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."

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. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

08242017 - Federally indicted Portage Mayor Snyder claims: "I have never taken cash"


Shortly after the guilty verdict was announced in Sheriff John Buncich's federal trial, Mayor James Snyder issued a statement, proclaiming his innocence on federal charges.

REALLY???!!!! 

When is Portage Mayor James Snyder going to realize that not everyone is drinking his Koolaid








UPDATE: Sheriff John Buncich guilty
U.S. Attorney keeps perfect record on public corruption cases
NWI Times
August 24, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/update-sheriff-john-buncich-guilty-u-s-attorney-keeps-perfect/article_8f97728a-ee8c-5fde-bb22-1a3ac62fce39.html

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."










Portage mayor also facing charges on Lake County sheriff's conviction: 'It enforces my innocence'
Post Tribune
August 24, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-snyder-response-buncich-st-0825-20170824-story.html

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.

08242017 - Sheriff John Buncich GUILTY! Next official up to bat is federally indicted Portage Mayor James Snyder

Sheriff John Buncich - who was federally indicted in November 2016 - has been found guilty at trial!


Meanwhile - in Portage LaLa Land - Federally indicted Portage Mayor James Snyder issued the following statement, following Buncich's guilty veredict: "There are distinct differences between the two cases, I have never taken cash..."





UPDATE: Sheriff John Buncich guilty
U.S. Attorney keeps perfect record on public corruption cases
NWI Times
August 24, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/update-sheriff-john-buncich-guilty-u-s-attorney-keeps-perfect/article_8f97728a-ee8c-5fde-bb22-1a3ac62fce39.html


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."

Friday, August 11, 2017

Looking for a hero like Officer Scott Jergenson, in Portage Indiana


"Evil men prosper because good men do nothing" 
[Officer Scott Jergenson: Federal trial of Sheriff John Buncich]


Retired Merrillville Indiana police officer Scott Jergenson was detrimental in the federal investigation and indictment of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

During Sheriff Buncich's trial, Jergenson was asked why he cooperated with the FBI investigation of  Buncich. Jergenson replied,  "(An agent) told me evil men prosper because good men do nothing".

So, with that powerful quote in mind, I am going to hope and pray that somewhere out there in the town of Portage Indiana, that someone as honest and good as Officer Scott Jergenson exists - and that person will finally break the silence about the unlawful police entry into my home and the resulting deaths of Abbi and Bailey, because I dared to report the corruption in Porter County.










Lake County Sheriff Buncich not original focus of bribery investigation, feds say
Chicago Tribune
August 11, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-investigation-0813-20170812-story.html
A multi-year investigation culminated last November when FBI agents raided the office and home of Sheriff John Buncich, but Lake County's top cop wasn't the initial target when towing first piqued federal investigators' interest, according to courtroom testimony.

Federal authorities sought information on an alleged pay-to-play scheme, starting in 2012, but testimony presented in federal court this past week revealed Buncich was an unintentional target after investigators chased other leads.

FBI Special Agent Nathan Holbrook testified Tuesday that an investigation into the potential for corruption within municipal towing operations started when talking with Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville.

The FBI went to Jurgensen's tow yard in 2012 to find out who picked up an impounded truck in an unrelated case, Holbrook testified. An agent asked why Jurgensen didn't do more towing since he previously worked for Merrillville police.

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

"You don't pay, you're not going to tow," Jurgensen said.

The sheriff's public corruption trial began Monday in Hammond's federal court over allegations that Buncich accepted thousands of dollars in bribes for his campaign as part of an illegal towing scheme. The Lake County towing ordinance left sole discretion to the sheriff as to what companies got the contracts — a power federal prosecutors say was used to solicit bribes.

While Buncich has maintained his innocence, his two co-defendants, Timothy Downs, former Lake County chief of police, and William "Willie" Szarmach, owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, pleaded guilty.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson presented the government's case in the first week of Buncich's trial, calling Downs and Szarmach to the stand and playing audio and video recordings made by informants going back to 2014.

Leading up to that first encounter in 2012, the FBI had not had done any investigations into municipal towing, Holbrook said, but the FBI asked if Jurgensen would wear a wire and cooperate in an investigation.

"I thought about it for a few days," Jurgensen testified, saying he was worried about his business and safety of his family.

Benson asked Jurgensen in court what convinced him to cooperate.

"(An agent) told me evil men prosper because good men do nothing," Jurgensen said.

The investigation began looking at a Merrillville official reportedly soliciting bribes, before looking at alleged bribes to a Schererville official. Neither were charged, federal court records show.

It was then, Holbrook said, that the investigation turned to Lake County.

Downs first approached Jurgensen, a longtime friend, in 2013, Holbrook said, and wanted to collect money for Buncich's campaign. Jurgensen said he thought the contributions could help him with getting more towing business.

In the early meetings in 2014, Jurgensen and Downs met at area restaurants, with Jurgensen giving Downs thousands of dollars in checks made out to Buncich's Boosters, the sheriff's political campaign, and the Lake County Central Democratic Committee, of which Buncich was chairman, Benson said.

Defense attorney Bryan Truitt asked Holbrook on Thursday if the FBI ever saw any red flags that Downs kept the money for himself.

"No," Holbrook said.

As the meetings continued every couple of months, Jurgensen and Szarmach gave Downs thousands of dollars in checks along with hundreds of dollars in cash, according to exhibits Benson presented in court.

On June 3, 2015, FBI agents staked out at a meeting between Szarmach, Jurgensen, Downs and another sheriff's department employee, who was not charged in the case.

By that time, the FBI was trying to decide whether to approach Downs to cooperate, Holbrook said, but if he didn't agree, that could blow the undercover investigation.

"It was a risk," Holbrook said, during cross examination Friday. Holbrook said the more people who knew about the investigation, the riskier it became.

After the meeting, the FBI stopped Downs in his sheriff's department-issued car. Agents took Downs back to the FBI's Merrillville office, and Downs agreed to wear a wire, Holbrook said.

Downs started recording his trips to collect thousands of dollars from Szarmach and another Lake County tow operator not charged in the case, Holbrook said.

"I will get this over to the sheriff," Downs said in the recording of Szarmach.

On July 15, 2015, Downs filmed himself walking into the sheriff's department and the sheriff's office, handing Buncich $7,500 in cash, which the sheriff took and put in his desk drawer, Benson said.

By 2016, Jurgensen started meeting with Buncich directly, according to prosecutors. At an April 2016 meeting between the sheriff, Jurgensen and Szarmach at a Merrillville restaurant Buncich accepted thousands of dollars from the tow operators before going inside to eat, Benson said.

The meetings continued in 2016 until the FBI raid at the Lake County Government Center in November and the three were indicted, prosecutors said.

When questioning the government's witnesses, the defense argued that Buncich and Downs did not directly say that if the towers didn't pay money, they would be kicked off the county's tow list.

"Did ( Buncich ) tell you give me X amount of dollars and you will tow for me?" asked Larry Rogers, Buncich's other defense attorney.

"No," Szarmach said.

"John Buncich never promised you anything, did he?" Rogers said.

"No," Szarmach said.

Benson asked Szarmach, "Did (Buncich) ever say Willie, you can't be doing this?"

"No," Szarmach said.

Buncich's trial resumes Monday for its second week. The defense is expected to begin presenting evidence early in the week.


Monday, August 7, 2017

08072017 - Federal trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich - Bribery / Wire Fraud










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.

****************************************




'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."










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.










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.
video


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.
video

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."










Day 12: Defense expects to call final witness Wednesday in Lake County Sheriff Buncich's corruption trial
NWI Times
Aug 22, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/day-defense-expects-to-call-final-witness-wednesday-in-lake/article_c6032870-1d2e-5e3e-9870-4a4bca01db56.html
HAMMOND — U.S. District Judge James T. Moody sent the jury home around 2 p.m. Tuesday after hearing from an expert witness in the trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

One more defense witness is expected Wednesday morning and defense attorney Bryan Truitt did not anticipate that person would be on the stand long. The prosecution and defense are then anticipated to each get 90 minutes for closing arguments.

Moody told the jury he would like to start by 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Much of Tuesday revolved around cash deposits made into Buncich's personal and campaign accounts between early 2014 and late 2017.

After deliberating behind closed doors for about two hours Tuesday morning, Moody, over defense objections, gave the green light for Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson to recall an expert witness related to cash deposits made into Buncich's personal as well as campaign accounts.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery alleging he used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself and his campaign.

After Moody's ruling, Benson recalled IRS agent Gerard Hatagan, who testified earlier in the trial that Buncich failed to properly report some cash donations made to him by Scott Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department and owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville, and William "Willie" Szarmach, of Hobart, the former owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station. Both men are government witnesses and testified earlier they gave the sheriff about $30,000 in campaign contributions and kickbacks between 2009 and 2016 in return for more lucrative towing work.

Buncich contends he never required tow companies or their owners to pay him to get on the tow list, and he never required them to buy his campaign fundraising tickets.

On Tuesday, Hatagan went over records of cash deposits made into the sheriff's "Buncich Boosters" campaign committee account and Buncich's personal accounts between April 8, 2014, and Oct. 2, 2016. During this time, the government contends Buncich received $26,000 of alleged bribe payments in cash, while only $11,240 in cash deposits were made to the campaign account.

During this same time period, however, about $58,000 in cash deposits were made to Buncich's personal bank accounts, according to bank records.

In the case of a $7,500 payment made on Sept. 2, 2016, by Jurgensen there was no immediate record of the money being deposited afterward in the campaign account, but the bank records showed $6,000 in cash payments were made over the next 20 days into Buncich's personal account.

Buncich testified Monday the $7,500 was the remaining payment for one hundred $100 fundraising tickets that Jurgensen had purchased from him. While the money was not directly deposited in the campaign account, Buncich testified that he did make a notation that the money was partial repayment for loans he had made to the committee and that it would have been later accounted for in his campaign report.

In arguing against Hatagan's testimony, Buncich's defense attorneys had contended the payments from the towing firms do not match up with deposits made into Buncich's personal accounts.

Defense attorney Larry Rogers on Tuesday noted the cash deposited into Buncich's personal account were significantly more than the payments he had received from the tow truck drivers. Under questioning from Rogers, Hatagan acknowledged he did not know the source of the cash payments into Buncich's account.

Hatagan later told Benson, however, that it was his opinion that the money came from an illegal source and the money was not included as income in tax returns.

Rogers earlier asked Hatagan whether he knew if Buncich was a collector of police relics and participated in the buying and selling of such relics. Hatagan said he did not.

Rogers also presented a record of checks written from Buncich's personal account to the campaign account that were listed as loans to the committee. There were more than $15,000 worth of such checks written to the campaign account over the two-year period of 2014 and 2015, according to evidence presented by the defense.

Earlier in the trial, Hatagan said Buncich had lent his campaign committee more than $80,000 in personal funds over the years and that it isn't illegal for the sheriff to repay the loan from his campaign committee as long as it is property accounted for.

Buncich has previously said it costs about $200,000 to run for sheriff.










Closing arguments expected in Buncich trial
POST-TRIBUNE NEWS
August 22, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-day-12-0823-20170822-story.html
The trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich began to wind down Tuesday as attorneys presented the last bits of testimony.

The sheriff's corruption trial continued into its 12th day with only three witnesses taking the stand. The bulk of the testimony focused on cash deposits in the sheriff's personal bank account. Buncich's defense team and prosecutors are expected to make closing arguments Wednesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson introduced an exhibit showing money reportedly received by Buncich during transactions with tow operators, cash deposits to the sheriff's personal bank account and the Buncich Boosters account. The chart shown in court ran from April 2014 to October 2016.

During the more than two-year period, the exhibit showed Buncich, 71, allegedly took $26,000 in cash payments from tow operators. During the same two-year period, $58,100 in cash was deposited in his personal account and $11,240 in the campaign account.

Benson pointed out an August 2016 transaction where Buncich received $1,000, and asked if it was fair to say that never showed up in the campaign account.

"That is correct," said Gerard Hatagan, an IRS agent.

Benson asked about $7,500 the sheriff took from Scott Jurgensen, of Samson's Towing in Merrillville in September 2016, and if Hatagan expected to see that show up in the campaign account.

"Yes," Hatagan said.

In testimony last week, Buncich said he used Jurgensen's payment for campaign fundraiser tickets to repay a loan he made to Buncich Boosters. Buncich said he put a notation in his campaign finance material that the $7,500 would be used as repayment.

Benson pointed out that Indiana law requires that money should have been reported as a donation before being paid out as repayment.

Defense attorney Larry Rogers asked if during the review Hatagan knew if Buncich had any hobbies, or money he might have inherited that could explain the cash deposits.

Hatagan said he did not.

Rogers pointed out that the amount of cash being deposited into Buncich's personal account was above the amount of money he allegedly took from tow operators. Rogers asked if Hatagan was suggesting that $1,000 turned into $16,000.

"No," Hatagan said.

Benson asked if Hatagan's review of the bank accounts and tax returns could determine the source of the cash deposits into Buncich's account.

"I would say it came from an illegal source," Hatagan said.

Rogers asked if it is possible those deposits came from some sort of cash that's not reportable income.

"There could be a non-taxable source that could be the explanation of the cash," Hatagan said.

Judge James Moody had previously excluded information about Buncich's personal finances from being entered into evidence, but after it came up during the sheriff's testimony, he allowed it.

Defense attorneys presented one witness Tuesday to clarify testimony from a tow operator who testified last week.

During testimony from John Nauracy, of JAN's Towing in East Chicago, the tow operator said he drove to Jurgensen's house and his business to take video with an East Chicago activist and blogger.

The defense sought to explain that was done without any direction from Buncich.

Ricardo "Streetwise" Moreno said he asked Nauracy to drive him to Jurgensen's house and tow yard to get video for a blog post.

Rogers asked if Moreno did that at the request of Buncich.

"No way, Jose," Moreno said.

Rogers asked if anyone else asked him to do that.

"No way, Jose," Moreno said. "I don't play that way."










Indiana sheriff denying wrongdoing in federal bribery trial
The Journal Gazette
August 22, 2017
journalgazette.net/news/local/indiana/20170822/indiana-sheriff-denying-wrongdoing-in-federal-bribery-trial
HAMMOND, Ind. – A northwestern Indiana sheriff on trial for federal bribery charges is blaming sloppy bookkeeping for $7,500 he received from a towing company operator not showing up in his political campaign account.

