Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Porter County Commissioners ROCK - Shut down federally indicted Mayor Snyder's plan to partner for a combined city/county building


You've gotta love it: Porter County Commissioners refused to negotiate a plan to partner with Portage Mayor James Snyder for a combined city/county building in Portage - because of Snyder's federal indictment. That's what you call standing by your convictions. 








Commissioner: Porter County won't negotiate with indicted Portage mayor
Post-Tribune
August 29, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-portage-county-plan-st-0830-20170829-story.html

The Porter County Commissioners will not negotiate with indicted Portage Mayor James Snyder over a plan to partner for a combined city/county building in the city's new downtown district, an official said.

Commissioner Jim Biggs, R-North, said in the days after the county council approved a $30 million bond for capital upgrades in the county, including expansion and renovation of the existing North County Annex on Willowcreek Road, that commissioners won't consider Portage's proposal for two reasons: financial feasibility and the November indictment of Snyder on federal charges of allegedly violating federal bribery statutes and obstructing Internal Revenue Service laws. Snyder has pleaded not guilty and is expected to go to trial early next year.

Snyder deferred comment on the matter to Economic Development Director Andy Maletta and Portage City Council President Mark Oprisko, D-At large.

Biggs, who pointed out that he is a Portage native, said county officials met with Portage officials about the proposal and determined that the most financially feasible option was for the county to upgrade the building it already owns in Portage.

He also said commissioners won't negotiate with a public official under indictment.

"The proposal cannot be accomplished without the cooperation of that city's mayor, and I'm not going to do it," Biggs said, adding the county's relationship with Snyder has been riddled with controversies, including over placement of the county's new animal shelter, and county officials have learned "that there is no negotiating with him."

"I am totally sympathetic to Portage officials that they have this shroud of uncertainty having over city government but it's there nonetheless," he continued.

City and county officials have been talking for three years about the possibility of a new county annex along Central Avenue, Oprisko said, calling the commissioners' response "pretty sad and pretty pathetic."

"Obviously I've wasted a lot of energy and dialogue," he said, adding city officials wanted to bring more development to the emerging downtown. "Portage has never had a downtown. This is a big thing for us."

City officials aren't asking for a handout from the county, he said, but for county officials to listen to them.

"It's all about Snyder," he said. "It comes down to Snyder but it's really sad because the city of Portage has more than 40,000 residents."

The County Council approved the bond issue on Aug. 22, and it includes spending $10 million to renovate and expand the North County Annex.

"I think it's at least worth vetting," said Maletta.

Portage would have committed $5 million intended for remodeling of its city hall to the project and the city's redevelopment commission would have purchased the county's building on Willowcreek, officials said. The city also offered to build a parking garage, and the redevelopment commission proposed donating the land for the combined building.

Commissioners and council members received an outline of the proposal and a letter supporting it from Maletta the evening before the council meeting.

"It wasn't malicious. It wasn't mean to anybody," Maletta said of the letter. "I even said in there that we are in support of them passing the bond."

The city of Portage paid the consulting firm SEH to put together the proposal at the request of the council, Maletta said, adding that Snyder purposefully removed himself from the matter so it wouldn't be volatile.

Portage officials were dismayed by video of the segment of the meeting on the bond issue, which is available on YouTube, and the reaction of commissioners, Maletta said, adding he didn't know if Snyder's indictment was a good enough excuse not to pursue a partnership.

"It's not fair to all of us working here to make (Portage) a better place," he said.

During the council meeting, Councilman Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, said he understood the pause among commissioners about dealing with Snyder, given the mayor's legal concerns.

Rivas said his fellow elected officials know how he feels about Snyder; in the weeks after Snyder's indictment, Rivas issued a statement requesting the mayor's resignation.

Still, he wanted commissioners to at least consider Portage officials' request for a partnership because good things could come out of it.

"The entire population of Portage has not been indicted," Rivas said.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

US Attorney Ryan Holmes and FBI - Please take federally indicted Portage Mayor James Snyder DOWN


US Attorney Ryan Holmes and FBI, 
Immediately following the federal conviction of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, Mayor Snyder slapped our justice system in the face, with claims of his own innocence. The arrogance and disrespect that Snyder has displayed, in order to boost  his egotistical belief that he is above the law, is disgusting and disturbing.

I have had to deal head-on with the corruption in Porter County for the past several years - because I had the balls to report corrupt Porter County Magistrate James Johnson. One of the officials I had to go toe-to-toe with was none other than "innocent" Mayor James Snyder.

It was James Snyder / First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC, who assisted my ex [James Clarence Thomas] in hiding hundreds of thousands of dollars of MY marital assets. The Portage police officers who unlawfully entered my home - in retaliation for me having reported Magistrate Johnson - will be able to give you the details on the amount of MY money that was hidden by Snyder, as they discussed this openly over the police radio the day of the unlawful entry. It is believed the funds Snyder hid were in the neighborhood of hundreds of thousands of dollars - possibly towards a million dollars. Snyder hid these funds during the time he was under investigation by the IRS.

It was also Mayor James Snyder who halted an investigation into the unlawful police entry into my home and the resulting deaths of my beloved furbabies Abbi Mae and Bailey Su - who were later killed at the Hobart Humane Society - instead of being returned to me.

I have never obtained my marital assets that Snyder hid, nor have I have received answers or justice for the unlawful police entry into my home and the deaths of Abbi Mae and Bailey Su - because of the corrupt actions of Mayor James Snyder.

On behalf of myself and anyone else who has had to deal with corrupt Mayor James Snyder, please take this son of a bitch down.

I am moving home to Michigan in mid-September  - Please feel free to contact me, if there is anything I can provide you with in taking Snyder down - this is personal now, eh.

Renee' Harrington
michigan.oidv@gmail.com










Portage mayor also facing charges on Lake County sheriff's conviction: 'It enforces my innocence'
Post Tribune
August 24, 2017

Portage Mayor James Snyder, indicted in November for allegedly soliciting money for towing contracts, said there are differences between his case and that of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, who was convicted Thursday on public corruption charges.

In a prepared statement in response to Buncich's conviction on federal counts of wire fraud, honest services wire fraud and bribery, Snyder said there are distinct differences between the two cases and the prosecutor's arguments in the Buncich case in fact re-enforce Snyder's innocence.

"I don't think that the Sheriff Buncich conviction will affect the Mayor Snyder trial in any way," said Thomas Dogan, a Portage attorney who is part of Snyder's legal team.

"Any cash the mayor has ever had given to him has been properly represented in his campaign reports," Dogan said, adding Snyder had a professional treasurer to keep track of his campaign donations.

Snyder, like Buncich, entered a plea of not guilty after he was charged with John Cortina, of Kustom Auto Body in Portage, with violating a federal bribery statute.

Federal prosecutors said at the time that Snyder allegedly solicited money from Cortina, a local towing operator, and "Individual A" and gave them a towing contract for Portage.

Snyder also received a bribery indictment for allegedly accepting $13,000 in connection with a board of works contract and allegedly obstructed Internal Revenue Service laws.

In his statement, Snyder said that unlike Buncich, he has never taken cash and all of his campaign contributions are recorded accurately. Federal prosecutors showed video recordings of Buncich accepting cash during his trial, and also offered testimony that he received cash contributions that did not appear on his campaign finance reports.

"Holding an elected official accountable for the intent of a donor would indict all elected officials who are not independently wealthy and have to raise funds to get their message out," Snyder said.

In his statement, Snyder said Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson's arguments against Buncich prove his own defense and in no way complicate his case.

"It enforces my innocence," Snyder said. "In order to gain a conviction the prosecution would have to argue a complete double standard from their own arguments against the sheriff."

Dogan said Snyder is alluding to the fact that informants testified in the Buncich case that in their minds, they were paying bribes, "and in the mayor's case, that certainly would not support a conviction."

Snyder goes on to say in his statement that he has been "transparent, cooperative and honorable" in his conduct with the federal government and the city of Portage.

"My family, my staff and the city continue to prosper under this cloud and we are grateful to the outpouring of goodness we have received," he said.

Snyder and Cortina are scheduled to go on trial in January.










Portage mayor says his public corruption case is different than Sheriff Buncich
NWI Times
Aug 24, 2017

Portage Mayor James Snyder, who faces federal corruption and bribery charges, said there are distinct differences between his case and the one that led to Thursday's public corruption conviction against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

"I have never taken cash; all of contributions are recorded accurately and holding an elected official accountable for the intent of a donor would indict all elected officials who are not independently wealthy and have to raise funds to get their message out," Snyder said in a prepared statement requested by The Times.

"The prosecutor's own arguments against the sheriff prove my defense and in no way complicated my case; it enforces my innocence," he said.

"I have been transparent, cooperative and honorable in my conduct with the federal government," Snyder said. "My family, my staff and the city continue to prosper under this cloud, and we are grateful to the outpouring of goodness we have received."

Snyder's federal trial is set for Jan. 28 before U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano.

He was indicted in November and has pleaded not guilty to felony counts of bribery, extortion and tax dodging, which carry long prison terms if he is convicted.

Snyder is accused in the bribery count of corruptly soliciting and receiving $12,000 from tow truck operator John Cortina in return for providing Cortina with a towing contract with the city. Cortina is charged with corruptly offering those checks to Snyder.

Snyder is also charged with corruptly soliciting and agreeing 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 third charge accuses Snyder of obstructing and impeding the Internal Revenue Service’s collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC.










UPDATE: Sheriff John Buncich guilty
U.S. Attorney keeps perfect record on public corruption cases
NWI Times
August 24, 2017

HAMMOND — A U.S. District Court jury has found Lake County Sheriff John Buncich guilty on all six counts of wire fraud, honest services wire fraud and bribery.

The jury came back to the courtroom at 10:05 a.m. after deliberating for four hours Wednesday night and one hour this morning.

Buncich is free on bond until his sentencing on Dec. 6, when he faces lengthy prison time. He is also immediately removed from office.

Buncich displayed no emotion when his verdict was read in open court Thursday morning. Some of his supporters in the audience appeared shocked and grief stricken.

Bryan Truitt, one of Buncich's defense attorneys, said he didn't agree with the verdict and would be preparing an appeal. Buncich declined comment outside the courthouse in Hammond.

Larry Rogers, another of Buncich's attorneys, argued Wednesday night to the jury the government entrapped Buncich by giving him tens of thousands in cash uninvited and selectively editing dozens of hours of audio and video recordings to make Buncich look his worst.

The defense offered no video of its own.

Buncich took the daring step of answering the charges by testifying over three days of the trial. He insisted he was legitimately raising campaign contributions and didn't manipulate towing assignments to reward the largest donors.

But he couldn't explain away images of his grabbing and pocketing large wads of cash taken surreptitiously by the FBI and their undercover agent, Scott Jurgensen, a former Merrillville police man and towing firm owner.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson told jurors Wednesday night, "Does this look like a campaign contribution? He was taking money for doing his job. It's time to hold him responsible."

US ATTORNEY IMPROVES RECORD
Acting United States Attorney Clifford Johnson states that “The United States Attorney’s Office will continue to vigorously prosecute public officials who use their public office as means for personal enrichment. All citizens deserve public officials who work for the public interest and not their own interest.”

