason to doubt them. Citizens have some right assume their servants are focused on the job, not preparing their court defense.

We do not presume the three are guilty but we do know they have damaged reputations.

Pretending as if nothing has happened that changes the nature of their jobs would be ridiculous. A sheriff and chief deputy cannot inspire confidence in the officers they lead. They cannot stand before their officers, look them in the eye and challenge their pride in upholding the law.

A mayor charged with corruption cannot address civic issues and conflicts by claiming the higher moral ground of leadership.

Both the sheriff's department and Portage city government have business to conduct and issues to resolve. Much of that management can't be put aside in the months while Buncich, Downs and Snyder prepare to defend themselves in court.

The only rational solution is for all three to step down momentarily, keep their pay and titles, but turn over duties to others who have the skill and focus to perform them.









EDITORIAL: Buncich, Snyder, Downs must resign
NWI Times
The Times Editorial Board  
Nov 27, 2016
nwitimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/editorial-buncich-snyder-downs-must-resign/article_00527b2b-9120-5739-ae5a-30529dba5bad.html
Sheriff John Buncich is a chief Lake County lawman now facing federal bribery charges. His deputy and second in command, Timothy Downs, is charged in the same scheme.

Portage Mayor James Snyder is the elected executive leader of a Porter County's largest city and is charged with felony violations of public trust.

All three men, charged in separate cases and indictments, owe it to their constituents to resign now.

Buncich also should immediately relinquish his post as Lake County Democratic Party chairman. Remaining in the post as the federal case unfolds will only continue to undermine his local party's reputation, already hobbled by the past felony convictions of a host of politicians affiliated with local Democrats.

Some lawyers and old-guard political figures may argue that the felony bribery charges all three men face are merely accusations — that they're all entitled to a trial by a federal jury of their peers.

That argument discounts the distraction that mounting a legal defense against federal felony charges will be to performing crucial duties of public service.

It also ignores the untenable reality of public officials trying to serve or govern when federal grand juries have found alleged evidence of violating public trust.

We all must consider the substance of the felony accusations while weighing an undeniable truth about nearly all public corruption indictments we've seen arise from the Hammond-based U.S. attorney's office.

In nearly every case for decades, indictments of Region political officials have led to convictions. That's because the U.S. attorney and federal investigators don't tend to pursue cases unless there's solid evidence of a crime.

Buncich and Downs are accused of wire fraud and receiving $34,500 in illicit bribes from a towing contractor conducting business for the county.

In a separate case, Snyder is charged with soliciting and receiving $12,000 in bribes in exchange for a towing contract with the city of Portage and soliciting $13,000 in bribes to influence public contracts and a Portage construction contract.

Snyder also is accused of obstructing the IRS from collecting unpaid taxes from his private mortgage business.

It's true Buncich, Downs and Snyder all are entitled to their days in court.

But that doesn't mean they should drag voters and taxpayers along with them.

If they opt to challenge these charges, as it appears they will, they'll need to focus on their legal defenses.

If they already intend to plead guilty, they're just unfairly delaying the inevitable by not resigning now.

In either scenario, Region residents will be getting short shrift.

If any of these men truly believes in public service, they must relinquish their offices without delay.









A county government history of bribery
From the FBI raids Lake County sheriff's offices series
NWI Times
Nov 27, 2016
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/a-county-government-history-of-bribery/article_6da5ef54-8a23-5c9a-8392-7209d5c5f799.html




CROWN POINT — Once upon a time, Lake County had a sheriff indicted for mail fraud.

Last week, it was Sheriff John Buncich, who has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in January on allegations he solicited and received bribes from towing firms doing business with his department.

Three decades ago, it was Rudy Bartolomei, for wide-ranging bribery solicitation.

Bartolomei, better known to his friends as Rudy Bart, cooperated with federal investigators who sent many other high-ranking county government officials to prison under Operation Lights Out.

Bartolomei’s whereabouts have been unknown since he entered the federal witness protection program in 1986 at age 62, although the rumor among political circles is that he died years ago.

But between 1976 when he was first elected a Lake County commissioner and 1985 when he resigned as sheriff following a guilty plea in U.S. District Court, he was one of the best known and most powerful politicians in Lake County.

In his younger days, he helped his mother run the family’s grocery store in Gary’s Glen Park section. He became a Democratic precinct committeeman and worked eight years in the county assessor’s office.

‘Helping people’
A Times story about the new commissioner portrayed him as having a handshake and a warm greeting for the common man. He told a Times reporter, “I’m really excited about helping people, now. Most of the time, it is people asking for help, and you do your best to help them.”

He had a jar of licorice on his desk for his many visitors.

Years later, his other side was revealed in court testimony about forcing county employees to buy political fundraising tickets and shaking down those who wanted business with the county.

A federal court document recounts Bartolomei meeting a then-up-and-coming politician, Frank A. J. Stodola, who had just been elected county commissioner in 1980 and wanted to know if rumors about county government graft were true.

It states, “Stodola approached Commissioner Rudy Bartolomei on several occasions and asked Bartolomei where the commissioners made their money.”

Bartolomei answered that the cleaning service for the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point inflated its bills to the county to cover the bribes paid all three members of the Board of Commissioners at that time.

Moving up
Bartolomei saw his opportunity to become the county’s chief law enforcement officer in 1983 when Sheriff Chris Anton died in office. A caucus of the county’s Democratic precinct committee members picked Bartolomei over Anton’s widow, Anna, to replace him.

A Times reporter asked him after his victory celebration about reports the FBI was looking into him. Bartolomei denied knowing anything about it.

Shortly after becoming sheriff, court documents state Bartolomei began offering protection to the owners of video poker machines, which were illegal at the time, but popping up at local taverns.

Bartolomei and other county police officials promised protection for those willing to pay, not knowing one of their petitioners was wearing a wire and recording conversations for the FBI.

A second federal investigation focused on Bartolomei’s stolen gun collection. U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents raided a safe in the Sheriff’s Department and seized 50 weapons and an unregistered .38-caliber handgun silencer.

After months of speculation, a federal grand jury returned a 15-count indictment against Bartolomei March 1, 1985, accusing him of:

Ordering five county employees in 1980 to assemble political signs for his re-election at public expense

Ordering three county employees in 1981 to do repair work on his summer cottage on Lake Michigan

Paying his housemaid with $2,300 from federal revenue sharing funds belonging to the county

Extorting political contributions from employees, including $650 from a heavy-equipment operator who asked Bartolomei for a raise

Bartolomei pleaded not guilty, blamed the allegations on political enemies and disgruntled county employees and wouldn’t compromise his ability to remain sheriff.

Six months later, he pleaded guilty to two felony counts, received a 28-month sentence, and was shackled and marched out of a federal courtroom.

Two months later, he was briefing federal investigators and a grand jury on the web of public corruption over which he and his fellow county officials had presided.

He would return to the federal courthouse over the years to testify as the government’s star witness, helping win convictions against a number of officials, including: County Assessor Michael Jankovich, county Commissioners Noah Atterson Spann and Frank A.J. Stodola and Michael Mokol Sr., chief of police under Bartolomei.

To protect his new identity outside the courthouse, he wore a Halloween mask resembling Skeletor, a character from the Masters of the Universe cartoons.









RICH JAMES: South county names emerge in sheriff discussion
NWI Times
Nov 26, 2016 
nwitimes.com/news/opinion/columnists/rich-james/rich-james-south-county-names-emerge-in-sheriff-discussion/article_e1a4fbfc-6a98-5fb8-8deb-00397606c760.html
Long before a federal indictment rattled the political power structure in Lake County a week ago, the 2018 campaign for sheriff was well under way.

The indictment of Sheriff John Buncich shocked many, including myself. He has been a strong sheriff since starting his second stint as the county’s top cop in 2011.

But the very sound of the word indictment does crazy things to those in political circles. It’s like a shark sensing blood in the water.

Lake County Auditor John Petalas was a calming voice last week when he said, “Everybody who knows him is holding back to see what has really happened.”

When it comes to the 2018 Democratic primary for sheriff, no one is holding back — at least privately.

The indictment has jump-started the inevitable. There are two possible paths for who becomes the next sheriff.

If a vacancy occurs, the county’s precinct committeemen and vice committeemen will select the next sheriff.

If nothing happens until the 2018 primary, Democratic voters will decide. Republicans, who haven’t won a countywide office for almost 70 years, need not apply.

Speculation is all over the board, including the return of former Sheriff Roy Dominguez.

That’s not going to happen in that Dominguez left office under a cloud when his second in command, Joe Kumstar, and other cops were indicted and convicted on gun-dealing charges.

There are two guys wishing the best for Buncich but are in the midst of running sheriff campaigns for 2018.

One is former county Councilman Thomas O’Donnell, who was planning to run for sheriff. But those plans were derailed earlier this year.

In its quest to win back the Indiana House, state Democrats convinced O’Donnell, a Dyer resident, to make a second bid for state representative against Rep. Hal Slager.

O’Donnell narrowly lost to Slager in 2012. With a loose cannon like Donald Trump heading the ballot, Democrats thought down-ballot races were ripe for picking. It was pretty good logic at the time.

O'Donnell lost, and there is a feeling now on the part of some that the party owes him its backing if he runs for sheriff. He told some that if he lost to Slager, he would be a sheriff candidate.

Then there is Schererville Police Chief David Dowling, who has been campaigning for sheriff for a good while.

He has campaign cards that read, “Responsible leadership. Quality policing.” It’s hard to argue with that. Dowling is a solid guy.

Whether it’s O’Donnell or Dowling, it would be the first time the county has picked a sheriff with roots in south county. It would signal a shift in the political power structure.









Officer praised in probe of graft
Help led to charges in Hammond area
The Journal Gazette
November 25, 2016 1:01 AM
journalgazette.net/news/local/indiana/Officer-praised-in-probe-of-graft-16499167
HAMMOND – A retired police officer was instrumental in an investigation that led to charges alleging that a northwestern Indiana sheriff, his top deputy and a mayor collected bribes in return for contracts for towing and other services, a federal prosecutor said.

United States Attorney David Capp said the voluntary cooperation and assistance of Scott Jurgenson, owner of Samson’s Towing of Merrillville, helped investigators uncover the alleged corruption, The (Northwest Indiana) Times reported.

Capp said Jurgenson spent 22 years as an officer with the Merrillville Police Department before retiring.

The indictments announced Nov. 18 name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and two owners of local tow companies – William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station and John Cortina of Kustom Auto Body in Portage.

Prosecutors allege that between February 2014 and October 2016, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach worked to enrich Buncich and his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters, through towing contracts.

Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000, often collected by Downs, in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County, prosecutors said. Buncich, who is chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party, was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015.

Snyder, a Republican in his second term as Portage’s mayor, is accused of soliciting and receiving bribes to receive contracts and obstructing the IRS from collecting unpaid taxes from his private mortgage business.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach all face wire fraud charges, while Buncich and Szarmach are also charged with bribery.

Cortina is accused of making illegal payments to Snyder and the unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage, located in neighboring Porter County.

Capp declined to immediately identify the unnamed individual, saying the federal investigation is still ongoing.

Buncich, Downs, Snyder and Cortina are free on bond awaiting trial, now set to begin in January. Szarmach remains in federal detention.









Feds: Retired officer was crucial in Indiana bribery probe
The Daily Progress
November 25, 2016 
dailyprogress.com/feds-retired-officer-was-crucial-in-indiana-bribery-probe/article_ede5d799-3964-5e71-a035-8d6e5e2bcb2f.html
HAMMOND, Ind. (AP) — A federal prosecutor says a retired police officer was instrumental in an investigation that led to bribery charges against a northwestern Indiana sheriff, his top deputy and a mayor.

U.S. Attorney David Capp says Scott Jurgenson's voluntary cooperation and assistance helped federal investigators uncover the alleged corruption.

The (Northwest Indiana) Times reports (http://bit.ly/2fcdZTN ) that Jurgenson served 22 years as an officer with the Merrillville Police Department. He's now owner of Samson's Towing of Merrillville.

The indictments announced Nov. 18 name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs and Portage Mayor James Snyder. They allegedly collected bribes in return for contracts for towing and other services.

Tow company owners William Szarmach and John Cortina were also indicted. They are accused of making payments in exchange for contracts.









Prosecutor: Retired officer crucial in Indiana bribery probe
Daily Herald
November 24, 2016
dailyherald.com/article/20161124/news/311249894/
HAMMOND, Ind. -- A retired police officer was instrumental in an investigation that led to charges alleging that a northwestern Indiana sheriff, his top deputy and a mayor collected bribes in return for contracts for towing and other services, a federal prosecutor said.

United States Attorney David Capp said the voluntary cooperation and assistance of Scott Jurgenson, owner of Samson's Towing of Merrillville, helped investigators uncover the alleged corruption, The (Northwest Indiana) Times reported (http://bit.ly/2fcdZTN ).

Capp said Jurgenson spent 22 years as an officer with the Merrillville Police Department before retiring.

The indictments announced Nov. 18 name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and two owners of local tow companies - William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station and John Cortina of Kustom Auto Body in Portage.

Prosecutors allege that between February 2014 and October 2016, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach worked to enrich Buncich and his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters, through towing contracts.

Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000, often collected by Downs, in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County, prosecutors said. Buncich, who is chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party, was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015.

Snyder, a Republican in his second term as Portage's mayor, is accused of soliciting and receiving bribes to receive contracts and obstructing the IRS from collecting unpaid taxes from his private mortgage business.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach all face wire fraud charges, while Buncich and Szarmach are also charged with bribery.

Cortina is accused of making illegal payments to Snyder and the unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage, located in neighboring Porter County.

Capp declined to immediately identify the unnamed individual, saying the federal investigation is still ongoing.

Buncich, Downs, Snyder and Cortina are free on bond awaiting trial, now set to begin in January. Szarmach remains in federal detention.









Feds: Former cop helped break bribery schemes
From the FBI raids Lake County sheriff's offices series
NWI Times
Nov 23, 2016
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/feds-former-cop-helped-break-bribery-schemes/article_ba2e6d91-9515-5be0-8e9a-55d1149dd058.html
CROWN POINT — Federal authorities are crediting a retired Merrillville police officer with coming forward to expose an alleged bribes-for-towing scheme that has engulfed the Lake County Sheriff’s Department and Portage City Hall.

United States Attorney David Capp said the voluntary cooperation and assistance of Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing of Merrillville, has been instrumental in helping federal investigators uncover corruption in the awarding of towing contracts.

He said Jurgensen was a 22-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department.

Last Friday, the government charged Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Timothy Downs, the sheriff’s second-in-command, and Portage Mayor James E. Snyder.

Buncich and Downs are accused of wire fraud and receiving $34,500 in illicit cash payments.

The government charged William “Willie” Szarmach, operator of CSA Towing of Lake Station, with paying bribes to Buncich and Downs.

The government charged Snyder with soliciting and receiving $12,000 in bribes in exchange for a towing contract with the city of Portage.

Snyder also is charged with soliciting and accepting $13,000 in bribes to influence public contracts and a construction project in Portage, and obstructing the IRS from collecting unpaid taxes from Snyder’s private mortgage business.

The government charged John Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body of Portage, with making illegal payments to Snyder.

Buncich, Downs, Snyder and Cortina are free on bond awaiting trial, now set to begin in January.

Szarmach has been in federal detention since his arrest Friday. He appeared Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Hammond to try to win pre-trial freedom too, but the matter was delayed.

Jurgensen is ‘Individual A’

The U.S. attorney identified Jurgensen’s role in the federal investigation, following a Times review of Buncich’s campaign finance records indicating Jurgensen’s towing firm was at the center of the wide-ranging bribery investigation.

Last week’s indictments mention an “Individual A” who gave Buncich and Downs $19,500 in contributions to Buncich Boosters, the sheriff’s campaign election committee.

Capp declined to immediately identify Individual A, saying the federal investigation into corrupt towing would continue.

Earlier this week, The Times obtained a 2014 campaign finance report Buncich had filed with the Lake County Voter Registration and Elections Board. Earlier this month, federal authorities subpoenaed that report along with others of Buncich dating back to 2008.

Last week’s indictments state Individual A wrote a $2,000 check to Buncich’s campaign on April 8, 2014.

Buncich’s 2014 campaign finance report states Jurgensen’s Samson Towing was the only donor to make a donation of that amount on that day.

Jurgensen could not be reached for comment.

Buncich reported receiving more than 460 donations totaling $222,000 in 2014 and 2015 from a multitude of individuals, corporations and labor organizations.

Contributions missing

But those reports don’t mention $12,000 in donations Szarmach and his towing firm allegedly made to Buncich, according to last week’s indictment.

The government is alleging Buncich hid towing-related payments from the public to cover up the bribery, and that he was illegally fundraising on government time, a prohibited activity under county government rules.

County police order thousands of cars towed annually from public streets for a variety of violations.

County government gives the sheriff exclusive authority to pick which towing firms can remove cars and charge the owners hundreds in towing and storage fees.

Buncich has used as many as a dozen towing firms, the government alleges.

The indictments state Jurgensen’s Samson Towing and Szarmach’s CSA Towing won an increasing share of the county’s towing business with their payments to Buncich and his campaign.

Last week’s indictments allege Portage Mayor Snyder accepted two bank checks of $10,000 and $2,000 earlier this year from Cortina and Jurgensen to win towing contracts for Cortina’s and Jurgensen’s firms.









Lake sheriff shelters behind his badge for now
NWI Times
Nov 21, 2016 
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/lake-sheriff-shelters-behind-his-badge-for-now/article_022ed922-5aff-5cf6-9553-0b3258813866.html
CROWN POINT — John Buncich remained Lake County’s top cop and Democratic party boss Monday as rumors about whether he would resign swirled around his office in the wake of his Friday bribery indictment.

Mark Back, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department, denied a report early Monday that the sheriff was planning a news conference. He stated, “There have been no changes to Sheriff’s Department administration.”

Party officials said Monday Buncich hasn’t indicated he would step down as chairman before a previously scheduled caucus in early March to elect the next county chairman.

Buncich didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said, “Should he step down as sheriff? Yes, but being realistic, this is his job and how he pays his bills. I don’t understand why (Buncich) would want to be chairman, anymore.”

“John has ruined the Lake County Democratic party. We were improving our reputation statewide, and this has set it back a decade. This guy can’t do his job as chairman, but will he resign? I’m not sure,” McDermott said.

Buncich has been the county’s highest elected law enforcement official from 1994 to 2002, and again from 2010 to the present. He has been party chairman June 2014.

Buncich, 70, and Timothy Downs, 65, Buncich’s handpicked chief of police, are accused of wire fraud. Buncich is additionally charged with receiving bribes.

U.S. Attorney David Capp and federal investigators allege Buncich received more than $30,000 in bribes between February 2014 and last month from towing companies wanting the sheriff’s permission to remove cars from public streets. The sheriff receives an annual salary of $143,926.32.

Both were arrested and released on bond Friday after entering not guilty pleas. Their trial is tentatively scheduled to begin Jan. 17 and could last for up to three weeks.

McDermott Jr., who clashed earlier this year with Buncich over party matters, said he has spoken with the Democratic state chairman and local elected officials about handing party affairs over to the party’s vice chairwoman, Lake County Treasurer Peggy Katona.

Lake County election officials said that if Buncich resigned as sheriff, state election laws would require a caucus of more than 1,000 Democratic precinct committee members to meet within 30 days to elect the next sheriff to serve the remainder of Buncich’s term.

Lake Elections Director Michelle Fajman and Jim Wieser, an attorney for the county elections board, said judicial vacancies are filled by a governor’s appointment, but sheriff is considered a local office to be filled by the party of the departed officeholder.

Lake Councilman Dan Dernulc, the Lake County Republican chairman, said Monday, “We are held to higher standards, and we should be, by people. When that trust is broken, it really puts a taint on all politicians. I’m not trying to say the sheriff is guilty. I don’t know, but this is another slap in the face for Lake County.”

Lake Auditor John Petalas, a longtime supporter of Buncich, said, “The vultures started circling the building minutes after that FBI raid (Nov. 10), which came out of left field. John has been a policeman for 45 years and done a lot of good things. Everybody who knows him is holding back to see what has really happened.”









January trials set for Lake, Porter officials
Post-Tribune
November 21, 2016
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-sheriff-court-dates-st-1122-20161121-story.html
A federal judge tentatively set January trial dates for the Lake and Porter county officials indicted Friday on a series of public corruption charges.

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, chief of police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, are tentatively set for trial on Jan. 17, according to court records. Portage Mayor James Snyder and John Cortina, of Kustom Auto Body in Portage, are tentatively set for trial on Jan. 23, court records show.

Buncich, Downs, Szarmach, Snyder and Cortina all pleaded not guilty during their initial appearances Friday.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach are named in a multi-count indictment alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

Paul Stracci, of Stracci Criminal Defense, who is representing Buncich, had no comment on the tentative scheduling of the trial.

Snyder and Cortina, named in a separate indictment, were charged with bribery. Capp said the mayor solicited money from Cortina and "Individual A" and gave them a towing contract for Portage.