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich continued his testimony Monday as the trial entered its third week. Buncich denied last week ever requiring towing companies to pay him in order to get business from his agency and accused the FBI and government informants of setting him up.

A federal prosecutor on Monday pointed out passages from undercover recordings in which Buncich said he would help one towing business whose owner bought fundraising event tickets, but the sheriff replied he didn't promise anything.

Buncich was elected in 2015 to his fourth term as sheriff of Indiana's second-most populous county.










Buncich denies wielding influence in towing contracts
POST-TRIBUNE NEWS
August 21, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-day-11-st-0822-20170821-story.html
Federal prosecutors on Monday sought to establish Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's influence on getting two tow operators additional jobs in New Chicago, Gary and Indiana University Northwest.

Buncich remained on the stand for the third day, the 11th day of his public corruptiion trail at federal court in Hammond, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson continued questioning the sheriff, seeking to find out to what extent he reached out to other agencies in an attempt to get more tow jobs for Scott Jurgensen, of Samson's Towing in Merrillville, and William "Willie" Szarmach, of C.S.A. Towing in Lake Station.

Federal prosecutors say Buncich, 71, delivered more tow jobs for operators in exchange for bribes, in the form of fundraising tickets or campaign donations. Prosecutors say Buncich had control of the county's tow operator list, assigned territory and kept firms on the list based on donations.

The defense has denied that contention, saying the sheriff was only doing legitimate campaign fundraising, and did not use the amount of money collected to determine anything with towing operations.

Benson talked about an April 22, 2016, meeting between Buncich, Jurgensen and Szarmach where the two tow operators complained about not having enough work and wanting to get more jobs through IUN, in Gary, and New Chicago.

Benson pushed Buncich on his role in getting Jurgensen all of the New Chicago towing and pointed out passages in transcripts of undercover recordings where the sheriff told the tow operator he'd make something work for Jurgensen.

"I did not promise anything," Buncich said.

Buncich said he called now former New Chicago Councilwoman Sue Pelfrey to ask about who was on the town's tow list after being asked about it by the tow operators. The sheriff said Pelfrey told him to call the New Chicago police chief.

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.

Defense attorney Larry Rogers asked if Buncich said anything to Pelfrey about giving either Samson's or C.S.A. Towing more towing work in New Chicago.

"No, sir," Buncich said.










Day 11: Lake County Sheriff Buncich testifies that mishandled campaign donations were because of 'sloppy bookkeeping'
NWI Times
Aug 21, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/day-lake-county-sheriff-buncich-testifies-that-mishandled-campaign-donations/article_d86f3c91-cd09-54ae-8592-637a90125406.html
HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich admitted errors were made in the handling of campaign finance money, but continued to deny that he gave towing rights to companies for payments or promises of payments.

Much of Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson's cross-examination of Buncich Monday focused on a $7,500 payment he received from towing operator and FBI informant Scott Jurgensen.

The Sept. 2, 2016 payment was the remainder of what Jurgensen owed for the 100 fundraising tickets he purchased from the Sheriff's campaign, Buncich testified.

Unlike the $2,500 received earlier, however, that money was not deposited in Buncich's campaign account.

Instead, Buncich kept the money and said he made a notation that he was going to show it as a partial repayment of loans he made to his campaign committee.

Benson, however, cited state law that the money was to have been deposited in the campaign fund. Loan repayments are to be made by check from the committee.

Not depositing the money in the campaign account was a violation of law, Benson said.

"Campaign finance," replied Buncich.

Later, when pressed further about the lack of proper procedure being followed with the money, Buncich replied, "sloppy bookkeeping."

Benson took Buncich through a notebook the sheriff kept, however, that listed how repayments of loans he made to the campaign in the past were made by checks. Buncich said the $7,500 he received from Jurgensen would have been listed later in the campaign finance report when it was time to file it.

"It would have been reported at the end of the year," Buncich said.

He was also questioned about how some money that came into his campaign was listed in his report as "anonymous" rather than the name of the person or entity making the payment. He said he relied on his accountant in putting the reports together, although he admitted he gave his accountant the information needed in filling out the forms and signed off on them.

In the morning, Benson focused on Buncich accepting political contributions on county property, something that is against the rules. Buncich maintained he didn't think that applied to political office holders.

Buncich said it costs about $200,000 to run for sheriff. He conducted successful campaigns in 1994 and 1998 before he had to step down because of term limits. He ran in 2006 but lost to former Sheriff Roy Dominguez, but then won again in 2010 and 2014.

Buncich, who is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery alleging he used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself and his campaign, is denying all wrongdoing.

Benson presented the jury with six days of testimony as well as video and photographic evidence to bolster the government's case that Buncich used his campaign fundraising as cover for a scheme to solicit kickbacks from towing firms doing business with county police.

Buncich and his defense team of Bryan Truitt and Larry Rogers, both of Valparaiso, gave the other side of the story.

Buncich took the witness stand early Thursday to deny all wrongdoing and to accuse the FBI and government informants and witnesses of setting him up.

During his testimony Thursday morning, Buncich said he never required tow companies or their owners to pay him to get on the tow list, and he never required them to buy his campaign fundraising tickets.

On Friday, Benson cross-examined Buncich in exchanges that shifted in mood over the course of six hours from impassioned, to cordial, to mockery of each other.

Buncich responded, "Absolutely not," when Benson asked him if he was accepting bribe money from tow truck owners.

Buncich was particularly incensed about an accusation he reached into William "Willie" Szarmach's tow truck April 22, 2016, and grabbed envelopes stuffed with thousands in cash off the driver's seat left by Szarmach.

"I did not get into his truck. I don't go into tow trucks," Buncich said.

Benson replayed an FBI surveillance video of the moment. Benson said, "Aren't you leaning into the truck. Aren't you bending over to take the money?"

Buncich replied, "I'm looking inside like, 'Wow,' like I care about a new truck."

Last week, Benson played a video of Timothy Downs, the sheriff's police chief and second-in-command, delivering $7,500 in campaign contributions to the sheriff's office, putting it on the sheriff's desk and Buncich shoving it into a desk drawer.

Downs was arrested in November along with Buncich and became a cooperating FBI witness and wore recording devices after having been caught collecting political donations on county government time.

The sheriff said Thursday Downs had never brought him a stack of cash like that before, but he had nothing to hide. He said the door wasn't closed and his deputy warden was in the office when Downs left the money.

Truitt argued earlier the money drops were orchestrated by the FBI. "The FBI tried to buy a crime where one didn't exist," Truitt said early on in the trial.

Joseph Hamer, an internal affairs investigator for the sheriff's department, testified he has become friends with the sheriff, who he believes has a reputation for being honest and law-abiding. "He is someone I've (idolized) for many years," Hamer said.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson testified last week that she and the sheriff agreed to have the sheriff deploy county police officers to assist the understaffed Gary Police Department in reducing crime in the city, which included county officers towing abandoned vehicles.

Buncich said Monday that if Jurgensen and Szarmach believed they were going to continue to be the only ones doing towing in Gary for the county they were mistaken and that he intended it to be rotated among different firms.










After 2 weeks, jurors have 2 narratives to ponder in Lake County Sheriff John Buncich corruption trial
NWI Times
Aug 20, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/after-weeks-jurors-have-narratives-to-ponder-in-lake-county/article_edc9688e-4f95-5825-8d51-233859a896e6.html
HAMMOND — Jurors in the public corruption trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich now have two narratives on which to base their eventual verdict.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson presented the jury with six days of testimony as well as video and photographic evidence to bolster the government's case that Buncich used his campaign fundraising as cover for a scheme to solicit kickbacks from towing firms doing business with county police.

Buncich and his defense team of Bryan Truitt and Larry Rogers, both of Valparaiso, gave the other side of the story.

Buncich took the witness stand early Thursday to deny all wrongdoing and to accuse the FBI and government informants and witnesses of setting him up.

Buncich said it costs about $200,000 to run for sheriff. He conducted successful campaigns in 1994 and 1998 before he had to step down because of term limits. He ran in 2006 but lost to former Sheriff Roy Dominguez, but then won again in 2010 and 2014.

Buncich, who is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery alleging he used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself and his campaign, is denying all wrongdoing.

During his testimony Thursday morning, Buncich said he never required tow companies or their owners to pay him to get on the tow list, and he never required them to buy his campaign fundraising tickets.

On Friday, Benson cross-examined Buncich in exchanges that shifted in mood over the course of six hours from impassioned, to cordial, to mockery of each other.

Buncich responded, "Absolutely not," when Benson asked him if he was accepting bribe money from tow truck owners.

Buncich was particularly incensed about an accusation he reached into William "Willie" Szarmach's tow truck April 22, 2016, and grabbed envelopes stuffed with thousands in cash off the driver's seat left by Szarmach.

"I did not get into his truck. I don't go into tow trucks," Buncich said.

Benson replayed an FBI surveillance video of the moment. Benson said, "Aren't you leaning into the truck. Aren't you bending over to take the money?"

Buncich replied, "I'm looking inside like, 'Wow,' like I care about a new truck."

Last week, Benson played a video of Timothy Downs, the sheriff's police chief and second-in-command, delivering $7,500 in campaign contributions to the sheriff's office, putting it on the sheriff's desk and Buncich shoving it into a desk drawer.

Downs was arrested in November along with Buncich and became a cooperating FBI witness and wore recording devices after having been caught collecting political donations on county government time.

The sheriff said Thursday Downs had never brought him a stack of cash like that before, but he had nothing to hide. He said the door wasn't closed and his deputy warden was in the office when Downs left the money.

Truitt argued earlier the money drops were orchestrated by the FBI. "The FBI tried to buy a crime where one didn't exist," Truitt said early on in the trial.

Joseph Hamer, an internal affairs investigator for the sheriff's department, testified he has become friends with the sheriff, who he believes has a reputation for being honest and law-abiding. "He is someone I've (idolized) for many years," Hamer said.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson testified Tuesday morning she and the sheriff agreed to have the sheriff deploy county police officers to assist the understaffed Gary Police Department in reducing crime in the city, which included county officers towing abandoned vehicles.

The defense also called two character witnesses Tuesday. The first was Darryl Dean Robinson, a mental health counselor who works with jail inmates. Robinson, who stated he is blind, said he believes the sheriff has a reputation for truthfulness. "He never lied to me," Robinson said.

The second character witness, Sister Maria Giuseppe, Carmelite Home administrator, also testified on behalf of the sheriff. "He has a very good reputation. He is a person of integrity," she said.










Day 10: Lake County Sheriff Buncich answers questions about ethics of taking thousands in cash
NWI Times
August 18, 2017
nwitimes.com/digital/graphics/slideshow-lake-county-sheriff-buncich-s-federal-bribery-trial/collection_bb815807-f742-51b9-bf02-56156b5c9c…















Today, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich took the stand on his own behalf during his federal bribery trial. Here's a recap at what has taken place so far.










Day 10: Lake County Sheriff Buncich says he didn't believe the county employee ethics handbook applied to elected officials
NWI Times
August 18, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/day-lake-county-sheriff-buncich-says-he-didn-tbelieve/article_a190f87e-e134-5a1b-8580-a261bc215c06.html
HAMMOND — U.S. Attorney Philip Benson began his cross-examination of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, as Buncich's public corruption trial entered day 10 in U.S. District Court.

Their exchanges shifted in mood over the course of six hours Friday from impassioned, to cordial, to mockery of each other.

Buncich responded, "Absolutely not," when Benson asked him if he had been accepting bribe money from tow truck owners.

Buncich was particularly incensed about an accusation that he reached into William "Willie" Szarmach's tow truck April 22, 2016, and grabbed envelopes stuffed with thousands in cash off the driver's seat left by Szarmach.

"I did not get into his truck. I don't go into tow trucks," Buncich said.

Benson replayed an FBI surveillance video of the moment. Benson said, "Aren't you leaning into the truck. Aren't you bending over to take the money?"

Buncich replied, "I'm looking inside like, 'Wow,' like I care about a new truck."

Buncich, who is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery alleging he used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself and his campaign, is denying all wrongdoing.

The sheriff conceded he took $2,500 seconds later from tow truck owner Scott Jurgensen. As part of a transcript of an FBI surveillance recording, Jurgensen says to Buncich, "You did everything you said you were going to do. Thank you so much."

As part of the recording, Buncich replies, "You're welcome."

On cross-examination, Benson asked the sheriff what he had done for Jurgensen. The sheriff said he didn't know what Jurgensen was talking about. The sheriff said he later gave Jurgensen dozens of fundraising tickets in exchange for the $2,500.

Benson questioned why Buncich listed thousands of dollars on his campaign finance report as "Anonymous."

Buncich said he believed cash donations didn't have to follow state regulations, which require listing the donor's full name and mailing address if the donation is over $100, and the donor's occupation if the donation is over $1,000.

Benson said, "The public has no way of knowing who donated to you. Does that show transparency? Does it fulfill your ethical pledge?"

The sheriff, who appointed the lawyer advising Democratic members of the county election board when he was Democratic Party chairman replied, "My interpretation has never been challenged by the election board legal team."

Benson shot back, "It's being challenged now isn't it?"

Buncich said, "Other candidates do it." Benson replied, "Are other candidates the top elected law enforcement officer?"

Benson also reviewed the ethical standards expected of Lake County police officers, county employees and an ethics pledge Buncich took as a sheriff candidate in 2014.

In it, Buncich pledged to be transparent and act in the public good.


Benson asked the sheriff whether taking $7,500 in cash in a parking lot bears close public scrutiny. Benson also asked him whether accepting a different $7,500 from Timothy Downs, his former chief of police, on county property and county time was acceptable.

The sheriff replied: "I don't see anything wrong with accepting it. I don't think it was a problem. It's been done forever."

Downs was charged along with Buncich last November. He has pleaded guilty and agreed to testify he did political fundraising among the tow truck owners under Buncich's orders.

Benson asked the sheriff why he was accepting political contributions "on county property, on county time" in violation of the county employee handbook.

Buncich said, "It was my personal office." Benson then asked Buncich if he was paying rent for his office. Benson said the sheriff's office is owned and paid for by taxpayers.

The sheriff also said he didn't believe the county employee handbook of ethics applied to elected county officials.

Benson, in an incredulous voice, said, "Oh. So you don't have to follow the handbook for employees? Lake County pays your salary."