W. Jay Abbott, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Indianapolis Division, said "Public officials who abuse their positions for personal financial gain at the expense of the taxpayers will not be tolerated. The FBI and our federal, state, and local partners will continue to aggressively pursue those across Indiana who corrupt their office for self-serving motives.

Johnson added, "Also instrumental in these investigations are the honest and patriotic citizens who come forward and assist in uncovering the truth as was the case in Lake County."

John Dull, who has been county attorney for several decades, said Thursday the U.S. Attorney's office has won all of the public corruption cases it has prosecuted against elected public officials since the 1970s. He said most of them pleaded guilty rather than risk trial.

'SAD SAGA' ENDS
Mike Repay, president of the Lake County Board of Commissioners, issued a statement Thursday afternoon that said, "This is the end of a sad saga for the people of Lake County, who put their trust in John Buncich to enforce the law and remain accountable to the public."

"John Buncich violated the public trust with his actions. It will not only cost him his freedom, it adds another black mark against Lake County," Repay said.

Repay added the Board of Commissioners offer their full support to Lake County Chief of Police Matt Eaton who will supervise the sheriff's department until a caucus of Lake County Democratic precinct committeemen and vice committeemen elect a new sheriff next month.

The investigation of the sheriff began with a wide-ranging FBI investigation of local government towing contracts when they recruited Jurgensen who took up towing after he retired after 20 years as a Merrillville police officer.

He testified on the first day of trial he was frustrated that he couldn't get a contract from the department he had served for so long because he wouldn't pay bribes.

Jurgensen said he was one of about a dozen who had received towing contracts from the sheriff's department. He said he didn't have to pay to get on the list, but Downs, a longtime friend, approached him on behalf of the sheriff to buy campaign fundraising ticket.

STATEMENT FROM PORTAGE MAYOR JAMES SNYDER

Statement from Portage Mayor James Snyder, who has been indicted on federal bribery and tax charges. His trial is set to begin in January:

"There are distinct differences between the two cases, I have never taken cash; all of contributions are recorded accurately and holding an elected official accountable for the intent of a donor would indict all elected officials who are not independently wealthy and have to raise funds to get their message out.

The prosecutor's own arguments against the sheriff prove my defense and in no way complicated my case; it enforces my innocence.

I have been transparent, cooperative and honorable in my conduct with the federal government. My family, my staff and the City continue to prosper under this cloud and we are grateful to the outpouring of goodness we have received."

VIDEO EVIDENCE 
The FBI wired Jurgensen and gave him buy money to give to Downs. The later arrested Downs and forced his cooperation with their undercover investigation. Downs carried a video camera into the sheriff's office in 2015 to deliver campaign crash.

Jurgensen video taped two meetings with the sheriff in which cash changed hands.

Buncich's lawyers criticized FBI tactics for paying Jurgensen $130,000 over a five-year period.

They suggested Downs was unbelievable as a witness because he pocketed some of the money he collected for the sheriff.

They characterized as a drunk William "Willie" Szarmach, a Lake Station towing owner who pleaded guilty to paying the sheriff kickbacks and who testified as government witness.

Benson answer was to replay for jurors the video tapes.

An FBI video surveillance recording of: Buncich's second-in-command Timothy Downs delivering $7,500 July 15, 2015, to Buncich in the sheriff's office.

An FBI video surveillance recording of Buncich leaning into Szarmach's tow truck and Jurgensen giving Buncich $2,500 April 22, 2016, in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville.

An FBI video surveillance recording of Jurgensen giving Buncich $2,500 on July 21, 2016, in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville.

FBI surveillance photographs of a meeting Sept. 2, between Jurgensen and Buncich in which Jurgensen gives the sheriff $7,500.

Benson said of the sheriff, "He never thought anyone would see that. If you didn't see it. You wouldn't believe it."

Benson praised Jurgensen's courage. "Think about the guts it took for Mr. Jurgensen to do this to himself and his business and family. What does he get for it? He's called a liar on the witness stand. Its hell to be a cooperator."

Defense lawyers argued the sheriff never delivered more lucrative towing to Jurgensen or Szarmach despite their political contributions.

Benson disagreed, but said it was illegal for the sheriff to take the money and make such promises regardless of the outcome. Even if the sheriff rips them off, its still a crime."

Thursday, August 24, 2017

08242017 - Federal conviction of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich - Proof that justice prevails



Federal conviction of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich - Result of extraordinary efforts and dedication by US Attorney Ryan Holmes, the FBI, and retired police officer Scott Jurgensen, to ensure justice. 








Free speech, fair trials collide at ex-Lake County sheriff's sentencing
The Indiana Lawyer
Marilyn Odendahl
November 29, 2017
https://www.theindianalawyer.com/articles/45474-free-speech-fair-trials-collide-at-ex-lake-county-sheriffs-sentencing

With Lake County seemingly awash in political corruption, a local newspaper is trying to uproot the culture of kickbacks and payouts by putting the spotlight on those who speak in favor of the latest elected official to be convicted.

The Times of Northwest Indiana columnist Marc Chase points out he has a constitutional right to call out public officials and community leaders who “carry water” for John Buncich, the former Lake County Sheriff found guilty of federal bribery charges, who’s scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 6.

However, local attorneys view the paper’s actions as inhibiting the judicial process and possibly creating reversible error, giving an appellate court grounds for overturning whatever sentence is imposed, or even the entire conviction. Moreover, it could set a precedent for media outlets and bloggers to pick winners and losers in court proceedings.

“It’s well beyond editorializing,” said Crown Point attorney Geoffrey Giorgi. “It’s judicial interference.”

Giorgi has been warning about the potential consequences since he read Chase’s column in August. He has talked with other attorneys as well as a constitutional law scholar and garnered the support of the Lake Court Bar Association, which took the unusual step of issuing a statement criticizing the paper’s intentions.

‘Apologist watch’
The controversy started when Chase, a longtime investigative reporter and now editorial page editor for the Times, started the “apologist watch.” After Buncich was found guilty of accepting checks and cash payments in exchange for awarding towing contracts to certain businesses, Chase wrote a column announcing the newspaper will publicize the officeholders and prominent citizens who write letters asking Northern Indiana District Judge James Moody for leniency when imposing a sentence.

Chase promised to report in future columns on the people who take the “misguided approach” of supporting Buncich.

He explained that the individuals and politicians who vouch for the disgraced former sheriff in court are giving an “atta boy!” to their friend and reinforcing the culture of acceptance around corruption. Chase wants the supporters to know the public is watching those propping up the person who betrayed the voters’ trust.

Giorgi, of Giorgi & Bebekoski, LLC, and the bar association maintain the column might squelch participation in the sentencing procedure. People could decide not to tell the judge things that might mitigate Buncich’s sentence for fear they will be put under the microscope by the newspaper.

As a consequence, the ex-sheriff could have his constitutional rights compromised. He will not be able to prepare a comprehensive defense and present his complete case to the judge.

The bar association’s statement read, in part, “It is the height of hypocrisy for a news outlet to discourage individual citizens from exercising their rights to make their voices heard for fear of being publicly shamed, depriving a defendant of resources that our Constitutional system provides.”

Yet, as Gerry Lanosga, assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University Bloomington, noted, the newspaper is not doing anything unlawful. The letters written in support of Buncich are public record and the First Amendment gives the newspaper columnist the right to opine on the contents.

He was also dubious of the attorneys’ concerns about the column deterring people from participating in the proceeding.

Courtrooms and trial proceedings are intimidating by themselves, he said. Add to that the circumstances in Lake County, where the ex-sheriff may now be considered toxic. The media will likely be putting television cameras and reporters in the courthouse for the sentencing, and colleagues and friends might have second thoughts about speaking up because they do not want to be publicly linked to a convicted felon.

“The cost of having an open trial proceeding is you’re going to get public scrutiny,” Lanosga said.

Chase is unapologetic.
“If a sitting office-holder refrains from offering support to a convicted felon, I fail to see how that is a bad thing,” he said, arguing his right to free speech is not impinging on anybody’s right to submit a letter to the court asking for leniency. “They have every right to write a letter. I have every right to call them into question for doing so.”

Stopping the corruption
Giorgi concedes the level of corruption in northwest Indiana is disheartening. Highlighting the most recent news of Merrillville Town Councilman Thomas Goralczyk being indicted and pleading guilty to federal bribery charges also involving towing contracts, Giorgi dejectedly noted public officials on the take seem to be business as usual.

Since September 2016, a township assessor, a former mayor and a former township trustee have either been found guilty or pled guilty to illegally taking money. Also, Portage mayor James Snyder, indicted with Buncich, has been charged with accepting a bribe of $13,000 and not paying his taxes.

Ultimately, all the unlawful acts erode the public’s trust, Chase said. The taxpayers elect a leader they believe has integrity only to have that faith trounced when a federal indictment gets handed down. Something needs to be done to stop the perpetual cycle of corruption, he said.

Adam Sedia, president of the Lake County Bar Association, does not dispute Lake County has a great deal of corruption. Certainly, the media is justified in reporting on that activity, but in regard to the newspaper attempting to reduce public misdeeds by exposing who stands up for the accused and convicted, he noted, “… the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Both Giorgi and Sedia, associate at Hoeppner Wagner & Evans, LLP, argued criminal defendants could have their right to defend themselves curtailed because the media’s focus discouraged supporters from taking part in the proceeding. Conversely, defendants who the media favors could get softer treatment because their friends and colleagues are not being put under the harsh spotlight.

Lanosga said if he were writing the column, he would have waited until after the proceeding to point out those who wrote letters of support.

Still, he noted, the Constitution protects fair comment about public officials and columnists can try to influence policy. “I have trouble with the concept of a newspaper threatening to do its job is unlawful,” Lanosga said. “I think that’s problematic if we come to that.”

Giorgi disputed that what the Times column did is covered by the First Amendment. He characterized it as threatening people, which is not protected speech.

Had Chase not announced the “apologist watch” until after the sentencing, Giorgi and Sedia said they would have had no concerns. Likely supporters would not have been intimidated about coming forward and the defendant would not have been denied a fair hearing.

“They shouldn’t be creating the news,” Giorgi said. “I don’t want my newspaper to be in the news-making business. I want my newspaper to be a source of information of what’s happening in the community.”










'A tremendous obligation': Being Lake County sheriff no easy task for Buncich successor
Post-Tribune
September 08, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-county-sheriff-duties-st-0910-20170908-story.html

While the sheriff is billed as the top law enforcement position in the county, the legally obligated duties that come with the job tend to be more overreaching and administrative than rough-and-tumble police work.

Whoever is selected as the next Lake County sheriff Sept. 16 will be tasked with these duties. A handful of people have announced they wanted the job after former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich was found guilty on all counts at his federal public corruption trial last month. With his conviction, Buncich forfeited his office, according to state law. He's set to be sentenced Dec. 6.

While former Lake County Chief of Police Dennis Matthew Eaton took over as sheriff in the meantime, the county's Democratic precinct committeemen will choose a new sheriff to serve until Buncich's term ends Jan. 1, 2019, at a Sept. 16 caucus.

The person selected will face "a tremendous obligation" with the responsibilities of the job, Councilman Eldon Strong, R-Crown Point, said.