Snyder allegedly accepted $13,000 in connection with a Board of Works contract and obstructed tax laws for by impeding the government's collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC.

Snyder declined to comment after his hearing, but his lead attorney, Thomas Kirsch, of the law firm Winston and Strawn, said they were surprised by the indictment, "particularly so because these charges are meritless."









Indictments outline alleged public corruption in Lake, Porter counties
Post-Tribune
November 19, 2016
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-snyder-indictments-st-1120-20161119-story.html
This past April, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich went into a Gary towing operator's vehicle and fetched a $3,500 cash bribe from the front seat, a payment federal court records claim was part of a larger scheme to steer towing business to companies based on cash payments and campaign contributions to the sheriff.

Within a week of the payment, which also included $2,500 from another towing operator, Buncich directed the sheriff's department to enforce Gary's ordinance violations, according to court records.

Later, after an officer assigned to enforcing ordinance violations in Gary was injured, two towing operators involved in the bribery scheme complained about a subsequent dip in the city's tow business, court records say. Buncich responded by assigning another Lake County patrol officer to enforce ordinance violations in Gary, according to a federal indictment announced Friday against the sheriff, his second-in-command and a towing operator.

"This is a sad day for the citizens of Northwest Indiana," U.S. Attorney David Capp said at a Friday press conference.

The indictments announced Friday unveiled startling public corruption allegations that included charges against Buncich and, in a separate case, Portage Mayor James Snyder. While the investigations in Lake and Porter counties were separate, both involved allegedly soliciting and accepting money from towing company operators.

In addition to Buncich and Snyder, Capp announced indictments against Timothy Downs, chief of the Lake County Sheriff's Department police; William Szarmach, of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station; and John Cortina, of Kustom Auto Body in Portage.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach are named in the multicount indictment alleging the illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and in donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

Buncich, Downs, Szarmach and Cortina were all arrested and taken into custody Friday morning, Capp said, adding that he's asked that Szarmach remain in federal detention.

Buncich and Downs each were each released on $20,000 unsecured bonds.

Snyder surrendered to federal authorities Friday afternoon, officials said. He was released on a $20,000 unsecured bond. If he attends all of his hearings, Snyder will owe no money. If he misses any, he will have to pay the $20,000 and faces arrest. Snyder also was ordered to turn over his passport and any firearms to federal authorities.

Buncich, a Democrat, was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015. Snyder, a Republican, was elected to his second term as mayor in 2015.

"The citizens of the region are tired of this," Capp said.

Lake County allegations
The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as Individual A, an unidentified towing operator who was working with investigators, according to the indictment.

Individual A voluntarily offered to provide information to federal authorities, Capp said, adding that the decision by Individual A to step forward was critical for the investigation.

While Buncich's office had the authority to determine what towing operators were awarded contracts, according to Lake County ordinance, the county commissioners ultimately approved the sheriff's recommendations.

According to the indictment, Buncich's office had a list of up to a dozen towing companies used to handle tows in different parts of Lake County. But from February 2014 to October 2016, according to the indictment, Buncich used his power and authority as sheriff to steer towing business to firms based on their cash payments and campaign contributions.

Certain towing companies on the towing list saw an increase or drop in business based on their cash payments and campaign contributions, the indictment alleges. Certain towing firms were allowed to remain on the towing list based on the level of campaign fundraising tickets they bought, the indictment said.

Szarmach and Individual A were awarded towing operations in Gary, the indictment said.

Buncich and Downs allegedly collected money from Szarmach and Individual A, the indictment said.

In July, the indictment said, Individual A handed Buncich $2,500 in cash, which he pocketed. That same person handed Buncich a $7,500 cash payment, which he put in his right rear pocket, the indictment said.

Between July and August, Buncich also accepted $3,500 in cash and checks from Szarmach, the indictment alleges.

Both Szarmach and Individual A got "a larger share of towing involving large semi-tractor trailers, ordinance towing in the City of Gary, towing in other Lake County municipalities and towing for other entities," the indictment said.

Portage mayor
Snyder and Cortina, named in a separate indictment, were charged with bribery. Capp said the mayor solicited money from Cortina and Individual A and gave them a towing contract for Portage.

According to the indictment, Cortina paid Snyder $12,000 in exchange for a towing contract between him, Individual A and the City of Portage.

Snyder also allegedly accepted $13,000 in connection with a Board of Works contract and obstructed tax laws by impeding the government's collection of tens of thousands of dollars in personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC.

Snyder declined to comment after his hearing, but his lead attorney, Thomas Kirsch, of the law firm Winston and Strawn, said they were surprised by the indictment, "particularly so because these charges are meritless."

A woman who answered the phone Friday afternoon at Cortina's body shop, 5409 U.S. Highway 6, Portage, promptly hung up when asked for comment on the indictments. The business was the site of a raid by officials with the U.S. Department of Treasury on Nov. 10, the same day of a sweep of several Lake County offices.

According to online campaign finance reports, Cortina donated thousands of dollars to Snyder's campaigns.

Local reaction
Buncich's office on Friday released a statement that said services will go uninterrupted at the department.

"The Sheriff's Department is continuing to run as normal. There has been no disruption of any operations. The proud men and women of the Lake County Indiana Sheriff's Department continue to serve and protect our citizens," Buncich said.

Dan Murchek, deputy chief of police for the sheriff's department, declined to comment on the charges or the investigation. He said in his position as deputy chief he is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the sheriff's department and providing the services the public needs and that will not change.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, a former Indiana attorney general, said she has always believed a person is innocent until proven guilty. But she called the indictments a sad day from a personal standpoint, from a professional standpoint and a political standpoint. She described both Buncich and Snyder as friends.

"It shows the U.S. Attorney is not targeting one group over another," Freeman-Wilson said of the cross-party charges.

Buncich also is Lake County's Democratic Party chairman. His Republican Party counterpart, Chairman Dan Dernulc, said he was "extremely disappointed, even upset."

Dernulc said he has had a good working relationship with Buncich despite not always agreeing.

"As elected officials and appointed officials, we really have to always be above. People look up to us. This is another black eye in Lake County," Dernulc said.

Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay said the charges undermine both the hard, honest work most police officers do, and the work by outside contractors who are playing by the rules.

"I'm disappointed. It's a mark on the county. It's a mark on county government. It's unfortunate and sad. I'm mad. I'm just kind of conflicted on the whole thing. There is a range of different emotions. It is not a great day in Lake County," Repay said.

"We have a great city, and we're going to continue to move forward," Portage City Council President Mark Oprisko said. "It's a sad day for me, and I'm beside myself. In 28 years on the council, I've never dealt with anything like this, but the mayor has a very good staff, and he does care about the citizens of Portage.

"(Snyder) needs to keep his head up and keep leading."

FBI agent Jay Abbott said that when the public trust is betrayed, it erodes the trust in public institutions that people rely on.

"When these types of cases occur, it's a tragedy," Abbott said. "It's a tragedy for law enforcement, and it's a tragedy for the community."

Capp said the investigations into corruption related to towing contracts in Northwest Indiana continue and more charges are anticipated.

"You know who you are, and we know, currently, who some of you are," Capp said. "And we are coming after you. And if any of you want to try to help yourself, time is running short."









Local politicians react to federal corruption indictments of Lake, Porter officials
Post-Tribune
November 19, 2016
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-porter-indictments-reaction-st-1120-20161119-story.html
Following a series of corruption indictments against elected leaders in Lake and Porter counties, other officials decried the situation but called for unity moving forward.

U.S. Attorney David Capp Friday announced indictments against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Timothy Downs, the sheriff's second-in-command; Portage Mayor James Snyder, William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station and John Cortina of Kustom Auto in Portage.

While the investigations in Lake and Porter counties were separate, both involved allegedly soliciting and accepting money from tow company operators. Buncich, Downs and Szarmach are named in multicount indictments alleging deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., a Democrat, said the situation is disappointing and makes the entire party look bad. Buncich is chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party.

"I feel bad for everybody involved, including the residents. It's bad for the residents. It's bad for the sheriff. It's bad for Mayor Snyder," McDermott said.

Disbelief and disappointment
Lake County politicians on Friday were reacting with stunned disbelief and disappointment as news of political corruption charges against the county's top cop and Democratic Party leader made the rounds.

McDermott said he is unsure what the sheriff plans to do regarding his role as chair of the Lake County's Democratic Central Committee, the post held by McDermott until he resigned. But, he said he thought Buncich should step down. McDermott was replaced by Buncich.

McDermott said the party has an already scheduled reorganization meeting in March when the election for the party's chairman takes place. If Buncich does step down, he would like to see vice chair Peggy Katona fill the slot until March when a new election can take place.

"Hopefully John does what's right for the party," McDermott said.

Jim Wieser, election board attorney and former officeholder, said while there are mechanisms in place in the state party's bylaws to remove a party official from a position before a conviction, any speculation on whether that may happen is premature. Buncich will have the option to resign from his post as party chair.

Wieser agreed with McDermott that given the timing of the holidays and the fact the reorganization meeting is in March, if Buncich does step down it may make sense to wait until March to elect a new leader.

Commissioner Michael Repay, D-Hammond, said he is not asking the sheriff to step down from either of his posts, but if he does step down from the party chairmanship, Repay said he would like to see a replacement selected before March.

"I'm not asking for him to step down. He has rights as an accused person. He has a right to defend himself any way he can," Repay said.

Whoever is in charge of Lake's Democratic Party has their work cut out for them in the wake of the Nov. 8 general election, and the charges against Buncich will only make it more difficult.

"The next county chair will have a lot of work to do rebuilding the reputation of the party. The next chairman would have had a lot of work. This just makes it all the more difficult. In my opinion, we should start fresh sooner rather than later," Repay said.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she is hopeful the county's Democrats can move forward as a party and as elected officials.

"It's just very unfortunate. It certainly requires us to regroup," Freeman-Wilson said. "We always know people are quick to point to Lake County as corrupt, as being a certain way. It is important in a time like this to be unified. I think we have to be focused collectively on rebuilding the party, repairing any negative damage that people may have inflicted and let folks understand that this is about individuals, not about an entire party."

City to move forward in wake of charges
Portage city officials on Friday were quick to assure citizens they had strong leadership in place, even as Snyder was indicted on federal bribery accusations and charges he tried to dodge paying payroll taxes to the IRS.

"We have a great city, and we're going to continue to move forward," City Council President Mark Oprisko said. "It's a sad day for me, and I'm beside myself. In 28 years on the council, I've never dealt with anything like this, but the mayor has a very good staff, and he does care about the citizens of Portage.