Benson asked Buncich, "Do you see a problem with having people you supervise selling campaign fundraising tickets to government vendors whose contracts you control?"

Buncich said, "It's no different than any other elected official."

The sheriff testified for six hours Thursday, saying the money he took from two tow truck owners who now are government witnesses, were legitimate campaign contributions, not bribes as the government alleges.

Buncich said although tow truck company owners Jurgensen and Szarmach paid him thousands of dollars in the last two years for more Lake County towing work, he never used used his public office to benefit them.

Jurgensen, a former Merrillville Police Department officer and confidential FBI informant, and Szarmach, now a cooperating government witness, testified last week that Buncich promised and delivered more towing in Gary by having county police tag abandoned cars in Gary.

Buncich previously testified he and Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson agreed in 2014 the county would do more towing in Gary to help the understaffed police department and remove derelict vehicles contributing to city blight and crime, months before Jurgensen and Szarmach requested work in Gary.

Benson questioned Buncich about a spring 2016 meeting he had with Jurgensen and Szarmach, who asked the sheriff for exclusive towing the sheriff needed done to enforce city of Gary ordinances against derelict cars.

Buncich told the two men, "We'll make it happen."

Benson asked Buncich what he meant by that remark. The sheriff said, "I don't know. That's my standard reply." Benson asked, "Do you ever mean it? Do you mean it when somebody makes a political contribution?










When a defendant like Sheriff Buncich takes the stand, there are benefits and risks, expert says
POST-TRIBUNE NEWS
August 18, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-testify-st-0820-20170819-story.html
For eight days, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich occupied a seat at the defense table in the U.S. Federal Court for the Northern District of Indiana.

Flanked by his two defense attorneys, Buncich listened intently to his former chief of police, tow operators, FBI and IRS agents, a co-worker, a Carmelite nun and a mental health worker. Buncich took notes, passed messages to his attorneys and quietly spoke to them through the proceedings of his criminal trial.

On Thursday, Buncich, 71, assumed a new position in the courtroom: the witness stand.

In a criminal case, the defendant does not have to take the stand, said Joseph Hoffmann, a law professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law — it's a choice.

In his testimony, Buncich sought to tell the jurors just how tow operations work and describe how he only did legitimate campaign fundraising, but legal experts say the decision to step onto the witness stand has its benefits and risks.

The defense may choose to put a defendant on the stand if the persons seem like an unusual defendant with no criminal history, Hoffmann said.

"One reason they might do it is they have someone who is in an unusual position, someone who is an upstanding citizen who is suddenly charged with a crime," Hoffmann said. "Why would this person suddenly commit a crime when they haven't in the past?"

While a defendant could make for a bad witness, others could be beneficial, such as someone who is persuasive or sympathetic to a jury, he said. Hypothetically, an abused wife who lashes out at an abusive husband and is charged could draw sympathy from the jury, Hoffmann said.

In some cases, it's the defendant himself who wants to take the stand, Hoffmann said, despite what attorneys may recommend.

"At the end, the lawyer cannot prevent the defendant from taking the stand," Hoffmann said. "It's the defendant's choice because they're the one on trial."

On the stand, Buncich insisted he never offered tow jobs in exchange for campaign contributions, and discussed how territory was changed.

Defense attorney Larry 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.

Did they pay anyone else, Rogers asked.

"No, sir," Buncich said.

Rogers asked Buncich if he ever did anything that would have benefited either William "Willie" Szarmach, of C.S.A. Towing in Lake Station, or Scott Jurgensen, of Samson's Towing in Merrilliville.

"No," Buncich said.

A document prepared by Buncich and one of his defense attorneys showed the percentage each tow company got of jobs from 2012 to 2016.

The percentages of towing jobs that Szarmach and Jurgensen received remained level, according to that analysis. From 2012-16, Jurgensen got between 8 percent and 9 percent of the tow jobs, according to documents presented in court, and Szarmach ranged from 8 percent to 14 percent during those five years.

After nearly a day and a half of being questioned by his defense attorney, Buncich was turned over to Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson for questioning.

Benson questioned some of Buncich's practices, such as listing cash contributions as anonymous or accepting money while working in his county office. Buncich stood by his choices, saying there was no wrongdoing.

Hoffmann said when defendants open themselves up to prosecutors, it can create problems or risk bringing up information that might not have been introduced at trial otherwise.

"Probably the main reason why a criminal defendant chooses not to take the stand is because if they become a witness in their own trial, they open up the question of their credibility," Hoffmann said.

Hoffmann said most people who are accused of wrongdoing are guilty of either that crime or something similar, but that's not to say every defendant is guilty. Buncich has maintained his innocence since his indictment.

Hoffmann said the question is, "Are they going to be persuasive in trying to tell the jury that they didn't do it?"

Throughout Friday, Benson peppered Buncich with questions about his fundraising habits.

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.

Buncich said he only had a problem if those people are on duty.

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

Benson asked if Buncich had a problem directing people to go out and try to solicit those vendors.

"I do not," Buncich said.

At a criminal trial, attorneys and a defendant have to make a decision about whether to question the accused. Just as that is a choice, the defense doesn't even have to present a case, Hoffmann said, and simply just make opening and closing arguments.

"Your starting position is, let's make the prosecution prove this case under reasonable doubt, and let's not give them any help," Hoffmann said. "The burden is completely on the prosecution."










In second day on the stand, Lake County sheriff continues to deny soliciting bribes from tow operators
POST-TRIBUNE NEWS
August 18, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-day-10-st-0819-20170818-story.html
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich again took the stand Friday, saying transactions between him and tow operators were legitimate campaign donations, not bribes to get more towing jobs, as federal prosecutors allege.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson asked Buncich, 71, why he gave a tow operator more area to tow.

"I just gave it to him," Buncich said during the 10th day of his public corruption trial in federal court in Hammond.

Was it because the tow operator gave the sheriff money, Benson asked.

"Absolutely not," Buncich replied.

The sheriff first took the stand in his own defense Thursday and told jurors he never solicited bribes to put or keep tow operators on the county list.

Through the afternoon Friday, Benson walked Buncich through evidence presented in the trial's past two weeks.

At times the exchanges between Benson and Buncich became testy, as Buncich wanted to provide longer answers.

"Will you let me ask a question?" Benson said.

"Go ahead," Buncich said.

"Thank you," Benson said.

"Thank you," Buncich said.

While looking at Buncich's campaign finance reports, Benson questioned Buncich listing cash payment anonymously, even if the sheriff knew who gave him the money.

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

"You are now, sir," Benson said.

Benson asked Buncich if he thought taking cash for campaign tickets was the best way to conduct business, to which Buncich responded "I don't know" and that he didn't have an opinion about it.

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.

Buncich said he only had a problem with it if those people are on duty.

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

Benson asked if Buncich had a problem directing people to go out and try to solicit those vendors.

"I do not," Buncich said.

Benson quizzed Buncich on the Sheriff's Department's rules and regulations and the Lake County employee handbook about doing campaign work on county time.

Buncich said his department's rules and regulations apply to merit officers.

"So, only some of the rules in this book you would follow," Benson said.

"Sir, I wrote the book," Buncich said.

Benson asked if he followed the rule.

"No," Buncich said.

Benson said based on the county policy, someone going around in a county vehicle selling fundraising tickets would be a violation.

"It would be a violation, yes," Buncich said.

The policy would cover asking people to buy tickets, collecting money and providing tickets would be prohibited, Benson said.

"Yes," Buncich said.

Prosecutors last week showed a video of Timothy Downs, former Lake County chief of police and Buncich's co-defendant, walking into the Lake County Sheriff's Department and delivering $7,500 cash to Buncich.

Buncich said he wasn't expecting Downs to show up that day and confirmed that the cash was from three tow operators who each wanted 10 $100 fundraiser tickets, totaling $2,500 per person.

The video showed Buncich taking the envelope and putting it in the top drawer of his desk.

Benson said in the case of the video, Buncich was working on county property and on county time. Benson asked doesn't taking $7,500 in the office bear close public scrutiny.

"I didn't see anything wrong with that, sir," Buncich said. 

While watching a video of an April 2016 meeting between Buncich, William "Willie" Szarmach, of C.S.A. Towing in Lake Station, and Scott Jurgensen, the government's confidential informant in the case, of Samson's Towing in Merrillville, Benson asked Buncich if he reached in and took money off the front seat of Szarmach's truck.

"Absolutely not," Buncich said.

Benson asked Buncich what he thought, then, when Szarmach told the sheriff to look at Szarmach's new truck.

"I'm thinking, wow, it's nice, to myself, like I couldn't care less about a tow truck," Buncich said.

Benson is expected to continue questioning Buncich Monday morning.










Day 9: Lake County Sheriff Buncich testifies it cost $200,000 to run for office
NWI Times
August 17, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/day-lake-county-sheriff-buncich-testi%F4%80%83%97es-it-cost-torun/article_a447ba74-a016-5508-80eb-0ab9d6f377c8.html

HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich answered his accusers Thursday.

The county's top elected law enforcement took the witness stand on the ninth day of his public corruption trial in U.S. District Court and denied all wrongdoing.

He said he considered the money he took from two tow truck owners, now government witnesses, to be legitimate campaign contributions.

He said he used the thousands he received from them to pay campaign expenses and repay campaign debts arising from more than $70,000 in personal funds he lent his campaign earlier.

He said he had written a memo to his campaign accountant to report the debt repaid, but that memo has disappeared since the FBI raided his home and seized his campaign documents in the fall.

He said Timothy Downs, his former chief of police and second-in-command, and now a government witness, never gave him cash the tow truck owners gave Downs.

Buncich testified for six hours Thursday in response to questions from his defense lawyer, Larry Rogers. Court recessed for the day Thursday afternoon with more testimony yet to come, including cross examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson.
video


On direct examination, Buncich said it cost $200,000 to run for sheriff, and that he was more concerned the Lake County Jail was under a Department of Justice consent agreement to improve jail and inmate health conditions, than he was with towing contracts.

The DOJ in 2010 entered into an agreement with Lake County to revamp the running of the jail, which had been under federal scrutiny since it became the site of seven suicides, an outbreak of MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, and other health care complaints between 2003 and 2008 that became the basis of a class action suit against the county.

Buncich also testified he and Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson agreed in 2014 the county would do more towing in Gary to help the understaffed police department and remove derelict vehicles contributing to city blight and crime, months before tow truck company owners Scott Jurgensen and William "Willie" Szarmach asked for more Lake County towing work.
video


The government alleges cash payments were made to the sheriff by its witnesses, Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department, owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville and a confidential FBI informant and Szarmach, of Hobart, the owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station. Szarmach has pleaded guilty to bribing the sheriff with cash.

Buncich said he gave Szarmach eight more city blocks in Gary from which to tow, not because of money, but to stop Szarmach from calling him at all hours of night.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery that allege he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting cash and campaign contributions.

Buncich took the stand at 9 a.m. Thursday and testified for more than an hour about his long career in law enforcement, and how he set up the towing list for county tow truck companies and county police.
video


Buncich also testified Thursday that he never distributed campaign fundraising tickets. He said Downs did it voluntarily, not as part of his job.

Downs was charged along with Buncich last November. He has pleaded guilty and agreed to testify he did political fundraising among the tow truck owners under Buncich's orders.

Buncich could have stood silent and rested his fate on his not guilty plea and the testimony of 11 witnesses that he is an honest and law-abiding man who solicited legitimate campaign donations without pressure or the promise of favors.

The sheriff said he chose towing firms to work for county police based on his experience of their efficiency to handle jobs quickly so both officers and the public stay safe.

He said he also included black- and Hispanic-owned wreckers to bring diversity to the sheriff's list of vendors.

Buncich said he never encouraged donors to give him cash, but he accepted it from Jurgensen and Szarmach.

He cast doubt on Szamach's credibility by telling jurors that Szarmach was frequently intoxicated in his presence. Although Szarmach told the jury he considered himself a friend of the sheriff, Buncich said, "I tolerated him."

He said he allowed Szarmach to remain as an approved wrecker for the county because Szarmach used others to drive his CSA trucks and that he never received any complaints about Szarmach from police officers who called for Szarmach's services.










In Day 9 of trial, Lake County Sheriff Buncich takes stand, denies wrongdoing in corruption case
POST-TRIBUNE NEWS
August 17, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-day-9-st-0818-20170817-story.html
On the witness stand in his public corruption trial, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich denied Thursday that he sought money to put tow operators on the county list or keep them there.

Defense attorney Larry 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.

Did they pay anyone else, Rogers asked.

"No, sir," Buncich said.

Buncich took the stand during the ninth day of trial, refuting allegations of corruption. The sheriff testified that he did not take money from tow operators to put them on the county list or to assign territory for jobs.

Defense attorneys argued, in a pretrial motion, that Buncich left the running of tow operations to now former Chief Timothy Downs and Deputy Chief Dan Murchek, and that the sheriff had other duties he needed to attend to.

"It was the least of my worries because of the jail situation," Buncich said.

Buncich said he often got calls from tow operators who were upset they saw another company getting a job in their area and he just passed that information along to the chief or deputy chief.

"I made that decision because I got sick of them calling me at all hours of the night complaining," Buncich said.

Federal prosecutors argued that Buncich used his control of the towing program to solicit bribes from operators, usually in the form of campaign contributions or fundraising tickets.

Testimony and undercover recordings of Scott Jurgensen, of Samson's Towing in Merrillville, and William Szarmach, of C.S.A. Towing in Lake Station, describe how the two tow operators pressed Buncich and Downs for more towing work. At several meetings, the videos captured Buncich retrieving envelopes that allegedly contained cash.

The FBI recorded meetings between Downs, Szarmach and Jurgensen where the former chief collected cash and checks from the tow operators. Federal prosecutors presented testimony that $500 in cash collected from each of those tow operators was never reported on the campaign finance reports for Buncich Boosters, the sheriff's campaign committee.

After an April 8, 2015, meeting, Buncich said he received $2,000 checks from both Szarmach and Jurgensen.

Rogers asked if the sheriff ever got the $500 in cash from each of the tow operators.

"I did not receive it," Buncich said.

Rogers asked if Buncich was certain about that.

"Yes, I am," Buncich said.

Rogers asked Buncich about a September 2016 meeting, recorded by the FBI, between the sheriff and Jurgensen where the tow operator gave him an envelope containing $7,500 cash.