"Once you take that position of sheriff, now you're overseeing the law enforcement duties for the county," Strong said. "You have to maintain the jail, in our case. And these are all very, very expensive obligations, and you have to maintain them."

Porter County Sheriff David Reynolds, now in his third term, thinks "everyone has a different style or a different approach" to the job.

"I've learned that you're as effective as the people that you have around you," Reynolds said.

Even with a good team, "the buck stops with the sheriff," Strong said, and a state statute outlines what a sheriff must fulfill.

According to a statute in Indiana code, the sheriff must "suppress breaches of the peace," "pursue and jail felons" and "take care of the county jail and the prisoners there."

As of Thursday, the Lake County Jail had 816 inmates, according to Mark Back, sheriff's department spokesman. Earlier this year, Buncich estimated that 2,100 to 2,300 meals a day are served at the jail.

The sheriff has to keep records of everyone there. A sheriff has to file a weekly report of each person held, a biannual report on the daily cost of housing inmates and an annual report on the jail's condition and recommended improvements, according to the statute.

Buncich was tasked with making changes to the jail after it came under U.S. Department of Justice oversight. In June, Buncich said that while much had been accomplished, the jail remains under the DOJ's watch as mental health care improvements continue.

In his term, Buncich met with the Lake County Council as they approved medical contracts for the jail and paid vendors to keep the inmates fed.

Strong said it's important for any incoming sheriff to have good communication with the council and other county officials and a "willingness to work with us."

The council began reviewing the 2018 budget Wednesday, as Eaton appeared before the council to address the needs of the sheriff's department. It's "a huge responsibility" for the sheriff, Strong said, as the sheriff's department gets a large chunk of the budget.

"He's the guy that comes to us and tells us what he needs. Not the police chief. Not the detective chief. Not the warden," Strong said.

Under that budget, the sheriff has myriad other tasks to address, including overseeing the Lake County Sheriff's Animal Control and Adoption Center. Since a May raid, Buncich worked with the center to house 68 dogs, three goats and a miniature horse from an alleged illegal puppy mill.

The sheriff's department said those running the jail and animal center would not comment on what they hope for from a new sheriff to help their departments "at risk of the perception of bias towards one candidate over another," according to Back.

The sheriff also provides security of the county's courts, Reynolds said. In Lake County, that includes courts in Crown Point, Hammond, Gary and East Chicago.

In the department, the sheriff oversees 157 merit police officers and 517 total employees, as of Friday, Back said. An orientation is scheduled this month to hire more officers who will work under the sheriff.

Together, the state's sheriffs maintain the Indiana sex and violent offender registry website "to inform the general public about the identity, location and appearance of every sex or violent offender," updating it daily, according to the statute. Nearly 600 people were registered in Lake County on the site Friday.

The statute also states that the sheriff supervises and inspects "all pawnbrokers, vendors, junkshop keepers, cartment, expressmen, dealers in secondhand merchandise, intelligence offices and auctions" in the county.

And "once you become sheriff, you become a political figure," Strong said. Buncich served as the chairman of the Lake County Democratic Committee before Jim Wieser took over the role earlier this year.

The next person to take over these roles will be selected at the caucus 10 a.m. Sept. 16 in the Syd Garner Auditorium at the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point. People have until 10 a.m. Wednesday to announce their candidacy.










CAUTIONARY TALE: Former sheriff's recent public corruption trial provides pointers on what not to do as a candidate and public official
NWI Times
Aug 27, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/former-sheriff-s-recent-public-corruption-trial-provides-pointers-on/article_8dece0be-1515-559b-aebe-aeb8855545ad.html
HAMMOND — The just-concluded trial of now-former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich on federal public corruption charges leaves a number of lessons for current and aspiring politicians.

A U.S. District Court jury found Buncich guilty of six counts of wire fraud, honest services wire fraud and bribery counts alleging he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting cash and campaign contributions following a two-week trial.

Some of the lessons to be gleaned from more than two dozen witnesses include:
+ Beware of political donors bearing cash.

Campaign contributions and promises don't mix.

Running for public office isn't a get-rich-quick scheme.

Campaign finance reports get read.

Trust is misplaced when skirting the law.

Be careful what you pledge.

Beware of political donors bearing cash
Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said Buncich accepted more than $20,000 in cash over a two-year period.

Jurors saw images of Buncich receiving $7,500 on July 15, 2015, while seated behind his office desk from Timothy Downs, his then second-in-command; $2,500 on April 22, 2016, in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville from FBI confidential informant Scott Jurgensen; $2,500 on July 21, 2016, from Jurgensen; and $7,500 on Sept. 2, 2016, again from Jurgensen.

FBI informant Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department and owner of Samson's Towing, and William "Willie" Szaramch, of CSA towing in Lake Station, testified to thousands of additional dollars they paid the sheriff to win more lucrative towing assignments.

Szarmach, a cooperating government witness, testified he asked the sheriff April 22, 2016, to look inside Szarmach's new truck. An FBI surveillance camera caught the sheriff reaching inside. Szarmach said Buncich came out with thousands of dollars in cash Szarmach had left on the driver's seat.

FBI Agent Nathan Holbrook testified, "Cash is more indicative of criminal behavior." Holbrook said the consensus among elected officials he has interviewed is that they prefer checks, not cash, to avoid such suspicion.

Buncich's lawyers argued he never demanded cash and blamed the FBI for cash payments Jurgensen made. Benson said, "It was the best way to see if that man was honest."

Several towing firm owners testified they donate by writing business checks to ensure they can deduct it on their taxes. Stephen R. "Chip" Lukasik, owner of Stan's Towing in St. John, testified, "You want a trail, to be above board."

Jurgensen said he reluctantly agreed to become an FBI informant because he was frustrated over demands for bribes.

Kay Williams, of Bennie's Towing in Gary, testified he bought the sheriff's fundraiser tickets that Willie Stewart, a former jail warden for the sheriff, regularly brought him, but not willingly. "I had to," Williams said. "It was the only way to stay in towing."

Campaign contributions and promises don't mix
Szarmach said he got on the county police towing list after he began giving Buncich cash in 2009. He said he went to one of Buncich's campaign fundraisers at the Paragon Restaurant in Hobart, but was afraid to give Buncich money directly.

"I was afraid he would reject it," Szarmach said. Szarmach said he instead gave $500 to Louis Gerodemos, a friend of both Szarmach's and Buncich's, to give to Buncich. The two exchanged the money during a handshake, and Szarmach said he was added to the sheriff's approved tow list and received his first towing job shortly after midnight of the first day of Buncich's administration.

However, Szarmach said he soon wanted more tows than he received under the system the sheriff set up to give all 12 towing firms work. Szarmach said he finally met the sheriff one-on-one during a luncheon in Cedar Lake, gave him an envelope with $1,000 and always bought more fundraising tickets than his competitors.

Szarmach said he got more work, particularly in heavy towing of large trucks and tractor trailers, which could yield as much as $10,000 per job.

Szarmach and Jurgensen later met and paid the sheriff for more work in Gary, New Chicago and the Indiana University Northwest campus. Buncich said he would contact people he knew. "We'll make it happen," he is overheard saying to to the towing owners in a March 11, 2016 meeting.

When asked whether it was illegal to give a cash donation to a candidate for public office, Holbrook responded it was legal, "As long as no promises are made."

Running for public office isn't a get-rich-quick scheme
In the years between 2003 and 2010 when he was out of public office, Buncich ran up considerable unpaid bills, including $40,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and $30,000 in credit card debt.

He was forced to borrow more than $134,000 from friends and some former employees. At one point he wrote a friend, whose loan he wasn't repaying, "I'm so ashamed of myself. I'm trying to get back up on my feet."

He emptied his retirement account of more than $600,000 to repay debt.

He was later forced to loan his campaign $85,000 in personal funds to run for sheriff again and was fearful of never getting it back, once out of office again.

Buncich is heard on an FBI audio surveillance tape, "I've got $85,000 (expletive) dollars I'm owed. And I'm going to settle that debt."

Benson said this throws light on what motivated Buncich to solicit towing firms for donations and accept bribes from Jurgensen and Szarmach.

Campaign finance reports get read.
The government presented evidence that Buncich didn't report cash payments from Jurgensen and Szarmach on campaign finance reports as required by state law.

Gerard Hatagan, an IRS agent, testified Buncich failed to properly report some cash donations made by Jurgensen and Szarmach and listed nearly $20,000 in "Anonymous cash depositions," or simply, "Anonymous" donors. Hatagan agreed with Benson that "if you don't list it, you are trying to hide it."

Buncich, who was the Lake County Democratic party chairman at the time, testified at trial he had legal opinions that he could do it. "I've never been questioned on it." Benson replied, "You are now, sir."

Trust can be misplaced
The sheriff trusted Downs, his second-in-command and longtime co-worker, to sell fundraising tickets to towing firms doing work for the county.

Downs trusted Jurgensen to buy tickets. They had known each other professionally and socially for 20 years.

Downs didn't suspect Jurgensen was an FBI informant and wearing a wire until the FBI cornered him in 2015 and talked him into cooperating and wearing a wire in the sheriff's office.

Downs testified he was careful to never threaten towing firms while selling them tickets. Downs didn't tell Buncich on the FBI surveillance video he was bringing "bribes" to him.

Be careful what you pledge
The sheriff signed the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission ethics pledge, which asks candidates and public officials to "avoid impropriety and refrain from misusing an official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for myself or others."

Buncich also posted on the Lake County Sheriff's Department website the promise, "I strictly adhere to standards of fairness and integrity in the conduct of campaigns for election and I shall conform to all applicable statutory standards of election financing and reporting so that the office of the sheriff is not harmed by the actions of myself or others."

Benson argued at the end of the trial, "It was his own ethics code and he did the exact opposite."










MARC CHASE: Don't tolerate officials carrying water for Buncich
Marc Chase
NWI Times
August 26, 2017
http://www.nwitimes.com/opinion/columnists/marc-chase/marc-chase-don-t-tolerate-officials-carrying-water-for-buncich/article_21a300b7-894a-5b94-9ad3-21af88f675d0.html
The felony bribery conviction of now former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich Thursday ushers in a crucial period in which all Region residents should be paying particularly close attention.

Let's call it "apologist watch": a period when we all should keep eyes peeled for the ill-advised public officials who run to the disgraced sheriff's defense before sentencing.

For those keeping score, an apologist is one who offers an argument in support of something controversial. In Buncich's case, it likely will mean folks who profess admiration and support for his character even though he's shown himself completely undeserving.

Such behavior happens with impunity around here, but the public figures and officials who show support for those who've committed crimes against taxpayers are really doing us all a favor.

They're showing us who to shun at the polls in upcoming election cycles.

Keep watch for the folks who vehemently argue Buncich got a bum deal from the jury. They're the ones who will say the government didn't prove its case when, in fact, eyewitnesses, informants and video backed up nearly every facet of the allegations that Buncich shoved wads of money in his personal pocket and then handed out business to the tow truck companies that bribed him.

They also will be the public officeholders, and other prominent citizens, who are sure to write letters of support for Buncich to U.S. District Court Judge James Moody, seeking a more lenient sentence.

If history is any guide, Moody isn't likely to entertain misguided attempts at heart-string pulling for a corrupt top cop. He's one of the most no-nonsense judges on the bench of a historically no-nonsense federal court system.