"(Snyder) needs to keep his head up and keep leading."

Snyder has declined to comment on the indictment or the 2 1/2 -year investigation leading up to the charges, but Oprisko said the mayor told him he would not be charged.

The investigation is one reason Oprisko said he blocked $93,000 in payments of legal fees to law firms that did work on Snyder's behalf during the investigation.

That determination to prevent the payments until there was more information on the legal fees is one example of Portage's leadership and another reason citizens can turn to city officials, Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham said.

"We have eight other elected officials who are leaders," Stidham said. "Portage can rest assured the city is in good hands, even with this cloud hanging over the mayor."

Portage Township Trustee Brendan Clancy, a Democrat who ran against Snyder in last year's municipal election, called for community unity in the wake of the charges.

"The mayor's innocent until proven guilty," Clancy said. "We have to let the judicial process take its course. No matter what happens, we have to come together as a city."

Snyder's indictment came after federal officials made multiple trips to Porter County government offices, as well as investigating the Portage mayor, who is a Republican.

Mike Simpson, chair of the county's Republican Party, said he was "shocked" because he's known Snyder for a long time, and "I have a great deal of respect for him."

Whether Snyder, who was re-elected to a second term as mayor last year, should step aside to focus on his legal issues remains to be seen, he said.

"It's way too early to suggest or consider something like that," Simpson said. "Any citizen, no matter their political persuasion, is innocent until proven guilty."

The county's Republican party can resolve the matter once Snyder's case has made its way through the court system, Simpson said.

"What James chooses to do, as the officer, is up to him" Simpson said. "This is extremely disconcerting no matter what, but I also believe everybody, including Buncich, deserves their day in court."









NW Indiana sheriff, mayor, other officials charged with bribery
WGN News - Chicago
November 19, 2016 
wgntv.com/2016/11/19/indiana-sheriff-mayor-other-officials-charged-with-bribery/
HAMMOND, Ind. — A federal grand jury has indicted a northwestern Indiana sheriff, his top deputy and a mayor, accusing them of collecting bribes for contracts for towing and other services.

The indictments announced Friday name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and tow company owners William Szarmach of Lake Station and John Cortina of Portage.

The FBI last week raided Buncich's offices in Crown Point, Indiana, 45 miles southeast of Chicago.

Prosecutors say Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County.

Snyder is accused of receiving $12,000 from Cortina and the same unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage. He's also charged with receiving $13,000 for other city contracts or projects.









Buncich: Still handling day-to-day operations for Lake County
NWI Times
Nov 18, 2016
nwitimes.com/news/local/lake/buncich-still-handling-day-to-day-operations-for-lake-county/article_88e29fd4-beb6-5dfc-a843-bc3508a330d4.html
The Lake County Sheriff's Department is still under the command of Sheriff John Buncich and his staff, a release from the department stated Friday afternoon.

Buncich and Chief Deputy Sheriff Tim Downs were charged with mail fraud, and Buncich was also charged with receiving a bribe, by federal authorities Friday.

The release stated that the administrative staff, led by Buncich, and the command staff continues to handle day-to-day operations of the Uniform Patrol, Criminal Investigations, Civil, Staff Services, and Corrections divisions.

"The Sheriff's Department is continuing to run as normal," Buncich was quoted in the release. "There has been no disruption of any operations. The proud men and women of the Lake County Indiana Sheriff's Department continue to serve and protect our citizens."









Buncich, his chief deputy indicted on corruption charges
NWI Times
Nov 18, 2016
nwitimes.com/news/local/lake/buncich-his-chief-deputy-indicted-on-corruption-charges/article_49239d2f-c184-55d8-bc19-775e8a315cd6.html



HAMMOND — A U.S. attorney indicted Lake County Sheriff John Buncich Friday on public corruption charges.

Buncich and Tim Downs, Buncich’s chief of police and second in command, are charged with wire fraud. Buncich also is charged with receiving bribes. They face prison terms of up to 20 years if convicted.

U.S. marshals arrested and escorted Buncich and Downs into a federal courtroom about 10:30 a.m. Buncich initially appeared nervous, but later regained his composure and winked at two supporters in the audience. The rest of the courtroom was filled with federal agents and media.

Buncich, 70, Downs, 65, and William “Willie” Szarmach pleaded not guilty to a five-count indictment alleging they deprived the public of honest government services. A judge magistrate ordered them to surrender their passports and personal firearms. They are free on bond.

Buncich is accused of receiving more than $30,000 in bribes from towing firms wanting work from county police. Szarmach owns and operates CSA Towing in Lake Station.

Authorities arrested Szarmach Friday in Hobart. The government asked for him to be detained pending trial, which is now set for Jan. 17, but could be delayed. Szarmach will appear in a detention hearing Tuesday.

The indictment alleges that between February 2014 and last month Buncich set in motion a scheme to enrich himself and Buncich Boosters, his political campaign committee.

The government alleges the sheriff has sole authority in Lake County to designate towing companies his officers can use to remove cars from the public streets. County records indicate that between 10 and 12 firms removed thousands of vehicles in the past two years.


The government claims Buncich accepted bribes allegedly from towing firms for cash and campaign contributions, although he didn’t record all those contributions in his campaign finance reports, as state law requires.

The government said Downs collected some of the bribes for Buncich. Sometimes Buncich is alleged to have personally grabbed the cash and put it in his pocket.

Firms that paid bribes got on the sheriff’s approved towing list and received a larger district in which they could collect large fees from people seeking to recover their towed vehicles.

The indictment lists seven bribes over the last two years, the last being $7,500 paid Sept. 2.

The government alleges bribes were paid by Szarmach and an unidentified firm, referred to in the indictment as “Individual A” that U.S. Attorney David Capp said was the whistleblower who started the multi-year investigation rolling.

Capp warned that he expects that investigation to continue and more are likely to be charged. “We are coming after you. Time is running short.”

Buncich is the county’s highest elected law enforcement official as well as the chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party.

He gave no indication he is stepping down as the county’s top cop or as party boss. Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington, who has been a sharp critic of Buncich, said Friday night he isn’t calling for Buncich’s removal at this time. “I believe the party will come together and be stronger.”









Lake County Sheriff, Portage Mayor Indicted On Public Corruption Charges
ABC News - Chicago
November 18, 2016
abc7chicago.com/news/northwest-indiana-officials-indicted-on-public-corruption-charges-/1614075/


CROWN POINT, Ind. (WLS) -- The U.S. Attorney's office announced public corruption indictments Friday against officials in both Lake and Porter counties in northwest Indiana.

Indictments name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and tow company owners William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station and John Cortina of Kustom Auto Body in Portage, U.S. Attorney David Capp said at a news conference.

Last week, state police assisted the FBI as they executed a search warrant at the Lake County Sheriff's office in Crown Point.

The indictment alleges that between February 2014 and October 2016, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach worked to enrich Buncich and his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters, through towing contracts.

Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000, often collected by Downs, in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County, prosecutors said. The three men face wire fraud charges, and Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

The alleged scheme unraveled when another owner of a tow truck business, known as Individual A, went to the feds.

"It's because of his efforts that we have been able to get into the inner workings of this illegal scheme," Capp said.

Individual A also helped the feds snag Portage Mayor James Snyder in a similar towing scheme, involving Kustom Auto Body in Portage. Snyder is also facing tax evasion charges.

Snyder, named in a separate indictment, is accused of receiving $12,000 from Cortina and the same unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage, located in neighboring Porter County. He's also accused of accepting $13,000 for other city contracts or projects from 2013 to 2014. He's faces a charge of obstructing tax laws for impeding the government's collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC.

Buncich, Downs, Szarmach and Cortina were all arrested and taken into custody Friday morning, Capp said. Snyder was to surrender to federal authorities later, officials said.

"To those others out there in law enforcement or in elected positions who have been engaging in conduct similar to that announced today regarding towing contracts. You know who you are and we know currently who some of them are and we are coming after you," Capp said.

Buncich is the chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party and was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015. Snyder, a Republican, was elected to his second term as mayor in 2015.

Snyder's attorney, Thomas Kirsch, issued a statement saying the mayor's indictment "comes as a complete surprise."

"Mayor Snyder looks forward to fighting these charges in a court of law and to complete vindication," the statement said.
Federal authorities said they expect more charges to follow. Anyone with information related to these public corruption charges is encouraged to call the FBI at 219-769-3719.









Lake County sheriff, Portage mayor indicted on bribery charges
Fox 32 Chicago News
November 18, 2016 
fox32chicago.com/news/local/216728220-story


SUN-TIMES MEDIA WIRE - Several northwest Indiana public officials, including Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder, were indicted Friday on federal bribery charges involving towing contracts.

One indictment named Buncich and his Chief Deputy Timothy Downs in connection with a scheme to exchange money for county towing contracts, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office. The indictment also named William Szarmach, owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, Indiana. They are charged with deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money.

Prosecutors allege that between February 2014 and October 2016, Downs collected multiple payments from Szarmach and the owner of another towing company in exchange for towing business in Lake County and the city of Gary. The scheme allegedly benefited Buncich personally, as well as his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters.

Buncich was also charged individually with violating a federal bribery statute, according to prosecutors. He is accused of having solicited, demanded and received more than $25,000 in cash and another $7,000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions in regard to towing contracts.

In a statement released Friday afternoon following the indictments, the sheriff’s office did not comment on the charges, saying only that Buncich and his administrative and command staff continue to oversee day-to-day operations for the department’s criminal investigations, patrol, civil, staff services, and corrections divisions.

“The Sheriff’s Department is continuing to run as normal,” Buncich said in the statement. “There has been no disruption of any operations. The proud men and women of the Lake County Indiana Sheriff’s Department continue to serve and protect our citizens.”

A second indictment was returned against Snyder and John Cortina, who owns and operates Kustom Auto Body in Portage, prosecutors said. Both men are charged with violating a federal bribery statute.

Snyder allegedly solicited and received two checks totaling $12,000 from Cortina and the owner of another towing company in exchange for towing contracts in Portage, prosecutors said. Snyder is also charged with a second bribery violation for allegedly soliciting and accepting a $13,000 bank check in January 2014 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts and a Portage Redevelopment Commission project.

The same towing company owner voluntarily came forward and cooperated with federal authorities in both investigations, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

A third charge against Snyder claims he obstructed attempts by the IRS to collect personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC, prosecutors said. He allegedly diverted funds from his company to a sole proprietorship, then submitted forms to the IRS that did not disclose the existence of the proprietorship or its bank account.

“These investigations are not over,” U.S. Attorney David Capp said in the statement. “Our public corruption team will continue its work, particularly into the towing contracts in both Lake and Porter counties.”