Buncich said that was repayment for 100 $100 fundraiser tickets Jurgensen wanted. He said Jurgensen had previously paid $2,500 toward the total cost of those tickets.

Buncich said he took the cash and recorded it on his campaign documents that it would be used to pay a portion of the debt he is owed by his campaign. Buncich said his campaign owes him in excess of $70,000.

The folder containing that notation on the sheriff's campaign reports was seized during a November 2016 FBI raid at Buncich's Crown Point home.

Jurgenson and Szarmach testified the money was given to Buncich under the guise of fundraiser tickets but they sought additional work from the sheriff.

The two tow operators are heard on the recordings complaining about not getting enough jobs through the county and asking for more territory.

Rogers asked Buncich if he ever did anything that would have benefitted either Szarmach's of Jurgensen's towing numbers.

"No," Buncich said.

A document prepared by Buncich and one of his defense attorneys showed the percentage each tow company got of jobs from 2012 to 2016.

The percentages of tow jobs that Szarmach and Jurgensen got remained level, according to that analysis. From 2012-16, Jurgensen got between 8 percent to 9 percent of the tow jobs, according to documents presented in court, and Szarmach ranged for 8 percent to 14 percent during those five years.

Buncich said the territory assigned to the tow operators often changed.

Prosecutors last week presented an email exchange between Buncich and his chiefs from 2016 where two tow companies were removed from one area and put into Whiting.

Buncich said he made the decision to move those companies out of that area, leaving only two others because of officer safety issues.










UPDATE: Buncich Trial day 8: Defense witnesses say they were not pressured to buy fundraiser tickets
NWI Times
August 16, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/update-buncich-trial-day-defense-witnesses-say-they-werenot/article_8eab2696-bd02-5ca6-b98e-ebfcb513e8a3.html











HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's lawyers continued to make their case that bribery had nothing to do with Lake County towing.

Buncich's public corruption trial entered its eighth day Wednesday, although it was cut short when U.S. District Court Judge James Moody recessed at 10:45 a.m. for the day.

Three defense witnesses testified in the early morning.

Stephen R. "Chip" Lukasik, owner of Stan's Towing in St. John, testified he and his father before him towed for Buncich and other county sheriffs for more than six decades.

He said he didn't pay to get on Buncich's tow list. He said he typically bought 10 tickets so he and his guests could occupy a table at Buncich's fundraisers. "I looked forward to going to the fundraisers," Lukasik said.

He said he was never pressured to buy tickets.

Lukasik said on cross-examination he always paid his donations with a check. "You want a trail, to be above-board," he said.

The government alleges cash payments were made by its witnesses, Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville and a confidential FBI informant, and William "Willie" Szarmach, of Hobart, the owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station. Szarmach has pleaded guilty to bribing the sheriff with cash.

Mary Eaton, a Lake County E-911 police dispatcher, testified on direct examination the county's computer system designated which towing firm should be called to remove a vehicle from county streets or highways.

Earlier witnesses said the sheriff divided the county into districts to give each of a dozen towing firms working for the county a fair share of the work.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson argued the sheriff made changes in the towing distribution system in response to payments by Jurgensen and Szarmach.

Joseph Hamer, an internal affairs investigator for the sheriff's department, testified he has become friends with the sheriff, who he believes has a reputation for being honest and law-abiding. "He is someone I've (idolized) for many years," Hamer.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson testified Tuesday morning she and the sheriff agreed to have the sheriff deploy county police officers to assist the understaffed Gary Police Department in reducing crime in the city, which included county officers towing derelict vehicles that were contributing to blight and crime in the city.

Government witnesses earlier indicated the Gary towing was inspired by Jurgensen and Szarmach for the purposes of generating towing revenue and kickbacks for the sheriff.

Jurgensen was a confidential FBI informant, and Szarmach agreed to become a government witness after pleading guilty to paying the sheriff bribes.

The two testified last week they gave the sheriff about $30,000 in campaign contributions and kickbacks between 2009 and 2016 in return for more lucrative towing work.

Freeman-Wilson said she contributed to Buncich's political campaigns but only wrote checks, never gave cash.

Jim Simonovski, of Simons Auto Repair, testified Tuesday he wasn't pressured to buy the sheriff's fundraising tickets. He said he bought between five and 10 tickets about twice a year. He said he only bought a few and was never punished for not buying all.

The sheriff's lawyers indicated they could rest their case as early as Thursday, unless the sheriff takes the stand in his own defense, a decision they won't make until then.










Gallery: Exh. 30: FBI surveillance photographs of meeting on Sept. 2, 2016 between an FBI confidential informant and Lake County Sheriff John Buncich
NWI Times
August 16, 2017
nwitimes.com/digital/photos/gallery-exh-fbi-surveillance-photographs-of-meeting-on-sept-between/collection_4648e2d5-46c8-5d56-b6f8-ed092e51276f.html#1



































FBI surveillance photographs show a meeting on Sept. 2. 2016 between an FBI confidential informant and Lake County Sheriff John Buncich in which the informant gives Buncich $7,500.










Exh. 26VA: An FBI informant gives Lake County Sheriff John Buncich $2,500 on July 21, 2016
NWI Times
August 16, 2017
nwitimes.com/digital/video/exh-va-an-fbi-informant-gives-lake-county-sheriff-john/youtube_1c7e3df9-8b8c-5dc8-8857-d2edb39289ca.html
video

An FBI video surveillance recording of an FBI confidential informant giving Lake County Sheriff John Buncich $2,500 on July 21, 2016 in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville.










Exh. 24AV: An FBI informant gives Lake County Sheriff John Buncich $2,500 on April 22, 2016
NWI Times
August 16, 2017
nwitimes.com/digital/video/exh-av-an-fbi-informant-gives-lake-county-sheriff-john/youtube_6fd67edf-dad3-5a58-8593-75f2d68eee58.html
video
An FBI slow motion video surveillance recording of an FBI confidential informant giving Lake County Sheriff John Buncich $2,500 on April 22, 2016 in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville.










Exh. 19V: Timothy Downs delivers $7,500 to Lake County Sheriff John Buncich
NWI Times
August 16, 2017
nwitimes.com/digital/video/exh-v-timothy-downs-delivers-to-lake-county-sheriff-john/youtube_135fdca5-0331-5255-a7ad-7f611ff37c05.html
video

An FBI video surveillance of Timothy Downs delivering $7,500 on July 5, 2015 to Lake County Sheriff John Buncich in the sheriff's office.

About the 1:50 mark is when Lake County Sheriff John Buncich appears.

About the 2:25 mark is when the money is handed off.










Exh. 26VA: An FBI informant gives Lake County Sheriff John Buncich $2,500 on July 21, 2016
NWI Times
August 16, 2017
youtube.com/watch?v=Ma_5mRcrLFU
video










Exh. 24AV: An FBI informant gives Lake County Sheriff John Buncich $2,500 on April 22, 2016
NWI Times
August 16, 2017
youtube.com/watch?v=xRbOIMkOW8I&t=2s
video










Exh. 19V: Timothy Downs delivers $7,500 to Lake County Sheriff John Buncich
NWI Times
August 16, 2017
youtube.com/watch?v=IAlaCSQ8Tzw&t=63s
video










VIDEO: FBI surveillance tapes of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich released to The Times
NWI Times
August 16, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/lake/video-fbi-surveillance-tapes-of-lake-county-sheriff-john-buncich/article_91291ed3-7bf7-5bdd-93f1-fe1fff16bb5e.html
The Times has obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request FBI surveillance video and photographs of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich as part its bribery investigation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson used the images as evidence against Buncich during the U.S. District trial last week.

They include:
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.
video


An FBI video surveillance recording of of Scott Jurgensen, an FBI confidential informant, giving Buncich $2,500 April 22, 2016, in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville.
video


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


FBI surveillance photographs of a meeting Sept. 2, 2016, between Jurgensen and Buncich in which Jurgensen gives the sheriff $7,500.




































The trial stories are attached for more information and background.










Court releases videos of sheriff allegedly taking money that were played during his corruption trial
POST-TRIBUNE NEWS
August 16, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-videos-st-0817-20170816-story.html
Videos of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich that a jury viewed during the first week of his public corruption trial were released Wednesday.

The videos were played as evidence during Buncich's trial and show the sheriff allegedly accepting cash.

Buncich starts the ninth day of his trial Thursday morning in Hammond's federal court, as the defense continues to call witnesses.

The government rested its case Monday, after presenting recordings of meetings between the sheriff and area tow owners last week.

The sheriff's two co-defendants, Timothy Downs, former Lake County chief of police, and William "Willie" Szarmach, owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, previously pleaded guilty, but Buncich has maintained his innocence over accusations that he accepted thousands of dollars in bribes for his campaign as part of an illegal towing scheme.

The videos released by the court Wednesday were made by Downs and Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson's Towing and the government's confidential informant in the case, prosecutors said.

On July 15, 2015, Downs recorded himself walking into the sheriff's department and into Buncich's office to give the sheriff $7,500 in cash Downs collected from area tow operators for fundraiser tickets, prosecutors said.

At one point, Downs is seen holding the money in his hand in the left screen of the video. About 10 seconds later, the video shows Downs placing the money on Buncich's desk. Seconds later, the money is seen in Buncich's hand before the sheriff places the cash in his desk drawer.

At an April 22, 2016 meeting, Jurgensen recorded Buncich taking cash from Szarmach and himself in the parking lot outside a Merrillville restaurant, prosecutors said.

The three met again on July 21, 2016, and Jurgensen recorded Buncich putting money in his pocket, the video shows.










Tow operator says he bought Lake County Sheriff Buncich tickets for enjoyment, not for favor
POST-TRIBUNE NEWS
August 16, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-day-8-st-0817-20170816-story.html
A St. John tow operator testified Wednesday that he never felt he had to buy fundraising tickets for Lake County Sheriff John Buncich but did it because he enjoyed the events.

During the eighth day of Buncich's public corruption trial, defense attorneys introduced three witnesses: a tow operator, a dispatcher and a character witness. The tow operator told the jury he never thought he had to buy campaign fundraiser tickets for the sheriff, and offered an explanation of how the county dispatches tow trucks.

The eighth day of the trial ended quickly, lasting barely three hours. Judge James Moody ended court early, dismissing the jury shortly before 11 a.m., saying he had a matter that would take the rest of the day.

Stephen "Chip" Lukasik, of Steve's Towing in St. John, said he bought fundraising tickets for Buncich's events but was never told he had to purchase them.

"I like to buy 10 tickets to treat my employees and friends," Lukasik said. "I actually look forward to it."

Buncich is charged with using his office to solicit bribes, often in the form of campaign donations, from tow truck operators and based on those contributions gave and took away tow jobs. The sheriff has maintained his innocence since he was indicted in November 2016.

Former Lake County Chief of Police Timothy Downs, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in December, testified last week he felt he needed to sell the fundraising tickets to keep his job. Two tow operators — William Szarmach, of C.S.A. Towing in Lake Station, and Scott Jurgensen, of Samson's Towing in Merrillville — said they bought tickets to get more towing work from the Lake County Sheriff's Department.

Last month, Szarmach pleaded guilty to charges of bribery and wire fraud after being charged alongside Buncich. Jurgensen, who was cooperating with the FBI, recorded a series of meetings among himself, Szarmach, Downs and Buncich.

Lukasik said Downs usually came with the fundraising tickets and the sheriff never called or stopped by the show.

Defense attorney Larry Rogers asked if any threat of being removed from the tow list was ever made if Lukasik didn't buy the tickets.

"No," Lukasik said.

Lukasik said if he ever had trouble with towing operations, he'd likely call either the chief or assistant chief.

"There was nobody designated to me," Lukasik said.

During cross examination, Benson asked if Lukasik paid for the tickets with cash or check, and the tow operator said check.

"Because you want a trail," Lukasik said. "You want everything above board."

As prosecutors presented their case, an IRS agent testified that cash payments allegedly for fundraising tickets were never reported on the sheriff's campaign finance reports.

Jurors also heard a description of how Lake County dispatched tow operators both when that function was under the Sheriff's Department and later when the consolidated E911 system was introduced.

Mary Eaton, a dispatcher with Lake County E911 who was formerly a radio operator for the Sheriff's Department before the consolidated system started, said when a call comes into dispatch, a report is put into the system and what tow operator to call is generated based on the set rotation and location.

Eaton said, during cross examination, she wasn't sure who programmed the tow boundaries into the dispatch system.

Benson said when Lake County officers enforced ordinances in Gary, they tell dispatchers what tow operator to call.

"Correct," Eaton said.










Trial day 7: Lake County Sheriff John Buncich witness — a felon — accused in court of trying to intimidate a government witness
NWI Times
August 15, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/trial-day-lake-county-sheriff-john-buncich-witness-a-felon/article_573152ce-0e08-5742-aa6f-65d532f712e6.html










HAMMOND — Defense lawyers for Lake County Sheriff John Buncich calls to the witness stand Tuesday included Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, a Carmelite nun and a tow truck owner who is a convicted felon.

The seventh day of the sheriff's public corruption trial ended in verbal fireworks between Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson and John "Lefty" Nauracy, of East Chicago, who is a convicted felon and owner of JAN towing.

Nauracy left the courtroom after testifying and being called to the bench by U.S. District Court Judge James Moody. He later declined to comment on whether Moody ordered him to get out of the courtroom when he tried to stay.

It was the first full day of defense witnesses for Buncich, who is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery that allege he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting cash and campaign contributions.

His lawyers indicated they could rest their case as early as Thursday unless the sheriff takes the stand in his own defense, a decision they won't make until then.

Freeman-Wilson testified Tuesday morning she and the sheriff agreed to have the sheriff deploy county police officers to assist the understaffed Gary Police Department in reducing crime in the city.

She said that included county officers towing derelict vehicles that were contributing to blight and crime in the city. She said she contributed to Buncich's political campaigns but only wrote checks, never gave cash.

On cross examination, Benson asked her if she ever retrieved campaign contributions from the driver's seat of a towing truck. She said she never did that.

The question was in reference to testimony last week in which William "Willie" Szarmach, of Hobart, and former owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, said he gave money to the sheriff, including $3,500 in two separate envelopes. He said he left the envelopes in the driver's seat of his new truck and invited the sheriff to look inside it. He said the sheriff grabbed the money. Szarmach is a witness for the prosecution.