Region residents shouldn't buy the pleas for sympathy and leniency, either.

I promise to help take stock of the names and positions of public officials or other community leaders who carry water for Buncich by petitioning the court for leniency. Any letters filed into the public record seeking leniency for Buncich will be reported in my future columns, along with the names and positions of the writers.

Buncich's friends have a right to petition the court on his behalf. We have a right to withhold support for them if they take this misguided approach.

Region political outsiders no doubt are asking themselves, "Who would be so foolish to publicly proclaim such support for a federally convicted felon? What public official would brand themselves as supporting a corrupt politician, in this case who had sworn to uphold the law?

"In fact, wouldn't it be a scarlet letter for such public officials to cast their lot in this fashion?"

We need only look at past federal cases to realize this wrongheaded behavior is likely forthcoming.

Remember former elected Lake County Surveyor George Van Til and his felony conviction for essentially stealing from taxpayers by appropriating government property and employees for his own personal benefit?

After the former surveyor pleaded guilty in 2014, Van Til's defense attorney, Scott King, filed more than 100 pages worth of letters in open court, all written in support of Van Til. The letters generally vouched for Van Til's character and sought leniency at sentencing.

Dozens of the letters were written by political friends and allies, including a number who currently held political office.

Fast-forward to 2017 and Buncich's scheduled Dec. 6 sentencing hearing, and taxpayers have an opportunity to write some letters or make some phone calls of their own.

We all must remind our public officials that behavior like that perpetrated by Buncich won't be tolerated. More importantly, we should be telling them we won't stand for them espousing an apologist attitude.

In times of great violations of public trust by one public official, the others should be concentrating their efforts on repairing that trust and doing right by citizens — not on standing up for crony friends who just brought yet another disgraceful stain on local governance. That stain is enumerated in the 70-plus public corruption convictions of Region officeholders, government employees and vendors since the late 1970s.

If we as voters fail to provide consequences for officials who carry water for their corrupt friends, we're aiding in the spread of our Region's ongoing plague of corruption.

We’re also ignoring the resonating warnings from the apologists themselves — folks who are more keen on defending a crooked former colleague than the voters who elected them.










Defense will 'absolutely' appeal Sheriff Buncich's conviction, attorney says
POST-TRIBUNE NEWS
August 25, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-appeal-plan-st-0826-20170825-story.html
An attorney for former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said the defense will "absolutely" appeal his public corruption conviction.

"We do think that there are plenty of reasons or issues to appeal," said Bryan Truitt, one of Buncich's defense attorneys.

A 12-person jury found Buncich guilty Thursday on the six counts he faced, including wire fraud and honest services wire fraud and bribery, after just over five hours of deliberating.

Truitt plans to file an appeal after Buncich is sentenced Dec. 6, he said, but he did not want to get into specifics of what he will argue in the appeal until he does further research.

Federal Judge James Moody said there will be no delays of the December hearing, except under extenuating circumstances. Until then, Buncich, 71, remains free on bond.

Buncich forfeited his office as the county's top law enforcement officer once the jury rendered a verdict, as outlined in state law, said James Wieser, chairman of the Lake County Democratic Central Committee.

A caucus is scheduled for Sept. 16 at the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point for the county's Democratic precinct committeemen to select a new sheriff to hold the office until elections next year, Wieser confirmed.

In the meantime, Lake County Chief of Police Dennis Matthew Eaton will run daily operations at the department, according to a Sheriff's Department release.

"He's a respected career law enforcement officer," Michael Repay, president of the Lake County Board of Commissioners, said Thursday of Eaton. "Eaton will carry the ball until the caucus."

The Sheriff's Department said in a statement Friday morning that the department "is working closely with the Lake County Board of Commissioners and the Lake County Council to ensure a smooth transition to new leadership."

"The citizens of Lake County can be assured that the core functions of the Lake County Sheriff's Department will continue without interruption and public safety will remain our highest priority," the release said.

Buncich insisted on his innocence throughout his two-and-a-half week trial, even taking the stand in his own defense for three of the days.

Truitt said he and his co-counsel, Larry Rogers, have been practicing law for a long time but neither has been so firmly convinced of their client's innocence as they were with Buncich.

"Mr. Buncich holds his head up high knowing that the truth is that he didn't do anything wrong, that he is a good man and proud of his service to Lake County," Truitt said in front of the federal courthouse in Hammond after the verdict.

Buncich did not make a statement after the verdict.

Acting U.S. Clifford Johnson said in a statement Thursday that his office "will continue to vigorously prosecute public officials who use their public office as means for personal enrichment."

"All citizens deserve public officials who work for the public interest and not their own interest," the statement says.

At sentencing, the defense expects Buncich will be sentenced to some term of imprisonment, but the exact amount is up to the judge, Truitt said Friday.

"In this case, I would be shocked if he was anything the lowest security classification," Truitt said.

Truitt said they plan to ask the judge to allow Buncich to self-report to prison, rather than being immediately taken into custody at the hearing, "which is not uncommon in these types of situations."

The defense will also "certainly" ask that Buncich "remain free pending the appeal on his bond conditions," Truitt said. While Truitt said "that's a little more rare," it's also "not unheard of" while on appeal.

Former Lake County Coroner Thomas Philpot was convicted in 2012, in Moody's courtroom, of paying himself from a state fund when he did not have the authorization to do so, made a similar request. While Philpot ended up reporting early to prison, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals denied his appeal in 2013.









Buncich trial wrap-up: 12 yes votes convict sheriff of soliciting bribes from tow operators
POST-TRIBUNE NEWS
August 25, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-wrap-up-st-0827-20170826-story.html
Twelve jurors filed into Judge James Moody’s federal courtroom in Hammond Thursday morning, assuming the same seats they had occupied for 14 days.

John Buncich, 71, now former Lake County sheriff, watched the eight men and four women as they filed in and sat down, the judge asking if a verdict was ready.

Buncich closed his eyes as Moody read “guilty” six times on five counts of wire fraud and honest services wire fraud and one count of bribery.

Buncich's head slumped before jurors individually then affirmed the verdict to the court.

"With that ladies and gentlemen, your service is complete," Moody said.

Federal prosecutors spent more than five days presenting evidence and listening to testimony alleging the sheriff accepted bribes — often in the form of campaign fundraiser tickets — to help tow operators get more jobs through the county. The defense, however, argued for more than a week that the donations were made without any intention of influencing Lake County's top cop.

During closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said Buncich wanted to recover the $85,000 he invested in his campaign and did that by taking money from tow operators, as jurors saw in a series of undercover recordings.

"You now know that he was absolutely serious about getting that money back because you saw how he got it," Benson said.

Throughout the trial, Buncich maintained his innocence, refuting the allegations of federal prosecutors.

Defense attorney Larry Rogers said the sheriff had a stellar reputation among law enforcement and the community until the government began its investigation.

"The government has systematically set out to paint the sheriff as a bad person," Rogers said.

Reflecting on the verdict Friday, Bryan Truitt, Buncich's other defense attorney, said he was still trying to understand how the jury reached the verdict they did.

"They didn't attend the same trial I did," Truitt said.

Buncich's co-defendants in the case, Timothy Downs, former Lake County chief of police, and William "Willie" Szarmach, owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, pleaded guilty and testified about the scheme to solicit bribes in the form of fundraiser tickets or contributions to political campaigns at the sheriff's trial.

Benson said the tapes show what happened when people didn't buy the tickets.

"You don't buy the tickets, you get screwed," Benson said.

Pressure to buy
Jurors heard from tow operators, some of whom testified they felt they had to buy the tickets to curry favors, while others said they never felt pressured to make the purchases.

"I knew if I wanted to stay on the tow list, I needed to pay," said Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson Towing in Merrillville and the government's confidential informant in the case.

The entire investigation into towing began in 2012, when an FBI agent asked Jurgensen why he wasn't getting more towing business in Merrillville, where he formerly worked as a police officer.

Jurgensen told FBI agents his business suffered because he refused to bribe municipal officials to get towing territory.

An ensuing investigation led agents to a Merrillville official allegedly soliciting bribes, before looking at alleged bribes to a Schererville official and ultimately up to Buncich, prosecutors said.

Rogers asked the sheriff if any of the tow operators had to pay to get on the list when Buncich took office in 2011.

"Absolutely not," Buncich said.

Kay Williams, manager at Bennie's Towing in Gary, said an officer with the Sheriff's Department showed up at his tow yard selling tickets but never told him he needed to buy them.

"You had to purchase 10 tickets and that's it," Williams said.

Williams said he thought buying the tickets was necessary.

"Only way to stay in towing," Williams said.

Rogers asked Williams if he was ever told that if he didn't buy tickets, he wouldn't get tows.

"No," Williams said.

Downs, who said he sold the tickets to some of the tow operators, didn't demand they buy a specific number of tickets or form of payment, though. At the mention of whether to pay cash or check, a 2014 video played in court showed Downs waving his hands and shaking his head.

"You're not asking. You never ask. I get that," Jurgensen said in the video.

But Downs said he felt he had to sell the tickets and collect the money, even if the sheriff didn't explicitly say it.

"Honestly, if I didn't do this, I wouldn't have a job," Downs said.

Others gave a different version of events, testifying they never felt pressured to buy the tickets or make contributions to Buncich's campaign.

Mitch Mannino, owner of Alternative Towing in Merrillville, said he "never" felt like he had the power to alter his designated towing area by buying more tickets. Some years, he didn't buy any tickets to fundraisers, but he still remained on the sheriff's tow list, he said.

Moving territory
By buying tickets and making cash payments to the sheriff, Jurgensen and Szarmach said they hoped they'd get more towing business from the sheriff.

The government presented a series of video and audio recordings of meetings between Jurgensen and Szarmach with Downs starting in 2014, eventually leading to meetings between the two tow operators and Buncich in 2016.

When Szarmach and Jurgensen weren't satisfied with the business they were getting, they'd bring up these concerns at these meetings at area restaurants, recordings played in court showed.

"Get to the point of why we're here, Willie," Jurgensen said, chuckling, in a 2016 recording.

These led to Szarmach got business at Indiana University Northwest, while Jurgensen got towing work in New Chicago, the government said.

FBI Special Agent Nathan Holbrook said the sheriff used his political influence in New Chicago to get Jurgensen on the towing list by calling in a favor to New Chicago Councilwoman Susan Pelfrey, who is no longer in office.

Jurgensen wanted all of the New Chicago towing, which at the time he shared with another tow operator, and the sheriff made that happen.

Kevin Gaskin, of Tow Central, in Lake Station, said he shared tow operations in New Chicago for more than 20 years until roughly a year ago when Jurgensen took over the entire territory.

Buncich asked Pelfrey about tow operators working in New Chicago and she told him to call the New Chicago police chief to get that list.

Rogers asked if Buncich ever called the police chief.

"Never," Buncich said.

Benson asked why Buncich needed that information and if the sheriff was telling the jury he called to get information he already knew.

"That's exactly what I'm telling the jury," Buncich said.

New Chicago Chief James Richardson said he was never asked by the sheriff to take Tow Central off the list.

Nonetheless, Tow Central was gone and all of the New Chicago towing went to Jurgensen.