The investigations were conducted by the FBI and IRS with assistance from Indiana State Police.









Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Indiana Mayor James Snyder Indicted Separately on Public Corruption Charges
WNDU News
Nov 18, 2016
wndu.com/content/news/Lake-County-Sheriff-John-Buncich-and-Portage-Indiana-Mayor-James-Snyder-Indicted-Separately-on-Public-Corruption-Charges-401933685.html
United States Attorney David Capp announced today in Hammond the return of two public corruption indictments; one naming Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and the other naming Portage Mayor James Snyder.

Buncich, his chief deputy Timothy Downs, and William Szarmach were named in a multi-count indictment alleging a deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money in connection with towing contracts in Lake County.

John Buncich is the Lake County Sheriff. Buncich earlier served as sheriff from 1994-2002, and was re-elected in 2010 and again in 2014. Pursuant to a Lake County ordinance, the sheriff has exclusive authority to determine what entity would do any towing as required by the sheriff’s department. Downs is the Chief in the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, the second person in command, having been appointed to that position by Buncich. Szarmach owns and operates CSA Towing, located at 2599 DeKalb Street, Lake Station, Indiana.

The indictment alleges that from February 2014 continuing into October 2016, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach devised a scheme to deprive the citizens of Lake County of their right to the honest services of the sheriff’s office and the scheme was designed to enrich Buncich personally and his campaign committee, known as Buncich Boosters.

The indictment details a number of checks and cash payments, often collected by Downs, from Szarmach and an Individual A in exchange for Buncich awarding county towing business and towing in the City of Gary for ordinance violations. Individual A is the owner of a tow truck business who voluntarily came forward and cooperated with the United States during the course of this investigation.

Buncich is also charged individually with a violation of the federal bribery statute. Specifically, Buncich is alleged to have corruptly solicited, demanded and received over $25,000 in cash and $7000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions by Buncich regarding the towing contracts.

The second indictment names Portage Mayor James Snyder and John Cortina. Snyder was first elected as mayor in 2011 and was re-elected to a second four-year term in 2015. Cortina owns and operates a towing business, Kustom Auto Body, 5409 US Highway 6 in Portage.
Snyder and Cortina are both charged with a violation of the federal bribery statute. Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totaling $12000 from Cortina and Individual A (same individual above), in exchange for a towing contract in the City of Portage. Cortina is charged with corruptly offering those checks to Snyder.

Snyder is also charged with a second violation of the federal bribery statute. That count alleges that between January 1, 2012 and January 10, 2014, Snyder corruptly solicited and agreed to accept a bank check in the amount of $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and other consideration.

The final charge against Snyder alleges obstruction of the internal revenue laws. This count sets forth an alleged scheme, undertaken by Snyder between January 2010 and April 2013, to obstruct and impede the IRS’s collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage, LLC. Snyder is alleged to have diverted funds away from FFTM to a sole proprietorship he created, and submitted three forms to the IRS which failed to disclose, among other things, the existence of the sole proprietorship and its bank account – all during a time when the IRS was attempting to collect the aforementioned tax debt.

United States Attorney Capp stated, “These investigations are not over. Our public corruption team will continue its work, particularly into the towing contracts in both Lake and Porter counties.”

Anyone with information related to these public corruption charges is encouraged to call the FBI at 219-769-3719.

The United States Attorney's Office emphasized that an Indictment is merely an allegation and that all persons charged are presumed innocent until, and unless, proven guilty in court.

If convicted in court, any specific sentence to be imposed will be determined by the judge after a consideration of federal sentencing statutes and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

These indictments were the result of an extensive, ongoing investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation Division.

Assistance was provided throughout by the Indiana State Police. These indictments will be handled in the United States Attorney’s Office by Assistant United States Attorneys Philip C. Benson, Gary T. Bell and Jill R. Koster.









Lake County sheriff, Portage mayor accused of taking bribes for towing contracts
FOX 59 News
November 18, 2016 
fox59.com/2016/11/18/lake-county-sheriff-portage-mayor-accused-of-taking-bribes-for-towing-contracts/
HAMMOND, Ind. – The sheriff of Lake County and mayor of Portage were indicted Friday on public corruption charges in connection with a towing and bribery scheme.

Federal prosecutors said the indictments were returned against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Portage Mayor James Snyder. Timothy Downs—Buncich’s chief deputy—and William Szarmach, who owns a company called CSA Towing, were also named in Buncich’s multi-count indictment. John Cortina, the owner of a towing business, was named in Snyder’s indictment.

The indictment involving Buncich alleges deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money. Snyder’s indictment alleges a violation of the federal bribery statute.

Buncich is also charged individually with violating the federal bribery statute. He, Downs and Szarmach are accused of using towing contracts to enrich Buncich and his campaign committee, which was called “Buncich Boosters.”

The indictment said Buncich and Downs collected cash and check payments from Szarmach and another individual in exchange for the awarding of towing contracts in Lake County and Gary. The second individual came forward to report the practice, prosecutors said.

Buncich, in a position of power as county sheriff, demanded more than $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks for the contracts, prosecutors said.

The FBI and Indiana State Police raided his office and home last week.

Snyder, the mayor of Portage, is accused of accepting $12,000 from Cortina and the aforementioned whistleblower in exchange for favorable towing contracts in Portage. Cortina owns and operates Kustom Auto Body.

Snyder is accused of a second violation of the bribery statute. Between Jan. 2012 and Jan. 2014, he allegedly solicited and accepted $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and other consideration.

Snyder is also accused of impeding the Internal Revenue Service from collecting personal taxes and payroll taxes from his mortgage business.

Federal prosecutors said the investigations aren’t over yet and that towing contracts in Lake and Porter counties would be further scrutinized.









Northwest Indiana sheriff, mayor indicted in alleged bribery scheme
WGN News - Chicago
November 18, 2016 
wgntv.com/2016/11/18/nw-indiana-sheriff-mayor-indicted-in-alleged-bribery-scheme/
Portage Mayor James Snyder leaving Hammond Federal Courthouse

HAMMOND, Ind. -- The sheriff of Lake County, Ind., along with his top deputy and a mayor have been indicted on charges of collecting bribes for contracts for towing and other services.

The indictments announced Friday name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and tow company owners William Szarmach of Lake Station and John Cortina of Portage.

The FBI raided Buncich's offices in Crown Point, Ind. last week.

Prosecutors say Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County.

Snyder is accused of receiving $12,000 from Cortina and the same unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage. He's also charged with receiving $13,000 for other city contracts or projects.

Snyder is expected to turn himself in to authorities Friday afternoon. Neither Snyder or Buncich have commented on the indictments.









Northwest Indiana sheriff, mayor indicted in alleged bribery scheme
WGN TV News
Julian Crews and Bill Kissinger
November 18, 2016 
wgntv.com/2016/11/18/nw-indiana-sheriff-mayor-indicted-in-alleged-bribery-scheme/
HAMMOND, Ind. -- The sheriff of Lake County, Ind., along with his top deputy and a mayor have been indicted on charges of collecting bribes for contracts for towing and other services.

The indictments announced Friday name Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Chief Deputy Tim Downs, Portage Mayor James Snyder and tow company owners William Szarmach of Lake Station and John Cortina of Portage.

The FBI raided Buncich's offices in Crown Point, Ind. last week.

Prosecutors say Buncich received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and an unnamed individual for towing contracts in Gary and Lake County.

Snyder is accused of receiving $12,000 from Cortina and the same unnamed individual for towing contracts in Portage. He's also charged with receiving $13,000 for other city contracts or projects.

Snyder is expected to turn himself in to authorities Friday afternoon. Neither Snyder or Buncich have commented on the indictments.









Lake sheriff, Portage mayor indicted on corruption charges
Post-Tribune
November 18, 2016
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-porter-corruption-indictments-st-1121-20161118-story.html
Federal officials on Friday announced a bevy of public corruption charges against Northwest Indiana officials, including the Lake County sheriff and the Portage mayor.

U.S. Attorney David Capp announced federal indictments against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, who also heads the Lake County Democratic Party; Timothy Downs, chief of the Lake County Sheriff's Department police; Portage Mayor James Snyder; William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station; and John Cortina of Kustom Auto Body in Portage.

While the investigations in Lake and Porter counties were separate, both involved allegedly soliciting and accepting money from towing company operators.

"This is a sad day for the citizens of Northwest Indiana," Capp said.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach are named in multicount indictments alleging an illegal towing scheme in which the sheriff accepted bribes in the form of thousands of dollars in cash and donations to his campaign fund, Buncich's Boosters, according to court records. All three are facing charges of wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also are charged with bribery.

The sheriff, whose department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, and the chief allegedly steered business toward towing operators in exchange for cash and checks, the U.S. attorney alleged in a 14-page indictment. Buncich allegedly took more than $25,000 in cash bribes and $7,000 in checks from Szarmach and another towing operator identified as "Individual A," according to the indictment.

While Buncich's office had the authority to determine what towing operators were awarded contracts, according to Lake County ordinance, the county commissioners ultimately approved the sheriff's recommendations.

From February 2014 to October 2016, federal authorities claim, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach created a scheme to "deprive the citizens of Lake County of their right to the honest services of the sheriff's office," and the scheme involved Buncich and Downs collecting money from Szarmach and "Individual A."

Snyder and Cortina, named in a separate indictment, were charged with bribery. Capp said the mayor solicited money from Cortina and "Individual A" and gave them a towing contract for Portage.

Snyder allegedly accepted $13,000 in connection with a Board of Works contract and obstructed tax laws for by impeding the government's collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC.

"Individual A" voluntarily offered to provide information to federal authorities, Capp said, adding that the decision by "Individual A" to step forward was critical for the investigation.

Buncich, Downs, Szarmach and Cortina were all arrested and taken into custody Friday morning, Capp said, adding that he's asked that Szarmach remain in federal detention.

Buncich and Downs each were each released on $20,000 unsecured bonds.

Snyder surrendered to federal authorities Friday afternoon, officials said. He was released on a $20,000 unsecured bond. If he attends all of his hearings, Snyder will owe no money. If he misses any, he will have to pay the $20,000 and faces arrest. Snyder also was ordered to turn over his passport and any firearms to federal authorities.

Snyder declined to comment after his hearing, but his lead attorney, Thomas Kirsch, of the law firm Winston and Strawn, said they were surprised by the indictment, "particularly so because these charges are meritless."

Buncich was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015. Snyder, a Republican, was elected to his second term as mayor in 2015.

"The citizens of the region are tired of this," Capp said.

FBI agent Jay Abbott said that when the public trust is betrayed, it erodes the trust in public institutions that people rely on.