Susan Pelfrey, a former New Chicago town councilwoman, testified Tuesday to address allegations last week the sheriff used his influence with Pelfrey to get more towing work for Scott Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department and owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville, and an FBI confidential informant.

FBI agent Nathan Holbrook testified last week the sheriff's influence won Jurgensen sole towing rights in the town.

But New Chicago Police Chief James Richardson testified Tuesday he became dissatisfied with one of Jurgensen's competitors and removed that firm from the town's towing list a month before the sheriff called, and he added another towing firm to the list along with Samson's.

The defense called two character witnesses. The first was Darryl Dean Robinson, a mental health counselor who works with jail inmates. Robinson, who stated he is blind, said he believes the sheriff has a reputation for truthfulness. "He never lied to me," Robinson said.

The second character witness, Sister Maria Giuseppe, Carmelite Home administrator, also testified on behalf of the sheriff. "He has a very good reputation. He is a person of integrity," she said.

Nauracy testified he didn't have to pay the sheriff to get on the county police towing list, but he said Timothy Downs and Dan Murchek, the sheriff's top administrators, came to his business one day and tried to sell him tickets.

"I ripped up the tickets and threw them in their faces and told them to get off my property. I thought they were crooked cops," Nauracy said.

Defense lawyers argue the sheriff did nothing wrong and Downs, who has pleaded guilty to collecting bribes for the sheriff and is cooperating with the government, kept the bribe money.

Benson asked Nauracy on cross examination whether he tried to intimidate government informant Jurgensen shortly before the trial began, by driving to Jurgensen's towing business and his home and videotaping Jurgensen's daughter, who was in the front yard.

Nauracy said he only drove to those locations at the request of Ricardo "Streetwise" Moreno, an East Chicago political activist, and Moreno either took photos or video with a cellphone.

Nauracy denied the sheriff was involved. He said he only wanted to dispel rumors broadcast by listeners of a Hammond WJOB radio talk show that Nauracy was the confidential FBI informant referred to in Buncich's indictment as "Individual A."

Benson said Jurgensen already had been identified as Individual A by The Times, which reported Jurgensen's role in the investigation five days after Buncich's indictment.

Nauracy accused Benson, saying, "You asked Streetwise to do it." An incredulous Benson responded, "I did it? I did it?"

Benson told Nauracy: "Nobody forced you to drive there." Nauracy said, "I've got my reasons. He was trying to get me out of the towing business," though Nauracy never identified who "he" was in his comment.

Nauracy was sentenced to about four years in federal prison after pleading guilty in Chicago federal court to mail fraud.










Gary mayor explains city's towing deal with Lake County in sheriff's trial
POST-TRIBUNE NEWS
August 15, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-day-7-st-0816-20170815-story.html
Federal prosecutors on Tuesday pointedly asked if Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson ever needed to take $3,500 from a tow operator's vehicle as a campaign donation.

"No," Freeman-Wilson said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson pushed the Gary mayor on how she does campaign finance reporting after Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's defense called her to the stand to discuss cooperative efforts between the city and the Lake County Sheriff's Department.

Freeman-Wilson was the first in a series of witnesses Buncich's defense put on the stand Tuesday morning, the seventh day of his public corruption trial at the federal courthouse in Hammond.

Benson noted that both the sheriff and Freeman-Wilson have contributed to each others' campaigns over the years and asked if those donations were made in the form of cash or check.

Freeman-Wilson said she thinks any donations given or received were done in the form of check.

"I don't handle my contributions," Freeman-Wilson said. "I just didn't do that as a matter of course."

Benson said the mayor had never listed any donations as anonymous and if that was a correct statement.

"That's correct," Freeman-Wilson said.

While prosecutors focused on the Freeman-Wilson's campaign finance habits, defense attorneys sought to establish why the city asked the Lake County Sheriff's Department for assistance.

Freeman-Wilson said in 2013 Gary had a record number of homicides and has continued to deal with crime-related issues and blight. Freeman-Wilson said she reached out to the state, federal government and Lake County Sheriff's Department for assistance.

Freeman-Wilson said she thought it was important to get as many people on the streets as the city had to its avail.

An agreement signed in 2014 gave the Sheriff's Department authority to enforce city ordinances, including those that might require a vehicle being towed.

Federal prosecutors say the sheriff used his position to solicit bribes from tow operators in exchange for more work.

Undercover recordings presented last week during the trial show tow operators Scott Jurgensen and William Szarmach looking for more work through Gary, as the Sheriff's Department then had a memorandum of understanding to enforce city ordinances, including towing.

The timeline presented during the prosecution's case showed the tow operators complaining about the lack of towing in Gary and the sheriff eventually putting a new officer on that detail.

Jurgensen is heard on one of the recordings taken during a September 2016 meeting saying that the new officer seemed to be working out pretty well.

"Well John, I really appreciate what you did for me," Jurgensen said to Buncich on the audio recording.

Defense attorney Larry Rogers asked if Gary had any input into what tow operators the Sheriff's Department used.

"No," Freeman-Wilson said.

Benson asked if the city retained any of the money from a vehicle towed by a county officer.

Freeman-Wilson said the city did not retain that money.

As the defense continued presenting witnesses to the jury, one tow operator sparred with federal prosecutors during cross examination.

John Nauracy, of J.A.N. Towing in East Chicago, took the stand Tuesday afternoon, telling jurors he never felt pressured by the sheriff to buy campaign fundraiser tickets. Nauracy said former Lake County Chief of Police Timothy Downs and Deputy Chief Dan Murchek showed up one day asking him to buy tickets but he told them to leave.

Downs was indicted with Buncich and Szarmach in November. He and Szarmach have entereed into plea agreements with the government.

Nauracy's testimony took a turn when federal prosecutors pushed him to describe an incident where he allegedly drove to the government's informant's home, identified as Jurgensen during the trial, setting off a heated exchange between the East Chicago tow operator and Benson.

Benson asked Nauracy if he had ever driven to Jurgensen's house and tow yard to take video or pictures.

"Yes," Nauracy said.

Nauracy said a local political activist asked him to drive him to Jurgensen's house and business to get pictures for a blog.

Benson asked if Nauracy thought it was a good idea to go to the home of a then-confidential witness.

"No," Nauracy said.

The exchange continued as Benson and Nauracy talked over each other.

"Tone it down," said Judge James Moody.

Nauracy said people thought he was "Individual A" and he thought showing the activist Jurgensen would clear his name.

"Life's hell when you're the informant, isn't it?" Benson asked.

"Sure is," Nauracy said.

Benson then turned the conversation, asking if Nauracy had ever met Buncich at Dunkin' Donuts and wrote him a check.

"I don't remember writing him a check for anything," Nauracy said.

After Nauracy's testimony, attorneys asked for a sidebar with Moody, who after a brief recess asked the East Chicago tow operator to join them at the bench.

The party conferred for a few minutes before Moody recessed court for the day, dismissing the jury.

The defense is expected to continue presenting witnesses Wednesday.










Trial day 6: The defense began calling witnesses at the end of the day
NWI Times
August 14, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/trial-day-the-defense-began-calling-witnesses-at-theend/article_958abcb6-f7e7-55a0-a01e-384aad7b7929.html
HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich began his defense against bribery and pubic corruption charges Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court.

The sheriff's lawyers said they will call Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and possibly Porter County Sheriff David Reynolds, among others, to testify on Buncich's behalf.

Mitchell Mannino, owner of Alternative Towing of Merrillville, was the first defense witness. He said he voluntarily bought the sheriff's fundraising tickets and was never threatened or promised anything in return.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson rested the government's case after six days of testimony.

His last witness, Gerard Hatagan, an IRS agent, testified he investigated Buncich's campaign donations and expenses as well as the sheriff's personal bank account.

He told Benson that Buncich failed to properly report some cash donations made by Scott Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department and owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville, and William "Willie" Szarmach, of Hobart, the former owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station. Both men agreed to become government witnesses.

The two testified last week they gave the sheriff about $30,000 in campaign contributions and kickbacks between 2009 and 2016 in return for more lucrative towing work.

Hatagan said the campaign's bank records indicated Buncich, who acted as his own campaign treasurer, sometimes waited weeks or months to deposit money in his campaign account after receiving the two towing firms' money.

Hatagan said Buncich once deposited more than $2,000 in his personal bank account within two days of receiving $2,500 from Jurgensen.

He said Buncich often refused to identify political donors on his campaign finance reports, listing them as "Anonymous cash depositions" or simply "Anonymous." Hatagan said he found nearly $20,000 in such anonymous donations over three years.

Hatagan agreed with Benson that "if you don't list it, you are trying to hide it."

Hatagan said on cross examination Buncich had lent his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters, more than $80,000 in personal funds and that it isn't illegal for Buncich to repay that loan from his campaign contributions as long as it is properly accounted for.

Hatagan said the only towing firms that donated to Buncich's campaign are those who were receiving work by being on the sheriff's towing list.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery that allege he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting cash and campaign contributions.










Government rests as defense begins case in sheriff's trial
POST-TRIBUNE NEWS
August 14, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-day-6-st-0815-20170814-story.html
Questioning his first witness Monday in Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's public corruption trial, defense attorney Bryan Truitt asked an area tow operator if he ever thought he had the power to alter the areas he towed by paying money or buying fundraiser tickets from the sheriff.

"Never," said Mitchell Mannino, owner of Alternative Towing in Merrillville.

The second week of Buncich's trial began Monday with a thorough dissection of the sheriff's campaign finance records, dating to 2013. Gerard Hatagan, an Internal Revenue Service agent, went through each year pointing out anomalies and alleged omissions.

By the afternoon, the government rested its case, and the defense began its arguments by calling Mannino. Over the next day or two, Truitt said he plans to call to the stand Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, a member of New Chicago police, other tow operators, Lake County dispatchers and possibly Porter County Sheriff David Reynolds.

Truitt said the defense had not decided yet whether Buncich will take the stand.

In his testimony Monday, Mannino told the court he bought tickets for Buncich's fundraiser events, though not every year.

Truitt asked Mannino whether he ever thought there was a benefit or disadvantage to him, depending on the number of tickets he purchased.

"No," Mannino said.

While questioning Mannino, Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson asked the tow operator how he paid for the tickets. Mannino initially replied cash before quickly following by saying he paid by check.

"How did that happen to come out of your mouth?" Benson said.

Mannino testified that he always paid with a business check and wasn't sure why he initially said he paid with cash.

Before Mannino's testimony, the majority of the day was spent going through Buncich's campaign reports.

Federal agents know that in October 2014, two Lake County tow operators each passed along $500 cash supposedly for fundraising tickets but Buncich's campaign finance reports show no record of that money, according to testimony presented Monday.

Benson asked Hatagan if a review of three years of Buncich's campaign finance reports indicated a receipt of that money.

"No," said Hatagan, a special enforcement program revenue agent.

Last week, federal prosecutors showed jurors undercover recordings of an Oct. 21, 2014, meeting between former Lake County Chief of Police Timothy Downs and Scott Jurgensen, of Samson's Towing in Merrillville, and William Szarmach, of CSATowing in Lake Station, where they each gave Downs $500 cash and $2,000 checks. The cash and checks allegedly were for fundraising tickets.

If those were in fact campaign donations, Hatagan said they should have been on the report. Hatagan said the two checks did show up on the reports for the Lake County Democratic Central Committee.

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

"It did not," Hatagan said.

Hatagan, who said he's reviewed campaign finance reports for the majority of his 30 years with the IRS, said he looked through the reports for Buncich Boosters, the Buncich Boosters Gaming Account and the Lake County Democratic Central Committee in search of contributions from certain individuals and corporations, namely Jurgensen, Samson's Towing, Szarmach and CSA Towing.

Benson asked about a series of contributions throughout the reports listed as "anonymous" cash donations, which ranged in the size of donations from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.

"I have not seen this designation used previously," Hatagan said.

Benson asked about a series of anonymous donations the finance reports listed as from Schenectady, N.Y., with a ZIP code of 12345.

During the first week of the trial, jurors heard from Jurgensen, who recorded hours of audio and video of meetings between himself, Downs, Szarmach and Buncich. Both Downs and Szarmach pleaded guilty and testified about the scheme to solicit bribes in the form of fundraiser tickets or contributions to political campaigns.

Since his indictment, Buncich has maintained his innocence, refuting the allegations of federal prosecutors.

During questioning of Hatagan, Larry Rogers, Buncich's other defense attorney, asked Hatagan if he knew whether Downs had given money he received from Jurgensen and Szarmach to Buncich or Buncich Boosters. Hatagan said he did not know.

Hatagan also testified that Buncich did not have to deposit money immediately after receiving it, and the money could be deposited in increments.

During the course of testimony Monday, Judge James Moody ruled that federal prosecutors could not introduce information about deposits made into Buncich's personal and campaign bank accounts.

Truitt filed a motion Monday contesting the introduction of a prosecutor's exhibit showing deposits into those accounts. Truitt said the defense maintains the campaign contributions made by the tow operators were done without strings attached, according to court documents, but federal prosecutors say it was done for the donor to get some benefit, so it's not material where the money wound up.

Truitt said, in court documents, that evidence is not relevant to the charges against Buncich.

"Assume hypothetically, that the source of the money was proceeds from being a hit man. How would that be relevant and would only serve to prejudice the jury?" Truitt's motion read. "Going to the opposite, yet equally outrageous extreme, supposed the money was an award for his work ridding Africa of Ebola, the government would (be) strenuously objecting to the defense putting forth this evidence."










Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is set to come to embattled Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's defense
NWI Times
August 13, 2017
HAMMOND — Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson could be one of several witnesses to testify this week in defense of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery that allege he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting cash and campaign contributions.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson was expected to rest the government's case against the sheriff late Friday afternoon or early Monday after five days of testimony saying the sheriff shook down towing firms for money to pay campaign debts exceeding $80,000.

Defense lawyers Bryan M. Truitt and Larry W. Rogers, of Valparaiso, are expected to immediately begin presenting their evidence the sheriff only engaged in legitimate political fundraising, and his accusers are unbelievable.

Truitt said he planned to call the Gary mayor at some point in their case.

He didn't discuss her anticipated testimony, but earlier disclosed in a pre-trial document that she met FBI confidential informant Scott Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department and owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville.

It states Jurgensen "attempted to corrupt numerous municipal and other public officials, including at least three runs at Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson." There has been testimony the mayor didn't put Jurgensen on the city's tow list.