"You're the guy," Jurgensen said to Buncich in a recorded 2016 phone call.

Szarmach and Jurgensen also expressed interest in getting more towing in Gary. An agreement signed in 2014 gave the Sheriff's Department authority to enforce Gary city ordinances, including those that might require a vehicle being towed. Buncich assigned Szarmach and Jurgensen to tow for the ordinance enforcement, but Szarmach said it never panned out to be as lucrative as the two hoped.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said the city had no input on which tow operators were used and did not retain any of the money towed by the vehicles by the county.

The defense argued, though, that when Buncich took office in 2011, he was busy dealing with Department of Justice mandates at the Lake County Jail and overseeing the department's budget, leaving everyday operations, including towing, up to Downs.

But Downs testified that Buncich never gave him the power to make changes to the tow list.

"Who controlled the towing?" Benson asked.

"The sheriff himself," Downs said.

Follow the money
Benson told the jury at the start of the trial that "you'll see it and you'll hear it" through recordings.

Jurors watched a July 2015 video Downs filmed of himself walking through the front doors of the sheriff's department, up to Buncich's office and handing the sheriff $7,500 in cash that Downs had collected from tow owners.

The government presented surveillance photos and videos of the restaurant meetings where Buncich accepted envelopes of cash from the front seat of Szarmach's tow truck and a meeting where Buncich put a payment from Jurgensen in his back pocket.

"Look at that. Does that look like a campaign contribution," Benson said. "That looks like it could be a hand-to-hand drug deal."

Rogers said witnesses testified that selling and buying campaign tickets is not a crime.

"In this instant, the government is trying to make it seem like it's illegal," Rogers said.

If those were in fact campaign donations, Gerard Hatagan, a special enforcement program revenue agent with the IRS, said they should have been on the annual reports. Hatagan said the two checks did show up on campaign finance reports for the Lake County Democratic Central Committee.

"The cash didn't make it, did it?" Benson asked.

"It did not," Hatagan said.

Near the end of the trial, attorneys examined Buncich's personal bank account with Benson showing the money Buncich received from tow operators, and the cash deposits into his personal and Buncich Boosters accounts.

The exhibit showed Buncich took $26,000 in cash from the towers between April 2014 to October 2016. In that same two-year period, $58,100 in cash was deposited in his personal account and $11,240 in the campaign account.

Benson harped on Buncich's practice of listing cash donations as anonymous on campaign reports, even if he knew who gave the money. Freeman-Wilson testified she never listed any donations as anonymous.

"I've never been questioned on that," Buncich said.

"You are now, sir," Benson said.

The defense asked Hatagan if he knew if Downs gave the money he collected to Buncich or the sheriff's political campaign, Buncich Boosters.

"No," Hatagan said.

Downs knew, though, if he didn't cooperate with the investigation and record himself giving the money to the sheriff, Buncich could say Downs kept the money, Benson said.

Given the sheriff's ethical obligations, Benson asked if he saw a problem with the people he supervised going to sell campaign fundraiser tickets to county vendors.

"It's no different than any other office in Lake County," Buncich said. "Every elected official in Lake County does it."

Truitt said the government's contention about fundraising practices is that officials are disqualified from taking donations from any contractor.

"This sends a message that if you want to run for public officials, you'd better self finance if you don't want to be on the business end of a federal indictment," Truitt said.










Chief Dennis Matthew Eaton promises a smooth transition following former Sheriff John Buncich's conviction and removal for public corruption
NWI Times
Aug 25, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/chief-dennis-matthew-eaton-promises-a-smooth-transition-following-former/article_81fc8e56-33ee-570b-bc60-b1c0f893d737.html

CROWN POINT — Chief Dennis Matthew Eaton is promising a smooth transition in the leadership of the Lake County Sheriff's Department following the conviction of now former Sheriff John Buncich.

Eaton, who is now overseeing county police, the county jail and the county animal shelter, issued a public statement Friday morning that he is working closely with the Lake County Board of Commissioners and the Lake County Council.

Eaton took over the operation of the sheriff's department Thursday morning after a U.S. District Court jury returned a guilty verdict against Buncich on bribery, wire fraud and honest services wire fraud charges.

State law mandates the immediate removal of an elected official after a felony conviction.

Eaton said the department is operating normally in the interim of Buncich's departure and a Sept. 16 caucus of the Lake County precinct committee organization.

Those who have publicly expressed interest in running for sheriff include: Lake County Clerk Mike A. Brown, former sheriff Roy Dominguez, Schererville Police Chief David Dowling, Richard Ligon of Gary, county police Sgt. Oscar Martinez, assistant county Police Chief Daniel Murchek and Highland attorney Thomas O'Donnell.

Buncich chose Eaton May 31 to become second in command of the sheriff's department, replacing Timothy Downs, who resigned from the department last December after pleading guilty to federal charges alleging he collected towing firm kickbacks under Buncich's orders.

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.

He has served as commander of the Sheriff's Department's Criminal Investigations Division from 2013 to his appointment as police chief.

A federal grand jury indicted Buncich, Downs and William “Willie” Szarmach, operator of CSA Towing of Lake Station in November. Szarmach also has pleaded guilty to paying bribes.










Lake County police chief takes over sheriff's department
NWI Times
Aug 25, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/state-and-regional/indiana/lake-county-police-chief-takes-over-sheriff-s-department/article_d66b14ed-7c7b-582b-9830-86598e1999e3.html
CROWN POINT, Ind. (AP) — The Lake County Sheriff's Department police chief said Friday that he'll work toward a smooth transition of power following the corruption conviction and ouster of his former boss, Sheriff John Buncich.

With Buncich's removal, Police Chief Dennis Matthew Eaton, the second in command at the sheriff's department, now oversees the county police, jail and animal shelter in Indiana's second most-populous county, The (Northwest Indiana) Times reported.

"The Lake County Sheriff's Department is working closely with the Lake County Board of Commissioners and the Lake County Council to ensure a smooth transition to new leadership," the department said in a statement.

Within the next thirty days, the Lake County Democratic Central Committee will be tasked with appointing a pro tem sheriff, the statement said. Among those who have publicly expressed interest in running for sheriff are Lake County Clerk Mike A. Brown and former Sheriff Roy Dominguez.

Eaton took over the operation of the department Thursday morning after a U.S. District Court jury found Buncich, a Democrat, guilty on bribery and wire fraud charges. State law mandates the immediate removal of an elected official after a felony conviction.

Buncich chose Eaton on May 31 to become his second in command, replacing Timothy Downs, who resigned last December after pleading guilty to federal charges alleging he collected towing company kickbacks under Buncich's orders.

Eaton had served as commander of the Sheriff's Department's Criminal Investigations Division from 2013 until his appointment as police chief.

Buncich is free on bond until his sentencing Dec. 6. A federal grand jury indicted him, Downs and William "Willie" Szarmach, operator of CSA Towing of Lake Station, last November. Szarmach has pleaded guilty to paying bribes.

Defense attorney Bryan Truitt said Thursday that defense attorneys will "do everything we can to set aside this verdict." He said Buncich "holds his head up high knowing the truth is that he didn't do anything wrong."

Buncich was elected to his fourth term as sheriff in 2015.










Lake County Dems to pick new sheriff after Buncich conviction
Chicago Suntimes
August 25, 2017
chicago.suntimes.com/news/lake-county-indiana-sheriff-convicted-of-fraud-bribery-charges/
A pro tem sheriff for Lake County, Indiana, will be appointed in the next month after Sheriff John Buncich was convicted Thursday in connection with a bribery and fraud scheme involving towing contracts.

A federal jury in Hammond, Indiana, convicted Buncich of five counts of honest services wire fraud and one count of bribery in connection with soliciting, demanding, and receiving over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions on towing contracts, according to U.S. Attorney’s Office for Northern Indiana.

Buncich was immediately removed from office, and the Lake County Democratic Central Committee will appoint a pro tem sheriff within the next 30 days, according to the sheriff’s office. The time, date and location of the caucus have not been set.

Until a new sheriff is appointed, Chief Dennis Matthew Eaton will run the department.

“The Lake County Sheriff’s Department is working closely with the Lake County Board of Commissioners and the Lake County Council to ensure a smooth transition to new leadership,” a statement from the sheriff’s office said. “The citizens of Lake County can be assured that the core functions of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department will continue without interruption and public safety will remain our highest priority.”

Buncich, Timothy Downs and William Szarmach were indicted in November 2016, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Northern Indiana. Downs was a former chief and second-in-command in the sheriff’s department, appointed by Buncich. Szarmach owns and operates CSA Towing in Lake Station, Indiana.

According to the indictment, the sheriff had “exclusive authority to determine who would do vehicle towing” and from February 2014 until October 2016, the sheriff “devised a scheme to enrich Buncich personally and his campaign committee.”

Trial evidence included checks and cash payments, many collected by Downs, from Szarmach and Scott Jurgensen “in exchange for Buncich awarding them county towing business and towing in the City of Gary for ordinance violations.”

Jurgenson, a former Merrillville police officer and owner of Sampson Relocation and Towing, “provided significant assistance during the course of this investigation,” according to prosecutors.

Both Szarmach and Downs, who both testified, await sentencing. Downs pleaded of guilty to one count of honest services wire fraud, and Szarmach pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud, bribery and failure to file a tax return, prosecutors said.



“Taxpayers expect their elected officials to protect and improve their communities,” Gabriel Grchan, IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge, said in a statement. “Rather than serve his community, Buncich abused his position and devised a pay-to-play towing scheme that benefited him and few others financially.










Statement from U.S. Attorney's Office on the conviction of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich
Ryan Holmes, U.S. Attorney's Office 
NWI Times
Aug 24, 2017 
HAMMOND — Acting United States Attorney for the Northern District of Indiana, Clifford D. Johnson, announced that John Buncich, age 71, of Crown Point, Indiana was convicted of all 6 counts of the superseding indictment, after a 14-day jury trial before District Court Senior Judge James T. Moody.

John Buncich, Timothy Downs and William Szarmach were indicted in November 2016 on multiple federal charges. Buncich, the current Lake County Sheriff, served as sheriff from 1994-2002, and was re-elected in 2010 and again in 2014. Timothy Downs, formerly the Chief in the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, was the second person in command at that Department; Downs was appointed to that position by Buncich. William Szarmach owns and operates CSA Towing in Lake Station, Indiana.

Pursuant to a Lake County ordinance, the sheriff has exclusive authority to determine who would do vehicle towing as required by the sheriff’s department. From February 2014 continuing into October 2016, Buncich devised a scheme to deprive the citizens of Lake County of their right to the honest services of the sheriff’s office. The scheme was designed to enrich Buncich personally and his campaign committee, known as Buncich Boosters. The trial evidence established that a number of checks and cash payments, often collected by Downs, from Szarmach and Scott Jurgensen were exchanged for Buncich awarding them county towing business and towing in the City of Gary for ordinance violations. Mr. Jurgenson, a former Merrillville Police Officer, is the owner of Sampson Relocation and Towing. Mr. Jurgenson provided significant assistance to the United States during the course of this investigation. The jury convicted Buncich of 5 counts of Honest Services Wire Fraud in connection with this scheme. The jury also convicted Buncich of a charged violation of the federal bribery statute in connection with corruptly soliciting, demanding, and receiving over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions by Buncich regarding the towing contracts.