"When these types of cases occur, it's a tragedy," Abbott said. "It's a tragedy for law enforcement, and it's a tragedy for the community."

Friday's announcement came on the heels of a series of search warrants executed last week in Lake County.

Federal agents were investigating a possible "receipt of a bribe by an agent of a local government receiving federal funds," "mail/wire fraud," "conspiracy to commit mail/wire fraud," and "Hobbs Act extortion under the Color of State Authority," according to a search warrant served in Lake County on Nov. 10.

That day, FBI officials served search warrants at the Lake County Sheriff's Department and E-911 Department. Authorities sought information related to towing operations run through the county.

Federal agents sought records related to towing operations for the past six years, according to a search warrant filed with the E-911 Department. Information sought from the department included maps, tow logs, a list of towing companies, phone and dispatch call data for police and towing companies, emails from any Sheriff's Department personnel related to Lake County towing, and dispatcher work schedules.

The Sheriff's Department has yet to make public the search warrant served on the office. The Post-Tribune has filed a freedom of information request for the document.

Buncich released a statement Friday and told residents of Lake County that services will go uninterrupted at the department.

"The Sheriff's Department is continuing to run as normal. There has been no disruption of any operations. The proud men and women of the Lake County Indiana Sheriff's Department continue to serve and protect our citizens," Buncich said.

Capp said the investigations into corruption related to towing contracts in Northwest Indiana continue and more charges are anticipated.

"You know who you are, and we know, currently, who some of you are," Capp said. "And we are coming after you.

"And if any of you want to try to help yourself, time is running short."









Portage Mayor, Lake County Sheriff Indicted For Corruption
CBS - Chicago
November 18, 2016
chicago.cbslocal.com/2016/11/18/portage-mayor-lake-county-sheriff-indicted-for-corruption/
CHICAGO (CBS) — Portage Mayor James Snyder and Lake County Sheriff John Buncich have been indicted on public corruption charges in connection to towing companies in northwest Indiana.

In indictments announced Friday, federal prosecutors allege Buncich and his chief deputy Timothy Downs schemed to award towing business in Lake County and the city of Gary to CSA Towing in Lake Station, in exchange for bribes to Buncich.

The indictment alleges Buncich received more than $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks for directing towing business to CSA and another unnamed towing business. Downs allegedly acted as the bag man for Buncich.

Last week, the FBI raided Buncich’s home and office, but U.S. Atty. David Capp said the indictments were the result of a multi-year investigation that started when a towing company owner came forward with corruption allegations.

A second indictment accuses Snyder of accepting two checks totaling $12,000 from and Kustom Auto Body owner John Cortina and another towing company owner in exchange for a towing contract with the city of Portage. Snyder also allegedly accepted a check for $13,000 in connection to Portage Board of Works contracts.

“Today is a sad day for the citizens of northwest Indiana, and it is a particularly sad day for all of us in law enforcement,” Capp said.

The feds said the same towing company owner who came forward in Buncich’s case also was cooperating in the case against Snyder. Capp said the owner, identified in both indictments only as Individual A, has paid bribes, and then went to the FBI, starting the investigation.

“This individual voluntarily came forward and offered to work with us, and it’s because of his efforts that we have been able to get into the inner workings of this illegal scheme,” Capp said.

Prosecutors said the investigation does not end with the charges announced Friday, and Capp said there would be more indictments.

“To those others out there in law enforcement, or in elected positions, who have been engaging in conduct similar to that announced today, we are coming after you. Time is running short,” Capp said.









Lake County Sheriff, Portage Mayor Indicted 
ABC News - Chicago
November 18, 2016 
abc7chicago.com/news/northwest-indiana-officials-indicted-on-public-corruption-charges-/1614075/
The U.S. Attorney's office announced public corruption indictments Friday against officials in both Lake and Porter counties in northwest Indiana.

Last week, state police assisted the FBI as they executed a search warrant at the Lake County Sheriff's office in Crown Point.

On Friday, authorities charged Lake County Sheriff John Buncich with four counts of wire fraud and receiving bribes. Timothy Downs, chief deputy at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, was also charged with three counts of wire fraud and one count of receiving a bribe. Portage Mayor James Schneider is also facing charges of bribery and obstruction of tax laws.

The officials are accused of taking money from local towing companies in exchange for contracts. Buncich is alleged to have corruptly solicited, demanded and received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions by Buncich regarding the towing contracts.

Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totaling $12,000 in exchange for a towing contract in the City of Portage. Authorities said Snyder also corruptly solicited and agreed to accept a bank check in the amount of $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts and other considerations.

"To those others out there in law enforcement or in elected positions who have been engaging in conduct similar to that announced today regarding towing contracts. You know who you are and we know currently who some of them are and we are coming after you," said David Capp, U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Indiana.

If convicted on all of the charges, Buncich and Downs could face a maximum of 30 years in prison. Both pleaded not guilty and were released.

Buncich and Downs are due back in court on January 17. Federal authorities said they expect more charges to follow.









Lake County Sheriff, Portage Mayor Indicted 
ABC News - Chicago
November 18, 2016 
abc7chicago.com/news/northwest-indiana-officials-indicted-on-public-corruption-charges-/1614075/
The U.S. Attorney's office announced public corruption indictments Friday against officials in both Lake and Porter counties in northwest Indiana.

Last week, state police assisted the FBI as they executed a search warrant at the Lake County Sheriff's office in Crown Point.

On Friday, authorities charged Lake County Sheriff John Buncich with four counts of wire fraud and receiving bribes. Timothy Downs, chief deputy at the Lake County Sheriff's Department, was also charged with three counts of wire fraud and one count of receiving a bribe. Portage Mayor James Schneider is also facing charges of bribery and obstruction of tax laws.

The officials are accused of taking money from local towing companies in exchange for contracts. Buncich is alleged to have corruptly solicited, demanded and received over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions by Buncich regarding the towing contracts.

Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totaling $12,000 in exchange for a towing contract in the City of Portage. Authorities said Snyder also corruptly solicited and agreed to accept a bank check in the amount of $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts and other considerations.

"To those others out there in law enforcement or in elected positions who have been engaging in conduct similar to that announced today regarding towing contracts. You know who you are and we know currently who some of them are and we are coming after you," said David Capp, U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Indiana.

If convicted on all of the charges, Buncich and Downs could face a maximum of 30 years in prison. Both pleaded not guilty and were released.

Buncich and Downs are due back in court on January 17. Federal authorities said they expect more charges to follow.









Buncich Behind Bars, Portage Mayor Snyder to Surrender Later Today
NWI Gazette
November 18, 2016
nwigazette.com/2016/11/buncich-behind-bars/
At a press conference this morning United States Attorney David Capp confirmed that Lake County Sheriff John Buncich and Chief of Police Timothy Downs were both arrested earlier today.

Additionally, Portage Mayor James Snyder has been indicted and is scheduled to surrender later today.   William Szarrmach, owner of CSA Towing,  was also arrested.  John Cortina, owner of Kustom Towing in Portage, was also indicted and is scheduled to surrender later today. US Attorney David Capp declined to comment on why Buncich, Downs and Szarmach were arrested while Snyder and Cortina were allowed to surrender.  Mr. Capp did say that his office had conversations with attorneys for Snyder and Cortina regarding their surrender.

UPDATE: Sheriff Buncich and Chief Tim Downs were arraigned and released earlier today.  Sheriff Buncich issued a statement saying
"The Sheriff's Department is continuing to run as normal.
There has been no disruption of any operations. The proud men and women of the Lake
County Indiana Sheriff's Department continue to serve and protect our citizens."

The indictments against Buncich, Downs and Szarmach are not available at this time.  The US Attorney’s office held a press conference outlining a scheme of pay-to-play regarding payments made from towing contractors to Downs and Buncich.  “The indictment details a number of checks and cash payments, often collected by Downs, from Szarmach and an Individual A in exchange for Buncich awarding county towing business and towing in the City of Gary for ordinance violations.

Individual A is the owner of a tow truck business who voluntarily came forward and cooperated with the United States during the course of this investigation” according to a written release provided by Capp. “Buncich is alleged to have corruptly solicited, and received, over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions by Buncich regarding towing contracts” the statement continues.

The Indictment of Mayor James Snydert contains three allegations. “Snyder is alleged to have corruptly solicited and received two checks totalling $12,000 from Cortina and Individual A, in exchange for towing contracts with the City of Portage” according to Capp. “Snyder is also charged with a second violation of the federal bribery statute. That count alleges that between January 1, 2012 and January 10, 2014, Snyer corruptly solicited and agreed to accept a public bank check in the amount of $13,000 in connection with Portage Board of Works contracts, a Portage Redevelopment Commission project and other consideration.” Finally, Snyer is charged with engaging in “an alleged scheme, . . . between January, 2010 and April 2013, to obstruct and impede the IRS’s collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust, LLC (FFTM). Snyder is alleged to have diverted funds away from FFTM to a sole proprietorship he created” according to the statement.

United States Attorney David Capp stressed that this investigation is ongoing and more indictments will come. Mr. Capp urged any citizen with information regarding public corruption to contact the FBI at 219-769-3719 or his office directly at 937-5601.

A criminal charge is not evidence of guilt.  All criminal defendants are presumed innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law.



















SOURCE: Sheriff, One Other to be Indicted Tomorrow
Northwest Indiana Gazette
November 17, 2016
nwigazette.com/2016/11/source-sheriff-one-indicted-tomorrow/
During Operation Bar Tab and Operation Lights Out, “Federal Friday” sent chills down the spines of Lake County Politicians on a regular basis. The term was used in political circles after several high profile cases were announced on a Friday afternoon. The Gazette has received credible information that two indictments will be handed down tomorrow, November 18, 2016. “The Sheriff will be one of them” our source told us. The Source also said that Sheriff Buncich will be asked to step down as Sheriff. Charges are rumored to center around towing contracts and payments related to those contracts. The Gazette cautions that information from sources is never 100% accurate and no one can know for certain what is going to happen tomorrow. Thus, we print this with the express caveat that it could be wrong.

The home and office of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich was raided a week ago today. Additionally, FBI and US Treasury Agents raided CSA Towing in Lake Station and Samson Towing in Portage. Both Samson and CSA tow for the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. Agents also requested records from Lake County 9-1-1 and the Lake County Board of Elections and Voter Registration.