There also has been testimony the sheriff and Freeman-Wilson have been political allies who met more than a year ago to discuss granting the sheriff's police permission to identify and tow derelict vehicles that violate city ordinances.

Jurgensen said he met the sheriff and gave him $7,500 in cash Sept. 2 for a larger share of Gary's ordinance enforcement for his towing firm and that of William "Willie" Szarmach, owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, another target of the FBI investigation into towing bribery.

Nathan Holbrook, an FBI agent, testified Friday be believes the sheriff wanted to get involved in Gary towing to generate more bribe payments from Jurgensen and Szarmach.

The sheriff's legal team argue the sheriff only wanted to help clean up blight in the city of Gary and didn't push for excessive towing there.

They are expected to call at least three witnesses to testify the sheriff has been a pillar of the community during a four-decade career in law enforcement who was never arrested until his indictment Nov. 18 in the current case.

Truitt indicated in his cross examination of government witnesses that jurors should be suspicious of Timothy Downs, the sheriff's former second in command, who distributed the sheriff's campaign tickets and collected payments on government time. 

Truitt asked Holbrook why the FBI didn't investigate whether Downs was keeping the political contributions for himself because he was in financial difficulties since he purchased a campground in downstate Monticello, Indiana.

Holbrook said he believed Downs was delivering the money to the sheriff. Jurors saw Downs through an FBI surveillance video carry $7,500 to the sheriff at his office July 21, 2016, and saw the sheriff take the money and put it in his desk without question.

Truitt also argues Szarmach's credibility is questionable since he also is overheard on FBI surveillance bragging falsely about the value of his home and the money he spends on towing equipment.

Benson said Szarmach wasn't exaggerating his close relationship with the sheriff. He said telephone records indicate Szarmach and the sheriff talked to each other by phone more than 60 times between 2012 and the arrest of Szarmach and Buncich last fall.










Buying Lake County sheriff's fundraiser tickets 'only way to stay in towing,' operator says
Chicago Tribune
August 11, 2017
The manager of a Gary towing business told a jury Friday that he was never pressured to buy fundraiser tickets for Lake County Sheriff John Buncich but thought it was necessary.

"Only way to stay in towing," said Kay Williams, of Bennie's Towing.

Several Lake County tow operators testified during the fifth day of Buncich's trial that they saw their towing area shrink, a chunk of their work being shifted to Samson's Towing, owned by Scott Jurgensen, and C.S.A. Towing, owned by William Szarmach. Federal prosecutors say bribes paid by Jurgensen, who was cooperating with the FBI, and Szarmach helped them secure more territory in Gary and New Chicago.

Williams said he never lost towing territory but had to start sharing his area with C.S.A Towing.

Williams said a Lake County officer would show up selling tickets.

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

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

"No," Williams said.

Stanley Bell Sr., of S and S Sales and Service in East Chicago, said his towing territory got moved around and started noticing other companies in his area. Bell said he'd call Buncich if he had trouble.

Bell said he's purchased some fundraiser tickets but didn't do it all the time.

"I'm a Democrat, OK," Bell said, and he thinks people should buy tickets to support candidates who can put the party on track.

"Never no push on me about buying tickets," Bell said.

During testimony at Buncich's trial, federal authorities said Buncich used his influence to help secure towing operations for Szarmach and Jurgensen at Indiana University Northwest in Gary and the city of New Chicago.

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

Gaskin said he also had towing jobs at IUN but C.S.A. Towing rejoined the list after being removed several years ago.

Defense attorney Bryan Truitt questioned FBI Special Agency Nathan Holbrook, who talked about the sheriff using his influence to get Szarmach and Jurgensen towing jobs in IUN and New Chicago,

There's nothing illegal about making a call to a friend, Truitt asked.

"No," Holbrook said.

Truitt noted that Buncich doesn't have any authority to make decisions about towing at IUN or in New Chicago.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson asked Holbrook about undercover recordings where Szarmach talked to Buncich about getting towing work at IUN and to put in a request on his behalf.

Benson asked if Szarmach got that work.

"Yes," Holbrook said.

Jurgensen had half of the New Chicago work, Benson said, and talked to Buncich about getting all of it.

"Did he get all of it?" Benson asked.

"Yes," Holbrook said.










Lake County Sheriff Buncich not original focus of bribery investigation, feds say
Chicago Tribune
August 11, 2017
A multi-year investigation culminated last November when FBI agents raided the office and home of Sheriff John Buncich, but Lake County's top cop wasn't the initial target when towing first piqued federal investigators' interest, according to courtroom testimony.

Federal authorities sought information on an alleged pay-to-play scheme, starting in 2012, but testimony presented in federal court this past week revealed Buncich was an unintentional target after investigators chased other leads.

FBI Special Agent Nathan Holbrook testified Tuesday that an investigation into the potential for corruption within municipal towing operations started when talking with Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville.

The FBI went to Jurgensen's tow yard in 2012 to find out who picked up an impounded truck in an unrelated case, Holbrook testified. An agent asked why Jurgensen didn't do more towing since he previously worked for Merrillville police.

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

"You don't pay, you're not going to tow," Jurgensen said.

The sheriff's public corruption trial began Monday in Hammond's federal court over allegations that Buncich accepted thousands of dollars in bribes for his campaign as part of an illegal towing scheme. The Lake County towing ordinance left sole discretion to the sheriff as to what companies got the contracts — a power federal prosecutors say was used to solicit bribes.

While Buncich has maintained his innocence, his two co-defendants, Timothy Downs, former Lake County chief of police, and William "Willie" Szarmach, owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, pleaded guilty.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson presented the government's case in the first week of Buncich's trial, calling Downs and Szarmach to the stand and playing audio and video recordings made by informants going back to 2014.

Leading up to that first encounter in 2012, the FBI had not had done any investigations into municipal towing, Holbrook said, but the FBI asked if Jurgensen would wear a wire and cooperate in an investigation.

"I thought about it for a few days," Jurgensen testified, saying he was worried about his business and safety of his family.

Benson asked Jurgensen in court what convinced him to cooperate.

"(An agent) told me evil men prosper because good men do nothing," Jurgensen said.

The investigation began looking at a Merrillville official reportedly soliciting bribes, before looking at alleged bribes to a Schererville official. Neither were charged, federal court records show.

It was then, Holbrook said, that the investigation turned to Lake County.

Downs first approached Jurgensen, a longtime friend, in 2013, Holbrook said, and wanted to collect money for Buncich's campaign. Jurgensen said he thought the contributions could help him with getting more towing business.

In the early meetings in 2014, Jurgensen and Downs met at area restaurants, with Jurgensen giving Downs thousands of dollars in checks made out to Buncich's Boosters, the sheriff's political campaign, and the Lake County Central Democratic Committee, of which Buncich was chairman, Benson said.

Defense attorney Bryan Truitt asked Holbrook on Thursday if the FBI ever saw any red flags that Downs kept the money for himself.

"No," Holbrook said.

As the meetings continued every couple of months, Jurgensen and Szarmach gave Downs thousands of dollars in checks along with hundreds of dollars in cash, according to exhibits Benson presented in court.

On June 3, 2015, FBI agents staked out at a meeting between Szarmach, Jurgensen, Downs and another sheriff's department employee, who was not charged in the case.

By that time, the FBI was trying to decide whether to approach Downs to cooperate, Holbrook said, but if he didn't agree, that could blow the undercover investigation.

"It was a risk," Holbrook said, during cross examination Friday. Holbrook said the more people who knew about the investigation, the riskier it became.

After the meeting, the FBI stopped Downs in his sheriff's department-issued car. Agents took Downs back to the FBI's Merrillville office, and Downs agreed to wear a wire, Holbrook said.

Downs started recording his trips to collect thousands of dollars from Szarmach and another Lake County tow operator not charged in the case, Holbrook said.

"I will get this over to the sheriff," Downs said in the recording of Szarmach.

On July 15, 2015, Downs filmed himself walking into the sheriff's department and the sheriff's office, handing Buncich $7,500 in cash, which the sheriff took and put in his desk drawer, Benson said.

By 2016, Jurgensen started meeting with Buncich directly, according to prosecutors. At an April 2016 meeting between the sheriff, Jurgensen and Szarmach at a Merrillville restaurant Buncich accepted thousands of dollars from the tow operators before going inside to eat, Benson said.

The meetings continued in 2016 until the FBI raid at the Lake County Government Center in November and the three were indicted, prosecutors said.

When questioning the government's witnesses, the defense argued that Buncich and Downs did not directly say that if the towers didn't pay money, they would be kicked off the county's tow list.

"Did ( Buncich ) tell you give me X amount of dollars and you will tow for me?" asked Larry Rogers, Buncich's other defense attorney.

"No," Szarmach said.

"John Buncich never promised you anything, did he?" Rogers said.

"No," Szarmach said.

Benson asked Szarmach, "Did (Buncich) ever say Willie, you can't be doing this?"

"No," Szarmach said.

Buncich's trial resumes Monday for its second week. The defense is expected to begin presenting evidence early in the week.










Lake County Sheriff trial day 5: 
Gary wrecker on buying Buncich campaign fundraising tickets, 'I had to. It was the only way to stay in towing.'
NWI Times
August 11, 2017
HAMMOND —  An FBI agent told a federal jury Friday the difference between a legitimate campaign contribution and a bribe.

The question is at the heart of the public corruption trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, who is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery alleging he used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself and his campaign.

Government prosecutors allege the sheriff solicited bribes from towing firms. The sheriff's defense team argues the sheriff only engaged in the same political fund-raising every elected official does.

Bryan M. Truitt, an attorney for the sheriff, questioned FBI Agent Nathan Holbrook, who directed the federal investigation against the sheriff Friday. Truitt asked whether it was illegal to give a cash donation to a candidate for public office.

Holbrook said, "It depends upon the context."

Truitt asked whether it would be okay for him to go to a political fundraiser, pay $100 at the door to support the candidate's election.

"As long as no promises are made," Holbrook answered.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson has told jurors Buncich used his authority of getting to decide which firms could tow vehicles for county police to give more lucrative work to those who bought more of his campaign fund-raiser tickets and gave him more money.

Jurors have seen video and photo images of Buncich accepting cash collected by Timothy Downs, his former second-in-command and directly from Scott Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department and owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville, who became an FBI informant beginning in  2012.

Holbrook testified Thursday about the significance of cash payments to the sheriff. "Cash is more indicative of criminal behavior."

Holbrook said Friday he had spoken with a number of elected officials in the area. "The general consensus is....they don't touch cash."

He said candidates prefer checks, which are easier to account for later and donors prefer checks to document their donations for possible tax deductions.

Holbrook said Jurgensen approached the sheriff asking for help in getting all the towing for the Town of New Chicago.

Holbrook said Jurgensen later won a monopoly there because Buncich, who was chairman of the Lake County Democratic party at the time, used his influence with Sue Pelfrey, a Democrat and former New Chicago town councilwoman. Her daughter works for the sheriff.

Holbrook said William "Willie" Szarmach, of Hobart, owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station and a target of the FBI investigation, asked the sheriff to help him get a towing contract with Indiana University Northwest police.

Holbrook said the sheriff and Ed Davies, now the sheriff's jail administrator, used their influence to get the IUN police chief to put Szarmach on the campus' tow list. He said Davies previously worked with the IUN police.

Kay Williams of Bennie's Towing in Gary testified Friday he bought the sheriff's fundraiser tickets from Willie Stewart, a former jail warden for the sheriff, but not willingly.

Williams said Stewart required him to buy 10 $100 tickets about twice a year, but he said he wouldn't have bought any if could avoid it. "I had to. It was the only way to stay in towing," Williams said.










Trial day 4: Jurors see videos of Lake County Sheriff Buncich accepting money from tow truck drivers
NWI Times
August 10, 2017
HAMMOND — A federal jury saw more images Thursday of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich pocketing thousands of dollars from tow truck operators. 

An FBI surveillance video from April 22, 2016, shows its confidential informant, Scott Jurgensen, hand $2,500 in a white bank envelope to the sheriff in a parking lot outside the Delta Restaurant on Broadway in Merrillville, near the Merrillville police station.

Another FBI video shows the sheriff accepting an envelope containing $2,500 from Jurgensen outside the same restaurant. He is seen putting it in one of his hip pockets. Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department and owner of Samson's Towing in Merillville, became an FBI informant early on in the agency's corruption investigation that began in 2012.

The money changed hands so quickly, federal prosecutors had to show the video in slow motion and freeze frame.

Although the FBI's video recorder malfunctioned during a Sept. 2, 2016, meeting, at the same location, between the sheriff and Jurgensen, an FBI agent stationed across the street took still photographs, including one of Buncich putting into his back pocket another white envelope, this time containing $7,500.

Buncich drove his county-issued vehicle to all three meetings.

FBI Agent Nathan Holbrook told jurors the sheriff and another participant, William "Willie" Szarmach, of Hobart, and owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, were unaware of the FBI's covert investigation of towing bribery.

Ironically, Szarmach is heard making a joke in the presence of both Buncich and Jurgensen that Jurgensen was wearing a wire. Jurgensen said in earlier testimony he agreed to work undercover for the FBI out of frustration over bribery.

Jurgensen lifted both arms in a mock gesture to deny it. But he was wearing a wire, which neither Buncich nor Szarmach apparently was aware of at that time.

On Wednesday, the jury saw a video of Buncich receiving $7,500 from towing firms collected by his then-Chief of Police Timothy Downs and put it in his desk drawer.

The government alleges this is bribe money as well as campaign contributions solicited and collected on county government time in violation of county and federal regulations.

Bryan M. Truitt, of the sheriff's defense team, told Moody he wants the judge to instruct jurors that they could decide the money was legitimate political fundraising.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery alleging he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting cash and campaign contributions.

Truitt asked Holbrook during cross examine whether the FBI considered that Downs was keeping the towing cash payments for himself and not giving them to the sheriff until after Downs was caught and agreed to cooperate with the FBI.

Holbrook said he never believed Downs was keeping towing payments from the sheriff.

Truitt also asked Holbrook whether the FBI investigated whether any of the 10 other towing firms working for the county also were paying bribes.

Holbrook responded, "I don't have to prove every crime, just some of the crimes."

U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson also showed the jury a pledge Buncich signed as a candidate for sheriff in 2014 for The Shared Ethics Commission, which promotes ethical behavior in local government in Northwest Indiana.

In it, Buncich pledged to expose corruption, refrain from using government property for anything except official business or misuse his office "to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for myself or others."