Both Szarmach and Downs, who both testified at trial, await sentencing on their guilty pleas to the following charges in the indictment: Timothy Downs entered a plea of guilty to one count of Honest Services Wire Fraud and; William Szarmach entered a plea of guilty to three counts of Honest Services Wire Fraud, Bribery and Failure to File a Tax Return.

Acting United States Attorney Clifford Johnson states that “The United States Attorney’s Office will continue to vigorously prosecute public officials who use their public office as means for personal enrichment. All citizens deserve public officials who work for the public interest and not their own interest.”

"Public officials who abuse their positions for personal financial gain at the expense of the taxpayers will not be tolerated. The FBI and our federal, state, and local partners will continue to aggressively pursue those across Indiana who corrupt their office for self-serving motives," said W. Jay Abbott, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Indianapolis Division. "Also instrumental in these investigations are the honest and patriotic citizens who come forward and assist in uncovering the truth as was the case in Lake County."

Gabriel Grchan, IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge stated, "Taxpayers expect their elected officials to protect and improve their communities. Rather than serve his community Buncich abused his position and devised a pay-to-play towing scheme that benefited him and few others financially. Today's verdict reminds us that public corruption will not be tolerated and no one is above the law."

This case was the result of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation Division. This case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Philip C. Benson and Maria N. Lerner.










Jury convicts northwestern Indiana sheriff in bribery case
NWI Times
Aug 24, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/state-and-regional/illinois/jury-convicts-northwestern-indiana-sheriff-in-bribery-case/article_ffb7fa6a-2401-5d2f-aaf7-5739b9f1fa62.html
HAMMOND, Ind. (AP) — The sheriff of Indiana's second most-populous county was convicted Thursday of federal bribery and wire fraud charges stemming from an illegal towing scheme.

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is free on bond until sentencing Dec. 6 and is immediately removed from office. Jurors in U.S. District Court in Hammond found Buncich guilty after about five hours of deliberations that started Wednesday following a 13-day trial that included three days of testimony from Buncich. He denied all wrongdoing.

Prosecutors' presented evidence and testimony that Buncich accepted bribes to help tow operators get more jobs through the county. The bribes often were in the form of campaign fundraising tickets. During closing arguments prosecutors told jurors the sheriff abused his elected position. Prosecutors also had FBI video surveillance and photographs of Buncich taking money.

At one point Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson asked the jury, "Did he look shocked or did he look like he did it before? He seems very comfortable putting the money in (the) drawer of his desk, owned by Lake County taxpayers."

Defense attorneys argued the donations were made without intending to influence Buncich and that the case was an FBI setup.

"What the government has done over the past two weeks is systematically dirty up the sheriff so you will believe he is guilty as charged," defense attorney Larry Rogers told jurors.

The trial included testimony from Scott Jurgensen, a former Merrillville police officer and towing company owner, who said FBI agents recruited him to pay bribes to Buncich and record the meetings. Jurgensen testified the FBI paid him more than $130,000 over five years, including bribe money.

Another tow truck operator, William Szarmach, previously pleaded guilty to charges of bribery, wire fraud and tax evasion and agreed to testify for federal prosecutors in Buncich's trial. Szarmach said in a plea agreement filed in federal court that he bought tickets to Buncich's fundraising events and made additional cash payments to Buncich to maintain and increase his business of towing vehicles for county police.

Buncich is a Democrat and was elected in 2015 to his fourth term as sheriff in Lake County.

Defense attorney Bryan Truitt said outside court after the verdict that defense attorneys will "do everything we can to set aside this verdict." He said Buncich "holds his head up high knowing the truth is that he didn't do anything wrong."



Republican Portage Mayor James Snyder faces federal bribery charges in a related case of accepting money in exchange for towing contracts in his city, which is in neighboring Porter County. Snyder, who was elected to his second term as mayor in 2015, has pleaded not guilty and has a trial scheduled to begin in January.










Lake County Sheriff guilty of bribery, other crimes. What happens now?
NWI Times
Aug 24, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/lake-county-sheriff-guilty-of-bribery-other-crimes-what-happens/article_6d3ae361-f1ec-51b4-b00b-bb85f5db4699.html
HAMMOND — John Buncich's long police career ended Thursday.

All his former powers as the county's top elected law enforcement officer became null and void when an eight-man, four-woman jury found him guilty in a U.S. District Court jury trial of federal public corruption charges.

Buncich's lawyer, Bryan Truitt, said after the verdict the the sheriff would prepare a letter of resignation after consulting with his legal counselors.

However, state law makes that unnecessary, according to Jim Wieser, Lake County Democratic chairman and a veteran election law attorney.

He said the law states any public officer convicted of a felony during the public officer's term of office shall be removed from office by operation of law when, in a jury trial, a jury publicly announces a verdict against the person for a felony.

Wieser said a caucus of the Lake County Democratic party's 523 precinct committee members will have to meet within 40 days to fill the vacancy left behind. He said he intends to schedule one early next month.

Those who have publicly expressed interest in running for sheriff include: Lake County Clerk Mike A. Brown, former Sheriff Roy Dominguez, Schererville Police Chief David Dowling, Richard Ligon of Gary, county police Sgt. Oscar Martinez, assistant county Police Chief Daniel Murchek and Highland attorney Thomas O'Donnell.

Chief of Police Matt Eaton, who has been serving as Buncich's second-in-command, is expected to be the acting sheriff during the interim.

The last sheriff to leave office prematurely was Rudy Bartolomei Oct. 25, 1985, when he pleaded guilty to felony charges he extorted campaign contributions from employees and ordered employees to work on his political campaigns.

Buncich already was a veteran police officer at that time.

He joined the county police force in late 1971. Buncich rose to the rank of captain and had served in all the Sheriff's Department's divisions, including: detective bureau, jail, patrol, communications and civil processing by his first successful run for sheriff in 1994.

He was re-elected in 1998. Term limits forced him to step down in 2002. He won back the office in 2010 and was re-elected in 2014 and would have remained in office until the end of 2018.

He commanded 475 county police, corrections officers and civilian employees, as well as a $32 million annual budget and a personal salary of more than $146,000.

He dedicated his most recent years in office to improving health care for county jail inmates to remove the county jail from federal supervision following a civil rights suit against the county filed in 2009.











Complete coverage: Lake County Sheriff Buncich's federal bribery trial
NWI Times
Aug 24, 2017 
A U.S. District Court jury found former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich guilty on all six counts of wire fraud, honest services wire fraud and bribery. Here's a recap at what took place during the trial.









































RICH JAMES: Lake sheriff candidates are lining up
NWI Times
August 13, 2017
Updated - August 24, 2017
Whether Lake County Sheriff John Buncich wins or loses his fight for survival in federal court, it won’t be terribly long before the county will have a new top cop.

If Buncich is found not guilty, he can’t run again next year because of term limits.

And as Buncich has spent the last eight months preparing for trial, a crowded field has formed hoping to replace him either through a Democratic precinct caucus this year or primary and general elections in 2018.

A lot comes with the sheriff’s job — prestige, power and a salary that most of us can only dream about.

I guess we’d all like a sheriff who is honest and has had considerable experience in law enforcement.

Just as some recent candidates have done, Buncich first ran for sheriff in 1994 as a “policeman for a policeman’s job.”

It worked in 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2010. I guess people kind of like the idea of a cop being the county’s top law enforcement officer.

But, this is Lake County, and being qualified isn’t always a requisite for office.

I remember when Democratic precinct committeemen elected Rudy Bartolomei sheriff when Sheriff Chris Anton died. Then again, committeemen had to pick between Bartolomei and Anton’s widow, Anna. Neither one had any business being sheriff.

There are a few contenders and a host of pretenders waiting in the wings. Some have law enforcement credentials. Others are basing their hopes on politics.

Highland attorney Thomas O’Donnell, who was a police officer some 20 years ago, would make a good sheriff, but may have gone to the well too often with runs for state representative twice in the last six years.

Roy Dominguez, who served two terms as sheriff, has been running around the Lake County Fair telling people he’s going to be a candidate.

But Dominguez left office in 2007 under a cloud when his second in command was indicted on gun charges. Should Dominguez file, he would hurt the candidacy of county cop Oscar Martinez, a fellow Hispanic, who has run for sheriff.

While ethnicity can be a factor, so too can race.

County Clerk Mike Brown, a popular guy who is black, is a likely candidate who can’t run again for clerk because of term limits.

A Brown candidacy could make it difficult for Richard Ligon, who also is black and has run several times for sheriff. Ligon was in law enforcement with the United States Postal Service.

There are a few other pretenders who are running on a hope and prayer and inflated ego.

But it would be a crime if one other guy didn’t win.

Schererville Police Chief David Dowling is a lifelong cop and proven administrator. He would restore pride to the sheriff’s office.










Portage mayor also facing charges on Lake County sheriff's conviction: 'It enforces my innocence'
Post Tribune
August 24, 2017

Portage Mayor James Snyder, indicted in November for allegedly soliciting money for towing contracts, said there are differences between his case and that of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, who was convicted Thursday on public corruption charges.

In a prepared statement in response to Buncich's conviction on federal counts of wire fraud, honest services wire fraud and bribery, Snyder said there are distinct differences between the two cases and the prosecutor's arguments in the Buncich case in fact re-enforce Snyder's innocence.

"I don't think that the Sheriff Buncich conviction will affect the Mayor Snyder trial in any way," said Thomas Dogan, a Portage attorney who is part of Snyder's legal team.

"Any cash the mayor has ever had given to him has been properly represented in his campaign reports," Dogan said, adding Snyder had a professional treasurer to keep track of his campaign donations.

Snyder, like Buncich, entered a plea of not guilty after he was charged with John Cortina, of Kustom Auto Body in Portage, with violating a federal bribery statute.

Federal prosecutors said at the time that Snyder allegedly solicited money from Cortina, a local towing operator, and "Individual A" and gave them a towing contract for Portage.

Snyder also received a bribery indictment for allegedly accepting $13,000 in connection with a board of works contract and allegedly obstructed Internal Revenue Service laws.

In his statement, Snyder said that unlike Buncich, he has never taken cash and all of his campaign contributions are recorded accurately. Federal prosecutors showed video recordings of Buncich accepting cash during his trial, and also offered testimony that he received cash contributions that did not appear on his campaign finance reports.

"Holding an elected official accountable for the intent of a donor would indict all elected officials who are not independently wealthy and have to raise funds to get their message out," Snyder said.

In his statement, Snyder said Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson's arguments against Buncich prove his own defense and in no way complicate his case.

"It enforces my innocence," Snyder said. "In order to gain a conviction the prosecution would have to argue a complete double standard from their own arguments against the sheriff."

Dogan said Snyder is alluding to the fact that informants testified in the Buncich case that in their minds, they were paying bribes, "and in the mayor's case, that certainly would not support a conviction."

Snyder goes on to say in his statement that he has been "transparent, cooperative and honorable" in his conduct with the federal government and the city of Portage.

"My family, my staff and the city continue to prosper under this cloud and we are grateful to the outpouring of goodness we have received," he said.

Snyder and Cortina are scheduled to go on trial in January.