Friday after the raid was a holiday, but Sheriff Buncich returned to work on Monday. The Sheriff issued an official statement that his office was cooperating with Federal agents conducting the investigation. It is not known if the FBI received records responsive to the supboenas from Lake County 911 or the Election Board. In past cases, the time frame between a raid and an indictment has been as long as a year and a half. The office of Lake County Surveyor George Van Til was raided in June, 2012 and he was indicted in December, 2013. The office of Calumet Township Assessor Mary Elgin was raided in March, 2014 and she was indicted in December, 2014.

Buncich is also Chair of the Lake County Democratic Party.









MARC CHASE: Roving FBI billboard advertises Region shame
NWI Times
Nov 14, 2016  
nwitimes.com/news/opinion/columnists/marc-chase/marc-chase-roving-fbi-billboard-advertises-region-shame/article_32f1e1cc-9cf6-5c9b-a03b-02d3cacf5305.html
It's grown as commonplace as the smut billboards on Interstate 80/94, and it's even more distasteful to our Region.

Only this billboard roves Northwest Indiana on four wheels, frequently advertising shame outside of local government offices.

These thoughts came to mind Thursday as I stood about 20 yards away from a large, white evidence truck colorfully emblazoned with the words "Federal Bureau of Investigation Indiana,” outside the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.

The size of the truck and lettering really do combine in a sensational billboard whenever the FBI raids Region government offices.

The truck has become a common, unfortunate sight in these parts.

This time, federal agents served search warrants Thursday at the Lake County sheriff's office, county voter registration and Lake County E-911 offices.

Sources inside the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point tell us the warrants pertain, in part, to irregularities surrounding business dealings between the sheriff and towing companies.

The investigation appears to be in its early stages, and we've seen no criminal charges or indictments relating to the case yet.

But we also know that the site of the big white FBI truck, more times than not, leads to such charges of public officials in our Region.

In recent years, we've seen it parked outside the Calumet Township Trustee's office and Lake Station City Hall.

Former Trustee Mary Elgin now faces a criminal trial on felony charges she intimidated employees into giving campaign donations. In an unrelated case, former Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist and his wife were convicted in Hammond federal court of stealing from a city food pantry and Soderquist's campaign fund to finance gambling excursions.

Public corruption — and in turn, the big white truck — have become so commonplace in Northwest Indiana that folks in the community regularly question, "What's new about that?" when we detail the cases in our newspaper.

Some ask the question in jest, others in all seriousness.

Seeing the truck isn't all negative. It means the FBI and our Hammond-based U.S. attorney continue to hold the feet of Region political corruption to the fires of justice.

But we must be mindful not to blindly accept the types of political culture that lead to the big white truck visiting our centers of government.

Many of us travel Interstate 80/94 every day, passing the lewd billboards advertising "gentlemen" clubs that aren't really there to attract gentlemen.

It becomes something we grow familiar with — something many of us don't even notice.

Outsiders and newcomers notice the billboards, though. This likely hatches a combination of jokes and a public image that doesn't match all the positive things happening in our Region — things like great schools, trails and family activities.

In many ways, Region public corruption represents a similar shroud obscuring our Region’s bright spots.

We all should be tired of the observations of people within and outside of our borders who believe corruption and Northwest Indiana are synonymous.

We can't be numb to it, and we can't allow it to overshadow our Region's good works.

Certainly the FBI could use its roving billboard truck for something other than advertising Region shame. Residents voting at the polls, shouting displeasure and demanding answers at public meetings, rather than accepting Region corruption as inevitable, would be a good start.









Search warrant offers insight into federal probe in Lake County
Post-Tribune
November 14, 2016 
http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-county-subpoena-st-1115-20161114-story.html
Investigators who seized records from Lake County offices last week were gathering evidence as part of a federal probe into a possible bribery scheme involving an unidentified local government official, according to a federal search warrant obtained by the Post-Tribune.

Federal agents were investigating a possible "receipt of a bribe by an agent of a local government receiving federal funds," "mail/wire fraud," "conspiracy to commit mail/wire fraud," and "Hobbs Act extortion under the Color of State Authority," according to the search warrant. It was unclear the identity of the local government official under federal scrutiny.

Nevertheless, investigators who seized records from Lake County offices last week were looking for records relating to the county's towing operations over the last six years, the search warrant said. The search warrant, which was delivered to the county's E-911 department on Thursday, also sought maps, towing logs, a list of tow companies, phone and dispatch call data for police and tow companies, emails from any sheriff's department personnel related to Lake County towing and dispatcher work schedules.

FBI and Indiana State Police officers first visited the Lake County Sheriff's department Thursday before moving over to the main county complex. Ryan Holmes, of the U.S. Department of Justice, confirmed last week that a federal search warrant was served in the vicinity of the Lake County Government Center. Holmes declined to elaborate.

"The Lake County Sheriff's Department is cooperating with our federal law enforcement partners, fully assisting the FBI with their inquiry," the sheriff's department said in a statement last week. "Regular Sheriff's Department operations are continuing. We assure the citizens of Lake County that their safety remains our top priority."

Sheriff John Buncich did not return calls seeking comment.

After starting at the Sheriff's Department, federal and state authorities moved into the administrative building, at the same time as a Veterans Day ceremony was winding down. Officials stopped by the Board of Elections and Voter Registration, the E-911 office, auditor's office, data processing and the County Commissioners.

"There's more questions than answers," Lake County Commissioner Michael Repay, D-Hammond, said Monday.

Jim Wieser, Lake County election board attorney, confirmed last week that the office was served a subpoena seeking records but did not disclose what records were requested.









FBI looking for evidence of Lake towing bribery
NWI Times
Nov 14, 2016
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/fbi-looking-for-evidence-of-lake-towing-bribery/article_b038265e-110b-5d19-8d9a-230372f8f8c6.html
CROWN POINT — State and federal agents are looking for evidence of bribery, extortion and fraudulent denial of honest government services in connection with car towing ordered by the Lake County Sheriff's Department.

The Times has obtained a copy of a federal search warrant served Thursday on the Lake County E-911 offices demanding telephone, radio and email data as well as paper documents, including a list of towing firms authorized by county government to tow cars and documents tracking their activity.

State police and FBI agents raided the Lake County Sheriff's Department and descended on Sheriff John Buncich's Crown Point home Thursday before leaving with several boxes of documents from the entrance of the sheriff's office building.

Federal agents also raided a Portage business site, whose owner said was connected to a Merrillville-based towing firm.

Agents served a subpoena seeking documents from the Lake County Voter Registration and Elections Department, which tracks campaign contributions and spending for all candidates for county, township and municipal offices.

They served a search warrant on the E-911 office, which coordinates communications among the public, the county sheriff and 15 municipal police, fire and emergency medical service providers.

The E-911 warrant states the government is looking only for towing data. Lake County elected officials and their lawyers said they are cooperating with federal authorities.

Federal authorities petitioned a federal magistrate Nov. 9 to authorize the E-911 search warrant.

They sought authorization to seize evidence of crimes involving receipt of bribes by an agent of local government, mail or wire fraud of honest services, conspiracy to commit mail or wire fraud, and honest services mail/wire fraud and extortion by state authorities.

The crimes listed could result in felony convictions and long prison sentences.

The warrant identifies what is to be seized as: Data and information contained in the computers and all storage media used by the Lake County E-911 Dispatch Center relating only to Lake County towing from the time period of 2010 to present.

The year 2010 was the last year in office for former Sheriff Roy Dominguez. Sheriff John Buncich has been serving as sheriff since 2011.

County government was in the midst of a financial crisis, because the 2008 recession and state-mandated property tax cuts had cut county government revenues to the point it was prepared to lay off 10 county police officers.

Buncich asked the County Council in 2012 to raise to $75 from $20 the fee the county charges each time a county police officer calls for a towing firm to remove a car on public streets. Buncich said he would use the revenue from those fees to support the endangered officers' salaries and benefits.

Buncich said then he would become more aggressive in towing disabled cars as well as vehicles belonging to targets of his department's gang and drug task forces.

The county collected $220,000 in towing fees last year and $164,000 this year to date from the thousands of cars towed.









FBI raids Lake sheriff department
NWI Times
November 11, 2016 
nwitimes.com/news/crime-and-court/fbi-raids-lake-sheriff-department/article_677e5038-f0f5-5da3-85da-0222e1f28c3a.html
CROWN POINT — FBI and Indiana State Police were raiding the Lake County Government Center early Thursday.

A number of FBI agents and state police investigators entered the sheriff's offices at the Lake County Government Center, 2293 N. Main St., about 9:30 a.m.

Ryan Holmes, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office, said federal authorities were serving search warrants on the county sheriff early today. He declined to comment on what documents are being sought or who is being targeted.

Dean Delisle told The Times he was in the Sheriff's Bureau of Identification, where police records are held, to obtain a copy of an accident report when agents and state police walked into that office and ordered everybody, including the sheriff's employees, to leave the building.

"They were taking pictures of everything," Delisle said. He said sheriff's employees appeared upset as they were preparing to leave.

A source within county government said federal agents and state police entered the building with dollies, which can be used to move large quantities of documents and equipment. A source said all employees in the building were ordered to leave the building.

A source within county government said federal agents then fanned out to the Lake County Voter Registration and Election offices, where vote totals are kept, the Lake County E-911 offices and other departments within the administration building.

The Lake County Jail, where the sheriff has offices, has been under a U.S. Department of Justice mandate for the last eight years for failing to meet federal healthcare standards for inmates.

Sheriff John Buncich couldn't be reached for comment.









FBI Raids Sheriff’s House, Office, Contractors
November 10, 2016
NW Indiana Gazette
nwigazette.com/2016/11/fbi-raids-sheriffs-house-office-contractors/
Federal Agents and State Police swarmed the home and offices of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich early today. Agents also raided at least one and as many as three towing contractors. The Gazette first received reports of the incident at approximately 9:00 a.m. when an FBI Van and several marked Indiana State Police cars pulled up in front of the Jail wing of the Lake County Government Center. Sources close to the investigation stated that agents came into the building and asked everyone to leave except the Sheriff’s bookkeeper Melanie Dillon. Agents removed records from the office of the Bookkeeper after spending several hours inside. FBI Agents also raided the home of Sheriff John Buncich and the home of at least one towing contractor. Additionally, Agents went to the Lake County Board of Elections and Voter Registration and the Data Processing Department within the Government Center.

Sources said at least three towing contractors were also visited by agents. CSA Towing in Lake Station, Samson Towing in Merrillville and Gary, and Kustom Towing in Portage were all reportedly visited by FBI Agents today. At least one of the homes of the owners of the above businesses was also visited. When asked if the FBI visited, an employee of Samson Towing replied “no comment.”

It is important to remember that a criminal investigation does not imply wrongdoing. FBI Agents have seized records many times and those seizures of records do not always result in criminal charges being brought.