FBI agent testifies he saw Lake County Sheriff Buncich take cash from tow operator
Chicago Tribune
August 10, 2017
Under questioning by a defense attorney representing Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, an FBI agent testified Thursday that he saw a tow operator give Buncich $7,500.

Bryan Truitt, during cross-examination, asked FBI Special Agent Nathan Holbrook if, during a September 2016 meeting at a Merrillville restaurant, he saw Buncich hand Scott Jurgensen, of Samson's Towing, any fundraiser tickets in exchange for $7,500.

"No," Holbrook said.

Buncich was indicted nine months ago and charged with accepting thousands of dollars in bribes for his campaign as part of an illegal towing scheme, according to prosecutors.

While Buncich opted to go to trial, his two co-defendants in the case, Timothy Downs, former Lake County chief of police, and William "Willie" Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, took plea agreements and are testifying for the government.

Federal prosecutors continued screening a series of recordings and surveillance videos Thursday that reportedly showed the underpinnings of a scheme to solicit bribes, often via campaign fundraiser tickets, from tow operators with promises of getting more territory from the Lake County Sheriff's Department.

The series of audio and video clips played by prosecutors for the jury followed a timeline, from when the tow operators told the sheriff about the lack of jobsto a series of meetings with the officer then in charge of those enforcing the Gary towing ordinance to the eventual assignment of a new officer to that detail.

The original enforcement officer told Buncich and Downs that he was hearing he should be towing more cars, according to undercover recordings made by Downs and the FBI.

"I just don't want you mad at me," he said.

Jurgensen and Buncich met at the Merrillville restaurant in September 2016, once a new officer had been assigned to enforce the Gary ordinances.

During that exchange, Holbrook said surveillance photos taken showed Jurgensen handing Buncich a white envelope containing $7,500 cash.

Jurgensen is heard on one of the recordings taken during that meeting saying that the new officer seemed to be working out pretty well.

"Well John, I really appreciate what you did for me," Jurgensen said on the audio recording.

Both Downs and Szarmach testified earlier in the week about how the sheriff allegedly had an expectation that in exchange for more tow jobs, people had to pay.

On Wednesday, jurors saw a video recorded by Downs in July 2015 where he delivered $7,500 in cash to Buncich, who was seated at his desk at the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point.

That same day, prosecutors presented more than seven hours of audio and video recordings that chronicled transactions between Downs, Szarmach, Jurgensen and Buncich.










Jury watches video of Lake County Sheriff Buncich accepting cash in his office
Chicago Tribune
August 09, 2017
With $7,500 in cash on him, former Lake County Chief of Police Tim Downs parked his car outside the Lake County Sheriff's Department on July 15, 2015, and made his way to Sheriff John Buncich's office.

Buncich, at his desk, makes some comments about how many tickets Downs said he sold to area tow operators.

Then Downs hands the money to Buncich, who holds the stack in his hand before placing it in the desk drawer in front of him.

"All right, see you in the morning," Downs said as he left.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson played a recording of the exchange, which Downs made while cooperating for the government, on Wednesday, the third day of Buncich's public corruption trial.

The sheriff's two co-defendants, Downs and William "Willie" Szarmach, owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, previously pleaded guilty, but Buncich has maintained his innocence over accusations that he accepted thousands of dollars in bribes for his campaign as part of an illegal towing scheme.

The jury spent Wednesday watching and listening to recordings made between August 2014 and April 2016 of meetings at area restaurants between the defendants.

The earlier meetings were primarily between Downs, Szarmach and the government's informant in the case, Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson Towing and a former Merrillville police officer. Later, Szarmach and Jurgensen started meeting with Buncich directly, according to the prosecution.

At those meetings, Szarmach and Jurgensen expressed their interest in getting more towing calls and territory from the sheriff.

In a March 2016 recording between Buncich, Jurgensen and Szarmach, Jurgensen is heard chuckling and saying, "Get to the point of why we're here, Willie."

Szarmach and Jurgensen asked the sheriff about getting to tow for a Gary ordinance the sheriff's department was enforcing, according to the government, to which Buncich replied, "We'll make it happen."

After leaving the meeting and Buncich, Jurgensen is heard asking Szarmach, "How much do you think it's going to cost us?"

The recordings were made by Jurgensen and Downs for the government, as agents took surveillance photos of some of the meetings, according to FBI Special Agent Nathan Holbrook, who took the stand as the recordings played Wednesday.

Downs was stopped in June 2015 by the FBI after a meeting with Szarmach and Jurgensen and another sheriff's department employee, who is not charged in the case, according to prosecutors.

Benson showed photos of the inside of Downs' car issued by the sheriff's department from that day. Investigators found a bank envelope that had "county" written on it with $2,500 inside that Jurgensen gave Downs at the meeting, as well as a yellow envelope on the passenger's seat with fundraiser tickets for Buncich's "summer fest."

Downs agreed to cooperate with the government in the investigation. Holbrook said Downs "wasn't comfortable" wearing the wire, "but he did it." About two weeks after being stopped by the FBI, Downs started recording, according to Holbrook.

The jury watched a video of Downs going to collect $2,500 from Szarmach in June 2015 at Szarmach's Lake Station office. "I will get this over to the sheriff," Downs said in the video as he left the office.

Downs also recorded a March 2016 meeting with Buncich and another sheriff's department employee, who is not charged in the case. In the recording, Buncich is heard saying he is "going to settle" his debt of the tens of thousands of dollars he gave to his campaign by the time he left office, which is a quote Benson began with in his opening statements Monday.

The day ended Wednesday with surveillance photos of an April 2016 meeting of Szarmach, Jurgensen and Buncich; Benson said he planned to play recordings Thursday morning.

Jurgensen, Szarmach and Downs all took the stand in the first two days of Buncich's trial.

Downs discussed how he was tasked by the sheriff with selling tickets to Buncich's campaign fundraisers each year to towing operators.

While Downs admitted Buncich never explicitly said Downs would be fired if he didn't comply, Downs said, "Honestly, if I didn't do this, I wouldn't have a job."

Szarmach described the times he donated to Buncich's campaign fundraisers, followed by cash payments and restaurant meetings they had, once leaving money in an envelope on the front seat of his truck for Buncich.

Szarmach said he felt he needed to do that to "be able to secure a spot on the tow list."










Day 3 of Buncich trial: Jurors see tape of sheriff handling cash feds claim was bribe money
NWI Times
August 09, 2017
HAMMOND — Federal jurors saw a video tape Wednesday of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich handling $7,500 in what the government claims is bribe money.

In the tape, Buncich is seen putting the money in his desk drawer.

Government prosecutors in U.S. District Court presented more than seven hours of surveillance recordings to bolster their corruption case against Buncich during the third day of the trial.

Bryan C. Truitt, of the sheriff's defense team, told U.S. District Court Judge James T. Moody he wants the judge to instruct jurors that they could decide the money was legitimate political fundraising.

FBI Special Agent Nathan Holbrook testified the money changed hands in apparent violation of Lake County government's prohibition of conducting political activity on county time.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery alleging he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting cash and campaign contributions.

The jury heard and saw audio and video recordings of conversations in 2014 and 2015 on various dates among Timothy Downs, Buncich's former second-in-command; Scott Jurgensen, a retired Merrillville police officer and owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville; and William "Willie" Szarmach, of Hobart, former owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station.

The courtroom audience had trouble clearly hearing the dialogue, but jurors were provided a written transcript of the dialogue. Some video was also of poor quality, and the hidden camera sometimes was pointed too high to see faces.

However, the video of Downs delivering the money was of a much clearer quality.

Downs was charged along with Buncich last November and it was soon disclosed he had been cooperating with government prosecutors and wearing a wire since June of 2015. He has pleaded guilty and agreed to testify he did political fundraising among the tow truck owners under Buncich's orders.

Downs was wearing video and audio recording devices that showed him walking into the Lake County Sheriff's Department and through its corridors right into the sheriff's office.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson replayed the tape a second time and used its freeze-frame function to give jurors a better view of Downs' hand putting the $7,500 in cash on the sheriff's desk, and then the sheriff picking it up and sliding it into his desk drawer.

The sheriff is heard complaining about an unrelated matter, but makes no comment on the money he received. Downs testified he routinely brought money there.

Jurors also heard conversations between Jurgensen, who also was wearing a government wire, and Szarmach discussing a proposal to meet with Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson to obtain towing in her city. Jurgensen said he would arrange such a meeting.

Holbrook said the mayor eventually did meet with Jurgensen and John Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body of Portage, but reached no towing agreement.

Cortina and Portage Mayor James Snyder are pleading not guilty to federal bribery allegations that Snyder received two checks totaling $12,000 from Cortina, in exchange for a towing contract in the city of Portage.

Szarmach pleaded guilty several days ago to bribing Buncich for contracts for towing work. Jurgensen was recruited early in the investigation to work undercover for the FBI.










Former chief of police, tow operator testify at Sheriff Buncich corruption trial
Chicago Tribune
August 08, 2017
At the mention of whether to pay cash or check, video played in Hammond federal court Tuesday showed former Lake County Police Chief Timothy Downs waving his hands and shaking his head.

"You're not asking. You never ask. I get that," said Scott Jurgensen, a tow operator and informant for the FBI.

The video of Downs and Jurgensen meeting at a Merrillville restaurant for breakfast in April 2014 was one of a couple of video and audio recordings played in court Tuesday on the second day of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's public corruption jury trial.

Both of Buncich's co-defendants took the stand Tuesday. While Downs and William "Willie" Szarmach pleaded guilty and took plea agreements with the government, requiring them to testify at trial, Buncich has maintained his innocence over accusations that he accepted thousands of dollars in bribes for his campaign as part of an illegal towing scheme.

FBI Special Agent Nathan Holbrook took the stand as Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson played recordings made by Jurgensen. Most of what's said in the recordings was indecipherable without the transcripts passed out to the jury, but Benson and Holbrook helped explain portions of the recordings.

The April 2014 video switches between views of the ceiling and Downs' face as the two drink coffee and iced tea and discuss towing in Lake County.

Surveillance photos Benson presented of an August 2014 meeting between Downs, Jurgensen and Szarmach at a Hobart restaurant, which Holbrook said was a frequent meeting spot, show the three laughing and talking the parking lot with Szarmach's red CSA Towing truck parked nearby.

Benson said Downs and Szarmach often raised concerns about being recorded at the meetings, referencing George Van Til, a former Lake County Surveyor convicted for using county resources to run his campaign.

On the stand, Downs discussed how he was tasked by the sheriff with selling tickets to Buncich's campaign fundraisers each year to towing operators.

"I didn't like it and I didn't agree with it," Downs said.

While Downs admitted Buncich never explicitly said Downs would be fired if he didn't comply, Downs said, "Honestly, if I didn't do this, I wouldn't have a job."

He met with tow operators to collect money and to hear their requests, he said, but ultimately it was up to the sheriff who was on the tow list.

Downs also recalled June 3, 2015, the day he was arrested by the FBI after leaving a meeting at the Hobart restaurant with Szarmach and Jurgensen with thousands of dollars in cash in an envelope above the visor of his car, he said.

Downs told Benson he remembers that day and how he agreed to wear a wire for the FBI in the investigation. Benson asked Downs why he agreed to do so.

"It was the right thing to do," Downs said.

At his turn on the stand, Szarmach described the times he donated to Buncich's campaign fundraisers, followed by cash payments and restaurant meetings they had, once leaving money in an envelope on the front seat of his truck for Buncich.

Szarmach said he felt he needed to do that to "be able to secure a spot on the tow list."

By meeting with Downs and Buncich, Szarmach said he and Jurgensen wanted to improve their calls for towing in Lake County, including with the sheriff's department's involvement in towing for a Gary ordinance, in New Chicago and at Indiana University Northwest in Gary.

Larry Rogers, one of Buncich's defense attorneys, argued, though, that it was up to Szarmach how many tickets he bought and the payment method he used. Rogers also claimed that Downs and Buncich never directly asked for the money or threatened to kick Szarmach off the list if he didn't pay.

"Did (Buncich) tell you give me X amount of dollars and you will tow for me?" Rogers asked.

"No," Szarmach said.

"John Buncich never promised you anything, did he?" Rogers asked.

"No," Szarmach said.

Throughout the day, the government presented other pieces of evidence to the jury other than the video and audio recordings. Benson displayed two emails from Buncich outlining changes to towing operations in the county; sections about ethics and political activities conducted on government time from the Lake County Employee Handbook ;and a printout from the Lake County Sheriff's Department's website outlining the department's code of ethics.

Those in the courtroom Tuesday included people from the government, families of the defense attorneys, Mark Back, sheriff's department spokesman, Cmdr. Sharon Bennett, with the sheriff's SVU unit, John Bushemi, an attorney for the sheriff's department, and others.

Benson told the court he planned to resume with the recordings Wednesday morning.










Lake County Sheriff on trial for bribery in illegal towing scheme
CLTV
August 08, 2017


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HAMMOND, Ind. -- Prosecutors claim tapes showed to jurors Tuesday in Lake County Sheriff's corruption trial show  him accepting bribes for his campaign as part of an illegal towing scheme.

Two key witnesses also testified on the second day ofJohn Buncich's trial in Hammond, IN. Buncich is charged with wire fraud and receiving thousands of dollars in bribes as he oversaw towing contracts in northern Indiana.

His two co-defendants have already taken plea deals but the sheriff – who is still the acting sheriff in Lake County – insisted on a trial. It started Monday, when a confidential informant testified he knew he had to pay up if he wanted to get towing business from the county. He says he gave Buncich thousands of dollars over breakfast meetings to expand his towing business in Gary and North Chicago.

On Tuesday, Buncich's Chief of Police and a tow truck operator took the stand. One of the co-defendants also testified about all the money he gave the sheriff in order to secure towing contracts. He said the pay to play scenario was an understanding – but defense attorneys tried to point out the sheriff never asked for the money and never threatened anything if he didn’t get it.

The FBI raided the sheriff’s office last year and Buncich was indicted in November. The indictment alleges Buncich received some $27,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks with the towing contracts, according to former U.S. Attorney David Capp. Prosecutors say the sheriff later sold his office to pay himself back all the money he had spent on his own campaign. Tow companies also claim they had to buy tickets to the sheriff’s fundraisers and pay additional money to get on the Lake County tow list – referred to as joining the “boys” club in court documents.