Portage mayor says his public corruption case is different than Sheriff Buncich
NWI Times
Aug 24, 2017

Portage Mayor James Snyder, who faces federal corruption and bribery charges, said there are distinct differences between his case and the one that led to Thursday's public corruption conviction against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

"I have never taken cash; all of contributions are recorded accurately and holding an elected official accountable for the intent of a donor would indict all elected officials who are not independently wealthy and have to raise funds to get their message out," Snyder said in a prepared statement requested by The Times.

"The prosecutor's own arguments against the sheriff prove my defense and in no way complicated my case; it enforces my innocence," he said.

"I have been transparent, cooperative and honorable in my conduct with the federal government," Snyder said. "My family, my staff and the city continue to prosper under this cloud, and we are grateful to the outpouring of goodness we have received."

Snyder's federal trial is set for Jan. 28 before U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano.

He was indicted in November and has pleaded not guilty to felony counts of bribery, extortion and tax dodging, which carry long prison terms if he is convicted.

Snyder is accused in the bribery count of corruptly soliciting and receiving $12,000 from tow truck operator John Cortina in return for providing Cortina with a towing contract with the city. Cortina is charged with corruptly offering those checks to Snyder.

Snyder is also charged with corruptly soliciting and agreeing 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 third charge accuses Snyder of obstructing and impeding the Internal Revenue Service’s collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC.










UPDATE: Sheriff John Buncich guilty
U.S. Attorney keeps perfect record on public corruption cases
NWI Times
August 24, 2017


HAMMOND — A U.S. District Court jury has found Lake County Sheriff John Buncich guilty on all six counts of wire fraud, honest services wire fraud and bribery. 

The jury came back to the courtroom at 10:05 a.m. after deliberating for four hours Wednesday night and one hour this morning. 

Buncich is free on bond until his sentencing on Dec. 6, when he faces lengthy prison time. He is also immediately removed from office. 

Buncich displayed no emotion when his verdict was read in open court Thursday morning. Some of his supporters in the audience appeared shocked and grief stricken.

Bryan Truitt, one of Buncich's defense attorneys, said he didn't agree with the verdict and would be preparing an appeal. Buncich declined comment outside the courthouse in Hammond.

Larry Rogers, another of Buncich's attorneys, argued Wednesday night to the jury the government entrapped Buncich by giving him tens of thousands in cash uninvited and selectively editing dozens of hours of audio and video recordings to make Buncich look his worst.

The defense offered no video of its own.

Buncich took the daring step of answering the charges by testifying over three days of the trial. He insisted he was legitimately raising campaign contributions and didn't manipulate towing assignments to reward the largest donors.

But he couldn't explain away images of his grabbing and pocketing large wads of cash taken surreptitiously by the FBI and their undercover agent, Scott Jurgensen, a former Merrillville police man and towing firm owner. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson told jurors Wednesday night, "Does this look like a campaign contribution? He was taking money for doing his job. It's time to hold him responsible."

US ATTORNEY IMPROVES RECORD
Acting United States Attorney Clifford Johnson states that “The United States Attorney’s Office will continue to vigorously prosecute public officials who use their public office as means for personal enrichment. All citizens deserve public officials who work for the public interest and not their own interest.”

W. Jay Abbott, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Indianapolis Division, said "Public officials who abuse their positions for personal financial gain at the expense of the taxpayers will not be tolerated. The FBI and our federal, state, and local partners will continue to aggressively pursue those across Indiana who corrupt their office for self-serving motives.

Johnson added, "Also instrumental in these investigations are the honest and patriotic citizens who come forward and assist in uncovering the truth as was the case in Lake County."

John Dull, who has been county attorney for several decades, said Thursday the U.S. Attorney's office has won all of the public corruption cases it has prosecuted against elected public officials since the 1970s. He said most of them pleaded guilty rather than risk trial.

'SAD SAGA' ENDS
Mike Repay, president of the Lake County Board of Commissioners, issued a statement Thursday afternoon that said, "This is the end of a sad saga for the people of Lake County, who put their trust in John Buncich to enforce the law and remain accountable to the public."

"John Buncich violated the public trust with his actions. It will not only cost him his freedom, it adds another black mark against Lake County," Repay said.

Repay added the Board of Commissioners offer their full support to Lake County Chief of Police Matt Eaton who will supervise the sheriff's department until a caucus of Lake County Democratic precinct committeemen and vice committeemen elect a new sheriff next month.

The investigation of the sheriff began with a wide-ranging FBI investigation of local government towing contracts when they recruited Jurgensen who took up towing after he retired after 20 years as a Merrillville police officer.

He testified on the first day of trial he was frustrated that he couldn't get a contract from the department he had served for so long because he wouldn't pay bribes.

Jurgensen said he was one of about a dozen who had received towing contracts from the sheriff's department. He said he didn't have to pay to get on the list, but Downs, a longtime friend, approached him on behalf of the sheriff to buy campaign fundraising ticket.

STATEMENT FROM PORTAGE MAYOR JAMES SNYDER

Statement from Portage Mayor James Snyder, who has been indicted on federal bribery and tax charges. His trial is set to begin in January: 

"There are distinct differences between the two cases, I have never taken cash; all of contributions are recorded accurately and holding an elected official accountable for the intent of a donor would indict all elected officials who are not independently wealthy and have to raise funds to get their message out.

The prosecutor's own arguments against the sheriff prove my defense and in no way complicated my case; it enforces my innocence.

I have been transparent, cooperative and honorable in my conduct with the federal government. My family, my staff and the City continue to prosper under this cloud and we are grateful to the outpouring of goodness we have received."

VIDEO EVIDENCE 
The FBI wired Jurgensen and gave him buy money to give to Downs. The later arrested Downs and forced his cooperation with their undercover investigation. Downs carried a video camera into the sheriff's office in 2015 to deliver campaign crash.

Jurgensen video taped two meetings with the sheriff in which cash changed hands.

Buncich's lawyers criticized FBI tactics for paying Jurgensen $130,000 over a five-year period.

They suggested Downs was unbelievable as a witness because he pocketed some of the money he collected for the sheriff.

They characterized as a drunk William "Willie" Szarmach, a Lake Station towing owner who pleaded guilty to paying the sheriff kickbacks and who testified as government witness.

Benson answer was to replay for jurors the video tapes.

An FBI video surveillance recording of: Buncich's second-in-command Timothy Downs delivering $7,500 July 15, 2015, to Buncich in the sheriff's office.

An FBI video surveillance recording of Buncich leaning into Szarmach's tow truck and Jurgensen giving Buncich $2,500 April 22, 2016, in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville.

An FBI video surveillance recording of Jurgensen giving Buncich $2,500 on July 21, 2016, in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville.

FBI surveillance photographs of a meeting Sept. 2, between Jurgensen and Buncich in which Jurgensen gives the sheriff $7,500.

Benson said of the sheriff, "He never thought anyone would see that. If you didn't see it. You wouldn't believe it."

Benson praised Jurgensen's courage. "Think about the guts it took for Mr. Jurgensen to do this to himself and his business and family. What does he get for it? He's called a liar on the witness stand. Its hell to be a cooperator."

Defense lawyers argued the sheriff never delivered more lucrative towing to Jurgensen or Szarmach despite their political contributions.

Benson disagreed, but said it was illegal for the sheriff to take the money and make such promises regardless of the outcome. Even if the sheriff rips them off, its still a crime."










Lake County, Indiana, Sheriff John Buncich found guilty of fraud, bribery
Post Tribune
August 24, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-day-14-st-0825-20170824-story.html
Lake County Democrats soon will select a new sheriff after a federal jury on Thursday convicted John Buncich on public corruption charges accusing him of accepting bribes for larger shares of local tow truck work.

A 12-person jury, composed of eight men and four women, returned a guilty verdict Thursday morning on five counts of wire fraud and honest services wire fraud and one count of bribery. Buncich, 71, remains on bond until his sentencing Dec. 6, but must immediately forfeit his post as the county's top law enforcement official, officials said.

"The United States Attorney's office will continue to vigorously prosecute public officials who use their public office as means for personal enrichment," Acting U.S. Attorney Clifford Johnson said in a statement. "All citizens deserve public officials who work for the public interest and not their own interest."

The jury began deliberating shortly before 5:30 p.m. Wednesday before breaking just before 10 p.m. Jurors resumed their deliberations at 9 a.m. Thursday and reached a verdict by 10:05 a.m., capping the 13-day trial filled with testimony from local tow-truck operators, accountants and public officials.

Federal prosecutors presented evidence and testimony alleging the sheriff accepted bribes, often in the form of campaign fundraising tickets, to help tow operators get more jobs through the county. Defense attorneys argued the donations were made without any intention of influencing Lake County's top cop and that it was all set up by the FBI.

Defense attorney Bryan Truitt said he and co-counsel Larry Rogers were "very disappointed" by the jury's verdict. Truitt said he and Rogers have been practicing law for a long time and tried a lot of cases, and neither has been so firmly convinced of their client's innocence as they were with Buncich.

"Mr. Buncich holds his head up high knowing that the truth is that he didn't do anything wrong, that he is a good man and proud of his service to Lake County," Truitt said in front of the federal courthouse in Hammond after the verdict.

Buncich, meanwhile, stood off to the side, and did not give a personal statement.

James Wieser, chairman of the Lake County Democratic Central Committee, said state law requires the sheriff step down once the jury rendered its verdict, starting the process to plan a caucus to fill the vacancy. Wieser said he'll call a caucus of the county's Democratic precinct committeemen within 30 days of the office being vacated and select a new sheriff.

The committee is in the process of figuring out the date, location and sending out notices for the caucus, he said.

Buncich found guilty of fraud, bribery

Lake County Chief Dennis M. Eaton will run the the sheriff's department during the interim, Wieser said.

"He's a respected career law enforcement officer," Michael Repay, president of the Lake County Board of Commissioners, said of Eaton. "Eaton will carry the ball until the caucus."

Repay said Eaton has the full support of the Board of Commissioners.

"This is a big operation to keep going and we have confidence he will keep it going," Repay said.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who testified for the defense last week, said Thursday in a statement: "As a citizen, I respect the province of the jury. As a friend and colleague, I am praying for Sheriff Buncich and his family. We must all remember the sacred nature of our public trust."

Wieser said he's known Buncich for a long time and never anticipated anything like this would happen.

"I'm saddened by the verdict. I don't take any joy in it," Wieser said. "I'm upset again for the Democratic Party."

Wieser said part of the reason he ran for party chairman is to see the party take a new direction, and it's time to change the culture and image of impropriety.

"There's just no room for it," Wieser said.

During closing arguments Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said Buncich is heard on the recordings wanting to get back the $85,000 he invested in his campaign and the evidence shows he sought to recover that money from tow operators.

"You now know that he was absolutely serious about getting that money back because you saw how he got it," Benson said.

Rogers, during closing arguments, said the sheriff had a stellar reputation among law enforcement and the community until the government began its investigation. Rogers said the FBI produced encounters with the sheriff to make it appear Buncich is corrupt.

"The government has systematically set out to paint the sheriff as a bad person," Rogers said.

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

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

Both agreed, as a condition of the agreements, to testify against Buncich.

Truitt said the defense will do everything it can to have the verdict set aside.