Sheriff John Buncich issued a statement which read “The Lake County Sheriff’s Department is cooperating with our Federal law enforcement partners, fully assisting the FBI with their inquiry. Regular Sheriff’s Department operations are continuing. We assure the citizens of Lake County that their safety remains our top priority.”

We will keep you updated with any additional details, please Like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter for all the latest.









Raid at the Lake County Sheriff's department
WJOB1230
Ron Harlow
November 10, 2016
youtube.com/watch?v=N5YeZo080dg









FBI raids Lake County Ind. Sheriff’s office
WGN TV
November 10, 2016 - 4:38PM
wgntv.com/2016/11/10/fbi-raids-lake-county-ind-sheriffs-office/
PORTAGE, Ind. -- The FBI raided the Lake County Sheriff's office today.  Insiders say the agents are investigating corruption charges.

Federal agents and Indiana State Troopers are seen leaving the Lake County Sheriff's Department.

Some carried  boxes and bags seized in the raid that began about 9 a.m. today and involves additional departments within county government as well.

Federal authorities confirm to WGN News they were on county property executing search warrants.

Also today, agents were seen leaving the nearby home of Sheriff John Buncich.

Buncich is a career law-enforcement officer and has been elected several times, the most recent in November of 2014.

According to published reports, the investigation centers around allegations of bribery concerning the contracts of towing companies and campaign donations.

A department spokesman issued a statement in response to the investigation saying:

The Lake County Sheriff's Department is cooperating with our Federal law enforcement partners, fully assisting the FBI with their inquiry. Regular Sheriff's Department operations are continuing. We assure the citizens of Lake County that their safety remains our top priority.









UPDATE: FBI raids Lake County sheriff's offices; searches may have Porter ties
NWI Times
Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328
November 10, 2016 - 8:30PM
nwitimes.com/news/crime-and-court/fbi-raids-lake-sheriff-department/article_677e5038-f0f5-5da3-85da-0222e1f28c3a.html
CROWN POINT — The FBI and Indiana State Police raided the Lake County Sheriff's Department and were parked outside the sheriff's home early Thursday.

A number of FBI agents and state police investigators entered the offices of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich at the Lake County Government Center, 2293 N. Main St., about 9:30 a.m.

They left early Thursday afternoon with several boxes of documents they loaded into an FBI panel truck.

Indiana State Police and federal investigators' cars, both marked and unmarked, were parked late Thursday morning outside Buncich's Crown Point home. FBI Special Agent Bob Ramsey, who appeared outside the sheriff's home, declined to comment further.

Ramsey and Ryan Holmes, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said federal authorities were serving search warrants on the county sheriff. Holmes declined to comment on what documents are being sought or who is being targeted.

Sources within county government said investigators were looking into rumors of bribery involving towing vendors and police, and were looking for towing contracts and campaign finance reports.

Simultaneous raid
At the same time that federal agents were raiding the Lake County sheriff’s office, several members of the Indiana State Police and the U.S. Department of Treasury shut down Kustom Auto Body, 5409 U.S. 6, Portage, in an apparent raid Thursday morning.

John Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body, said his business was not the target of Thursday morning's raid.

Cortina said the agents were seeking information on Sampson Towing, a Merrillville-based business that leases storage space in his back lot.

Police vehicles blocked the entrance to the business. Police could be seen going in and out of the building. The treasury agent referred all questions to a department spokesperson, who did not return calls. 

FBI order all to leave building
In Lake County, Dean Delisle told The Times he was in the Sheriff's Bureau of Identification, where police records are held, to obtain a copy of an accident report when agents and state police walked into that office and ordered everybody, including the sheriff's employees, to leave.

"They were taking pictures of everything," Delisle said. He said sheriff's employees appeared upset as they were preparing to leave.

A source within county government said 38 federal and state agents were inside the Lake County Sheriff's Department. Another source said all employees in the sheriff's office building were ordered to leave.

Federal agents then fanned out to the Lake County Voter Registration and Election offices, where campaign finance records are kept, and the Lake County E-911 offices, which keeps records of police radio communications, to serve subpoenas for documents.

Buncich's campaign finance reports indicate he received more than $9,000 in contributions in 2014 and 2015 from several towing and auto firms in Crown Point, Gary, Highland, Hobart, Merrillville, St. John and Whiting.

The elections board office and E-911 offices were allowed to remain open and continue operating.

Mark Back, a spokesman for the sheriff issued a statement 2:43 p.m. Thursday, which said: "The Lake County Sheriff's Department is cooperating with our federal law enforcement partners and fully assisting the FBI with their inquiry. Regular Sheriff's Department operations are continuing. We assure the citizens of Lake County that their safety remains our top priority. There was no interruption of police duties."

Back said the sheriff's department continued to function through the day. "Employees were asked to at least step away from their desks while the FBI were completing their inquiry and look for whatever they were looking for," Back said.

As to what the FBI was looking for or removed from the sheriff's department, "You would have to ask the FBI," Back said. He said Buncich was continuing to perform his duties as sheriff.

Buncich could not be reached for comment and was not seen Thursday outside his home.

The county sheriff's department has had agreements with as many as eight towing firms who police use to remove abandoned cars from accident and arrest scenes.









Warrants served at Lake County government offices
Post Tribune
November 10, 2016 
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-fbi-visit-st-1111-20161110-story.html
FBI officials Thursday morning visited a string of Lake County offices.

FBI and Indiana State Police officers first visited the Lake County Sheriff's department before moving over to the main county complex. Ryan Holmes, of the U.S. Department of Justice, confirmed that a federal search warrant was served in the vicinity of the Lake County Government Center. Holmes could not discuss the case any further.

"The Lake County Sheriff's Department is cooperating with our federal law enforcement partners, fully assisting the FBI with their inquiry," the department said in a statement. "Regular Sheriff's Department operations are continuing. We assure the citizens of Lake County that their safety remains our top priority."

After starting at the Sheriff's Department, federal and state authorities moved into the administrative building, at the same time as a Veterans Day ceremony winded down.

Officials stopped by the Board of Elections and Voter Registration, the E-911 office, auditor's office, data processing and the County Commissioners.

Lake County Commissioner Michael Repay said the FBI requested access to the data processing and E-911 office for records.

"To the extent we have records or information needed for the investigation, the commissioners and staff will fully cooperate," Repay said.

An FBI official at the courthouse was unable to comment on why federal officials were visiting the offices.

Federal authorities also subpoenaed records from the Board or Elections and Voters.

Jim Wieser, Lake County election board attorney, confirmed the office was served a subpoena seeking records but did not disclose what records were requested.

"We are required to have that request by the end of next week," Wieser said.

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich did not respond to a call for comment Thursday morning.









FBI raids Lake County sheriff's offices; searches may have Porter ties
NWI Times
November 10, 2016
nwitimes.com/news/local/lake/fbi-raids-lake-county-sheriff-s-offices-searches-may-have/article_677e5038-f0f5-5da3-85da-0222e1f28c3a.html
CROWN POINT — The FBI and Indiana State Police raided the Lake County Sheriff’s Department and were parked outside the sheriff’s home early Thursday.

A number of FBI agents and state police investigators entered the offices of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich about 9:30 a.m. at the Lake County Government Center, 2293 N. Main St.

They left early Thursday afternoon with several boxes of documents they loaded into an FBI panel truck.

State police and federal investigators’ cars, both marked and unmarked, were parked late Thursday morning outside Buncich’s Crown Point home. FBI Special Agent Bob Ramsey, who appeared outside the sheriff’s home, declined to comment further.

Ramsey and Ryan Holmes, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said federal authorities were serving search warrants on the county sheriff. Holmes declined to comment on what documents are being sought or who is being targeted.

Sources within county government said investigators were looking into rumors of bribery involving towing vendors and police, and were looking for towing contracts and campaign finance reports.

Simultaneous raid
At the same time that federal agents were raiding the Lake County sheriff’s office, several members of the Indiana State Police and the U.S. Department of Treasury shut down Kustom Auto Body, 5409 U.S. 6, Portage, in an apparent raid Thursday morning.

John Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body, said his business was not the target of Thursday morning’s raid.

Cortina said the agents were seeking information on Sampson Towing, a Merrillville-based business that leases storage space in his back lot.

Police vehicles blocked the entrance to the business. Police could be seen going in and out of the building. The treasury agent referred all questions to a department spokesperson, who did not return calls.

FBI order all to leave building
In Lake County, Dean Delisle told The Times he was in the Sheriff’s Bureau of Identification, where police records are held, to obtain a copy of an accident report when agents and state police walked into that office and ordered everybody, including the sheriff’s employees, to leave.

“They were taking pictures of everything,” Delisle said. He said sheriff’s employees appeared upset as they were preparing to leave.

A source within county government said 38 federal and state agents were inside the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. Another source said all employees in the sheriff’s office building were ordered to leave.

Federal agents then fanned out to the Lake County Voter Registration and Election offices, where campaign finance records are kept, and the Lake County E-911 offices, which keeps records of police radio communications, to serve subpoenas for documents.

Buncich’s campaign finance reports indicate he received more than $9,000 in contributions in 2014 and 2015 from several towing and auto firms in Crown Point, Gary, Highland, Hobart, Merrillville, St. John and Whiting.

The elections board office and E-911 offices were allowed to remain open and continue operating.

Mark Back, a spokesman for the sheriff issued a statement 2:43 p.m. Thursday, which said: “The Lake County Sheriff’s Department is cooperating with our federal law enforcement partners and fully assisting the FBI with their inquiry. Regular Sheriff’s Department operations are continuing. We assure the citizens of Lake County that their safety remains our top priority. There was no interruption of police duties.”

Back said the sheriff’s department continued to function through the day. “Employees were asked to at least step away from their desks while the FBI were completing their inquiry and look for whatever they were looking for,” Back said.

As to what the FBI was looking for or removed from the sheriff’s department, “You would have to ask the FBI,” Back said. He said Buncich was continuing to perform his duties as sheriff.

Buncich could not be reached for comment and was not seen Thursday outside his home.

The county sheriff’s department has had agreements with as many as eight towing firms who police use to remove abandoned cars from accident and arrest scenes.









BREAKING: Mayor Reports FBI at Lake County Government Center
NWI Gazette
Ken Davidson / 2 hours ago
November 10, 2016 - 10:00AM
nwigazette.com/2016/11/breaking-mayor-reports-fbi/
Just moments ago Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, Jr. posted the photo above with the caption "FBI and Indiana State Police parked in front of Lake Ct. Gvt Ctr-approx 30 officers entered offices of Sheriff John Buncich" This is a breaking story, we will provide additional details as soon as information becomes available.

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