"I don't want to speculate on what they (the jury) were thinking," Truitt said. "I think they sure as heck got something wrong or confused."

As part of a stipulation filed Thursday in the case, Buncich agreed to forfeit $34,000 tied to the case if he was convicted on any of his counts, court records show.

"Public officials who abuse their positions for personal financial gain at the expense of the taxpayers will not be tolerated," W. Jay Abbott, special agent in charge of the FBI's Indianapolis Division, said in a statement. "The FBI and our federal, state and local partners will continue to aggressively pursue those across Indiana who corrupt their office for self-serving motives."

Dan Dernulc, chairman of the Lake County Republican Party and a Lake County councilman, said elected officials should be held to a higher standard, calling the case a "a black eye for Lake County."

"If you do something that is not right, you're going to be found out for sure," Dernulc said. "You should not enrich yourself, especially on the public clock."

Incidents such as the case against the Buncich impact how the public views elected officials, Wieser said, and most are honest and decent.

"Everybody gets painted with a broad brush," Wieser said.

Repay said the verdict allows Lake County to move beyond the corruption case.

"Today was a day where justice was served," Repay said. 









Jury convicts northwestern Indiana sheriff in bribery case
WHIO - TV 7
August 24, 2017
whio.com/news/local/jury-convicts-northwestern-indiana-sheriff-bribery-case/emLypbMQUPtYmgnsNBVCnO/
The sheriff of Indiana's second most-populous county was convicted Thursday of federal bribery and wire fraud charges stemming from an illegal towing scheme.

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is free on bond until sentencing Dec. 6 and is immediately removed from office. Jurors in U.S. District Court in Hammond found Buncich guilty after about five hours of deliberations that started Wednesday following a 13-day trial that included three days of testimony from Buncich. He denied all wrongdoing.

Prosecutors' presented evidence and testimony that Buncich accepted bribes to help tow operators get more jobs through the county. The bribes often were in the form of campaign fundraising tickets. During closing arguments prosecutors told jurors the sheriff abused his elected position. Prosecutors also had FBI video surveillance and photographs of Buncich taking money.

At one point Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson asked the jury, "Did he look shocked or did he look like he did it before? He seems very comfortable putting the money in (the) drawer of his desk, owned by Lake County taxpayers."

Defense attorneys argued the donations were made without intending to influence Buncich and that the case was an FBI setup.

"What the government has done over the past two weeks is systematically dirty up the sheriff so you will believe he is guilty as charged," defense attorney Larry Rogers told jurors.

The trial included testimony from Scott Jurgensen, a former Merrillville police officer and towing company owner, who said FBI agents recruited him to pay bribes to Buncich and record the meetings. Jurgensen testified the FBI paid him more than $130,000 over five years, including bribe money.

Another tow truck operator, William Szarmach, previously pleaded guilty to charges of bribery, wire fraud and tax evasion and agreed to testify for federal prosecutors in Buncich's trial. Szarmach said in a plea agreement filed in federal court that he bought tickets to Buncich's fundraising events and made additional cash payments to Buncich to maintain and increase his business of towing vehicles for county police.

Buncich is a Democrat and was elected in 2015 to his fourth term as sheriff in Lake County.

Defense attorney Bryan Truitt said outside court after the verdict that defense attorneys will "do everything we can to set aside this verdict." He said Buncich "holds his head up high knowing the truth is that he didn't do anything wrong."

Republican Portage Mayor James Snyder faces federal bribery charges in a related case of accepting money in exchange for towing contracts in his city, which is in neighboring Porter County. Snyder, who was elected to his second term as mayor in 2015, has pleaded not guilty and has a trial scheduled to begin in January.










How much do you know about Lake County Sheriff John Bunich and the trial?
NWI Times
Aug 23, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/how-much-do-you-know-about-lake-county-sheriff-john/article_4c7cbd44-0589-500d-ab3d-3d8c07c6d5f8.html
Just how well have you been keeping up with the latest news and trial related to Lake County Sheriff John Buncich? Times reporter Bill Dolan created this quiz testing your knowledge on Buncich the trial. Take this quiz to see how you do!














Lake County Sheriff Buncich's towing bribery case heads to jurors
Post Tribune
August 23, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-day-13-st-0824-20170823-story.html
Federal prosecutors Wednesday told jurors that Lake County Sheriff John Buncich abused his elected position to solicit bribes from tow operators, but defense attorneys countered that it was the FBI that paid an informant to make a crime happen.

Attorneys for Buncich and the government made closing arguments in the sheriff's public corruption case Wednesday after 13 days, of testimony. Jurors began their deliberations shortly before 5:30 p.m. Wednesday and were scheduled to resume Thursday morning.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said Buncich is heard on the recordings wanting to get the $85,000 back that he invested in his campaign and the evidence shows he sought to recover that money from tow operators.

"You now know that he was absolutely serious about getting that money back because you saw how he got it," Benson said.

Buncich took $7,500 in his office, $2,500 at one tow operator, $3,500 from another and lastly $7,500 in September, he said.

"All of it cash," Benson said.

Defense attorney Larry Rogers said the sheriff had a stellar reputation among law enforcement and the community until the government began its investigation.

"The government has systematically set out to paint the sheriff as a bad person," Rogers said.

The FBI directed and scripted the encounters with Buncich, deciding what to record, he said.

"They were in control," Rogers said.

The FBI's investigation into pay-to-play towing first began in 2012, when federal agents first came into contact with Scott Jurgensen, of Samson's Towing. After several years, the Lake County Sheriff's Department's towing operations came into the crosshairs when Downs approached Jurgensen about towing for the county.

Benson refuted the claim that the FBI set up the crime.

"That's a boogeyman they're throwing out there," Benson said.

Buncich, former Chief Timothy Downs and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing, 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 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. Szarmach pleaded guilty in July, a week before the trial started.

Both agreed, as a condition of the agreements, they'd testify against Buncich.

Since the indictment, Buncich has maintained his innocence.

The defense team has said that the sheriff was simply conducting legitimate campaign business during the transactions with tow operators and in no way used that to influence how companies got on or stayed on the county list.

Rogers said witnesses testified that selling and buying campaign tickets is not a crime.

"In this instant, the government is trying to make it seem like it's illegal," Rogers said. But, he said, it only becomes a crime if there's a quid pro quo.

Rogers said an example of that is the meeting where Downs went into the sheriff's office to drop off $7,500 from three tow operators. Rogers asked if the sheriff knew he was doing something illegal, would he have kept the door open and spoken in his regular voice.

The reason the sheriff accepted the money is because there's nothing wrong with it, Rogers said.

Benson said the sheriff had such disregard that taking envelopes of cash in a restaurant parking lot or having money dropped in his office was nothing unusual.

Showing a July exchange of cash between Buncich and Jurgensen, where the sheriff reportedly took $2,500 cash, Benson asked the jury if that looked like legitimate campaign fundraising.

"Look at that. Does that look like a campaign contribution," Benson said. "That looks like it could be a hand-to-hand drug deal."

Rogers said the surveillance photos and recordings taken of Buncich and Jurgensen during a September do not show that he gave the tow operator fundraiser tickets, which the sheriff had reportedly done.

"I think the evidence shows he was dumb and cocky and arrogant," Benson said. "And that's why he's sitting over there today."

Benson said the tapes show what happened when people didn't buy the tickets.

"You don't buy the tickets, you get screwed," Benson said.










Day 13: Jury to continue deliberating in Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's corruption trial Thursday
NWI Times
August 23, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/day-jury-to-continue-deliberating-in-lake-county-sheriffjohn/article_2de39f3f-8ce2-583d-a639-493eb28de3ac.html
HAMMOND — Jurors deliberated for four hours Wednesday in the public corruption trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich before going home.

The eight-man, four-woman jury retired to their jury room about 5:20 p.m. after hearing two hours of testimony from the final witnesses and three hours of closing arguments by Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson and the defense team of Bryan Truitt and Larry Rogers.

The jury will resume deliberations at 9 a.m. Thursday.

Buncich was in financial difficulty between 2003 and 2008 when he was out of office and was forced to spend his retirement nest egg of more than $500,000 and borrow heavily from friends and former employees to make ends meet.

Benson reminded jurors they heard Buncich on an FBI surveillance audio tape complain he had been forced to loan $85,000 to his re-election campaign and he wanted that money back in his personal bank account before he left office.

Benson said two towing firm owners, Scott Jurgensen, a former Merrillville Police Department officer and confidential FBI informant, and William "Willie" Szarmach, now a cooperating government witness, testified Buncich accepted tens of thousands in cash from them in return for promises they would receive more lucrative towing work from his department.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud, honest services wire fraud and bribery. He testified over three days, denying all wrongdoing.

Both sides rested their cases and the judge denied a defense motion to declare Buncich not guilty.

Benson used the 13th day of the trial to emphasize the government's allegations with video and photographic evidence that Buncich used his campaign fundraising as cover for a scheme to solicit kickbacks from the dozen towing firms doing business with county police.

Defense lawyers argued Buncich has had a spotless reputation for honesty during his more than four decades as a county police officer who has been elected the county's top law enforcement official four times since 1994.

Rogers told jurors, "What the government has done over the past two weeks is systematically dirty up the sheriff so you will believe he is guilty as charged."

Rogers said the FBI paid Jurgensen $130,000 over a five-year period to pursue Buncich. Rogers said it was the choice of the FBI to have Jurgensen pay the sheriff in cash and lure him into incriminating statements.

Jurgensen wore audio and video recorders. Timothy Downs, the sheriff's former second in command who pleaded guilty late last year to conducting the sheriff's political campaigning on county government time, also wore a wire.

"The government was 100 percent in control of the situation. They produced, directed, scripted and acted this out, seeking a conclusion that was not there," Rogers said.

Benson replayed for jurors a videotape of Downs walking into the sheriff's office

An FBI video surveillance recording of: Buncich's second-in-command Timothy Downs delivering $7,500 July 15, 2015, to Buncich in the sheriff's office.


An FBI video surveillance recording of Buncich leaning into Szarmach's tow truck and Jurgensen giving Buncich $2,500 April 22, 2016, in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville.

An FBI video surveillance recording of Jurgensen giving Buncich $2,500 on July 21, 2016, in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville.

FBI surveillance photographs of a meeting Sept. 2, between Jurgensen and Buncich in which Jurgensen gives the sheriff $7,500.

Benson asked jurors, "Did he look shocked or did he look like he did it before? He seems very comfortable putting the money in drawer of his desk, owned by Lake County taxpayers."

Benson said the money exchange July 21, 2016, between Buncich and Jurgensen "looks like a hand-to-hand drug deal. This is the highest ranking law enforcement officer in Lake County."

He told jurors, "He lied straight to your faces. Maybe he thinks you are dumb and can't decide. He's dumb, cocky, arrogant and that's why he's seated there (in court) today."

Benson and Rogers battled over whether Buncich took $3,500 in cash from the driver's seat of Szarmach's tow truck April 22, 2016.

The FBI camera only shows Buncich leaning into the truck. Its door blocks the view of what happened next. Szarmach said Buncich took envelopes of money.

Rogers said Szamach cannot be believed and the sheriff wouldn't have had time in the few seconds he is off camera to grab cash. Benson said of Buncich, "See him lean in? He had no other reason to lean over into the truck."