Buncich has maintained his innocence, and his lawyers say the FBI paid their confidential informant more than $100,000 dollars to testify, and the feds are trying to buy a crime where one doesn’t exist. Some of nine hours of secret recordings were played at the trial on Tuesday. Buncich's attorney believes the tapes will help them.

“Sheriff Buncich is not in many of the tapes and we think – and he never discussed money or anything else. So it’s our anticipation that the tapes will actually help us,” defense attorney Bryan Truitt said.

Last fall, when this indictment was announced the U.S. Attorney said it should be a warning to any other public officials that might be taking part in this kind of towing scheme. A lot of names came up in court Tuesday, but it’s unclear if there are more investigations ongoing. The trial will continue again Wednesday.

Defense attorneys say the evidence will show the sheriff committed no crime.










Buncich's second in command at Lake County sheriff's trial: 'I didn't feel it was right to take cash'
NWI Times
August 08, 2017
HAMMOND — A U.S. District Court jury heard more testimony in the public corruption trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich as well as FBI recordings of the alleged major players in action.

Timothy Downs, the sheriff's former second in command, testified early Tuesday that he distributed and collected fundraising tickets for the sheriff, but he didn't enjoy it.

"I didn't feel it was right to take cash," Downs said from the witness stand. When asked why he did it, he said, "I wanted to remain the chief (of county police)."

Downs said he agreed to cooperate with the FBI after he was caught accepting such payments. He said he agreed to wear a wire and recorded seven to 10 conversations with the sheriff and tow truck owners doing towing for the county.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery alleging he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting $34,500 in cash and campaign contributions.

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

William "Willie" Szarmach, of Hobart, and former owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, also testified Tuesday morning. He said he made payments to Downs as well as the sheriff himself to win more lucrative towing work.

Szarmach pleaded guilty a few weeks ago to bribing the sheriff for contracts for towing work.

Nathan Holbrook, an FBI special agent, testified Tuesday the investigation into the sheriff began in 2012 after Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing, of Merrillville, complained to him that he couldn't get towing work because he refused to pay bribes.

Holbrook said he believed Jurgensen, a retired 20-year veteran of the Merrillville police force, and recruited Jurgensen to work undercover for the FBI.

Holbrook said the investigation began in Merrillville into whether Jurgensen bribed Tom Goralczyk, then a town councilman, to get towing work from the town.

Holbrook said the investigation shifted to Schererville and whether bribes were paid to Michael Troxell, a current town councilman.

Neither Goralczyk nor Troxell has been charged with any wrongdoing.

Holbrook said the probe then moved to the Lake County Sheriff's Department where Jurgensen got a towing contract through his friendship with Downs.

Buncich's lawyers, Bryan C. Truitt and Larry W. Rogers, both of Valparaiso, have said the sheriff did nothing wrong. "The FBI tried to buy a crime where one didn't exist," Truitt said in his opening statements Monday.

Downs said Buncich kept control over which towing firms worked for the county and where they could tow. The sheriff delegated to Downs the work of soliciting campaign contributions and money from towing firms, Downs said.

He said the sheriff ordered him to find donations for the sheriff's re-election as well as the Democratic Party after the sheriff became the party's county chairman.

Downs testified he brought $7,500 in political ticket sales into the sheriff's office in July 2015. "He stuck it in his desk drawer," Downs said.

On cross examination, Downs conceded he never threatened or promised towing firms anything when selling them tickets and never told Buncich he was bringing "bribes" to him.

Downs said nevertheless, the sheriff accepted the money without question.

Szarmach said he first approached the sheriff to get towing work at a gathering by giving $500 to Louis Gerodemos, a friend of both Szarmach and Buncich, to give to Buncich.

He said the two exchanged the money during a handshake, and 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.

Szarmach said he later gave more money to the sheriff, including $3,500 in two separate envelopes. He said he left the envelopes in the driver's seat of his new truck and invited the sheriff to look inside it. He said the sheriff grabbed the money.

Szarmach said Downs told him the sheriff needed money to replace $83,000 in campaign debts left over from his previous elections.

On cross examination, Rogers delved into Szarmach's past drinking and drug problems. Szarmach admitted having them and that his competitors called him "Cocaine Willie."

Szarmach said those problems were more than 15 years in his past and that he didn't drink anymore and had passed a half-dozen random drug tests in the last decade.

Szarmach said the sheriff didn't hold that past against him and liked him so much he commissioned Szarmach as a deputy sheriff several years ago.

U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson began playing for the jury audio and video recordings Jurgensen made of him and Downs conversing. This is the beginning of several hours of tapes Benson said he would offer into evidence. Although the sound quality was garbled, jury members were able to read transcripts of the dialogue.










Sheriff's lawyer tells jurors FBI invented bribery case
WSBT-TV
August 08, 2017
HAMMOND, Ind. (AP) - A lawyer for a northwestern Indiana on trial for federal bribery charges told jurors that the FBI tried to buy a crime where one didn't exist.
Federal prosecutors opened the trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich on Monday by saying they would present recordings of him receiving thousands of cash in envelopes as bribes from tow truck operators seeking towing business.

One of the first witnesses was a former Merrillville police officer and towing company owner who testified FBI agents recruited him to pay bribes to Buncich and record the meetings. Scott Jurgensen testified the FBI paid him more than $130,000 over five years, including bribe money.

Buncich is a Democrat and was elected in 2015 to his fourth term as sheriff of Indiana's second-most populous county.










Secret recordings may be played at Lake County sheriff’s bribery trial
WGN - Chicago 
August 8, 2017 -  8:58 AM


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HAMMOND, Ind. -- The second day of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's corruption trial is underway at the federal courthouse in Hammond, Indiana.

This afternoon prosecutors may play audio recordings made of Buncich, which the government says show him accepting thousands of dollars in bribes.

During the first day of testimony, a government informant told the jury that he knew he had to pay to get towing business from the county.  That business was controlled by the sheriff.  The FBI raided the sheriff’s office last year and Buncich was indicted in November, along with a deputy and another tow truck operator.

The others accepted plea deals and one is expected to testify against Buncich.

Defense attorneys say the evidence will show the sheriff committed no crime.










Informant in Buncich trial: 'I needed to pay'
Post-Tribune
August 07, 2017
On the first day of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's public corruption trial, the government's confidential informant told the federal court jury that he knew he had to pay to get towing business from the county.

Scott Jurgensen, of Samson Towing and a former Merrillville police officer, told the jury he was frustrated because he couldn't get more towing Merrillville, so he befriended fellow tow operator William "Willie" Szarmach, who was indicted with Buncich in November. Szarmach recently entered into a plea deal with the government.

The Post-Tribune did not previously identify Jurgensen until he testified as a witness in court.

Jurgensen, when questioned by Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson, said he and Szarmach initially talked to and paid former Lake County Chief of Police Timothy Downs, a friend of Jurgensen's since the 1980s, he said.

By 2016, the two started having "breakfast meetings" at a Merrillville restaurant with Buncich. Jurgensen described how he paid Buncich thousands of dollars in cash in order to get towing business in Gary and in New Chicago.

"I knew if I wanted to stay on the tow list, I needed to pay," Jurgensen said.

Benson showed the jury checks from Jurgensen, paying Buncich Boosters, Buncich's campaign fund, $2,000 in April 2014, and another $2,000 to Lake County Central Democratic Committee in October 2014.

Defense attorneys Bryan Truitt and Larry Rogers questioned the compensation Jurgensen received from the FBI for working as an informant, amounting to roughly $120,000. Jurgensen said a quarter of that went toward expenses his business had while towing for the county, while other money was his compensation for cooperating with the government.

Buncich was indicted nine months ago and charged that he accepted thousands of dollars in bribes for his campaign as part of an illegal towing scheme, according to prosecutors.

While Buncich opted to go to trial, his two co-defendants in the case, Downs and Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, took plea agreements with the government.

By noon Monday, attorneys selected a jury and alternates, made up of nine men and six women, and they finished opening statements and questioning of the government's first witness, Jurgensen, by the end of the day.

Benson began in a bold, loud voice, saying, "Between this year ... and 2017, I'm going to settle my (expletive) debt."

"Those aren't my words. Those are the words of the defendant," Benson said.

Benson claimed that Buncich wanted to repay the money he had put into his own campaign by the time he left office next year.

"He used his power as the sheriff of Lake County to accomplish that," Benson said.

Benson outlined a timeline of his case for the jury, at times turning around to face Buncich, who was seated between his attorneys, Bryan Truitt and Larry Rogers.

Benson said "it's the sheriff who controls the tow list, entirely," choosing who had what territories and what tows, "and he used that like a hammer," Benson said, hitting the podium.

Benson described recordings of Buncich receiving thousands of cash in envelopes, which he told the jury, "You'll see it and you'll hear it."

"He sold his office to pay himself back. That's what the evidence will show," Benson said.

Truitt spoke in a slower, quieter voice than Benson, saying, "My opening statement is going to cover a lot of ground."

"To begin with, and it's probably not the sexiest topic, I want to talk about the duties of the Lake County sheriff," Truitt said.

Truitt went through Buncich's role with the sheriff's department's budget and overseeing the jail. He told the jury they would hear from other tow operators. He described how towing works in Lake County, referring to towing logs on screens.

Truitt told the jury, "As you listen to the tapes, listen for the relationships and make your own conclusions."

"We believe the evidence will show the FBI tried to buy a crime where a crime doesn't exist," Truitt said.

The trial resumes Tuesday and Benson told the court he plans to call a couple of witnesses, possible getting to some of the recordings in the afternoon.










UPDATE: Assistant US attorney says Lake County Sheriff John Buncich put money 'in his back pocket' as public corruption trial opens
NWI Times
August 07, 2017
HAMMOND — Presentation of evidence opened Monday afternoon in the public corruption trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson told jurors Buncich sold his office to pay off his campaign debts in his opening statement to the jury. Benson told jurors they will see video and hear audio tapes of the sheriff personally accepting bribe money from tow truck drivers.

“You will see the sheriff taking money and putting it in his back pocket," Benson said Monday afternoon in an opening statement where he pointed his finger at the sheriff, seated at the defense table. The sheriff remained passive during these accusations.

One of Buncich's lawyers, Bryan M. Truitt, of Valparaiso, said in his opening statement the sheriff did nothing wrong. "The FBI tried to buy a crime where one didn't exist."

The first witness Benson called was Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing, of Merrillville. He was cross-examined by Larry W. Rogers, of Valparaiso, Buncich's other attorney.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery alleging he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting cash and campaign contributions.

Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department, said he got into towing after a back injury ended his police career.

Jurgensen said he experienced difficulty getting contracts to do towing for local police departments including Merrillville's. He said an FBI agent asked him why and he answered, "I don't pay bribes."

He said the agent asked him to start paying the bribes as a confidential informant of an FBI investigation.

Jurgensen said he balked initially because he feared for the safety of his family. He said he agreed after an FBI agent told him, "Evil men prosper because good men do nothing." He said the FBI paid him more than $130,000 over five years for his work and the expenses involved, including bribe money.

Jurgensen said he already was on the sheriff's approved tow list before he became an informant and started paying bribes because he was a friend of Timothy Downs, the sheriff's second-in-command.

But he began working with William Szarmach, a Lake Station towing firm owner who said he was cold to the sheriff. They agreed to jointly pay bribes to increase the work they received from county police.

"I knew that if I wanted to stay on the tow list, I had to pay," Jurgensen said.

Jurgensen said Downs and Daniel Murchek, the sheriff's third-in-command, brought him the sheriff's campaign fundraising tickets, and he bought thousands of dollars of tickets even though he never went to the fundraising events.

Jurgensen said he was prepared to support Downs for sheriff once Buncich left office because of term limits, but Downs later backed out after Dan Murchek opened his own campaign for sheriff.

He said he gave Murchek campaign contributions and Murchek promised him a county police towing list that would be shorter than Buncich's.

Jurgensen said he and Szarmach met personally with the sheriff and made payments to him several times last year and Jurgensen said he recorded the meetings without the sheriff's knowledge.

He said at one meeting, in April 2016, Szarmach invited the sheriff to look at Szarmach's new truck. The sheriff went inside and came out with what appeared to be thousands of dollars in cash Szarmach left on the seat.   

Jurgensen said he gave the sheriff an envelope containing money too and he and Szarmach later got exclusive work to tow derelict cars in Gary, which allowed the sheriff to enforce cars in violation of the city's ordinances.

Jurgensen said he later gave the sheriff $7,500 to get exclusive towing rights in the town of New Chicago. He said the sheriff said he would speak with Sue Pelfrey, then a town councilwoman, on Jurgensen's behalf. Jurgensen said he later got sole towing rights in the town.

Larry W. Rogers, who is part of Buncich's defense team, questioned Jurgensen how he knew others were paying the sheriff bribes. Jurgensen said he trusted those who told him so, including Szarmach and Downs.

Jurgensen said he believes the sheriff had sole authority over who stayed on the approved towing list. He said after he became identified as a confidential informant for the FBI in the bribery case, he said the county stopped sending him towing work.

Benson told the court he expects to begin presenting video and audio surveillance as early as Tuesday.










Of 80 people considered for the jury in Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's federal bribery trial, 10 have been dismissed
NWI Times
August 07, 2017
HAMMOND — Jury selection began Monday in the public corruption trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Philip C. Benson and Maria N. Lerner are expected to begin presenting evidence this week that Buncich solicited and accepted about $30,000 in bribes over seven years from two towing firms removing vehicles from public roads for county police.

Defense attorneys Bryan M. Truitt and Larry W. Rogers, of Valparaiso, are expected to argue that no bribes reached the sheriff's hand. Instead, they say the sheriff delegated towing to Timothy Downs, his former chief of police, and that Buncich is now disappointed Downs failed to act honestly.

Of about 80 potential jurors being considered this morning, 10 have left the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Judge James T. Moody. Reporters and other observers were not allowed in the courtroom this morning, because of the high number of potential jurors who had to be accommodated, according to one of the federal bailiffs.

It is not known the number of potential jurors both prosecutors and defense attorneys are allowed to strike, that is, ask to be removed from the jury pool for specific reasons, as allowed by federal law.

Judge Moody broke for lunch after about three hours, and jury selection is expected to continue this afternoon in the federal court building in Hammond.

Buncich was present in the courtroom, as was John Bushemi, the lawyer who serves him in his position as Lake County sheriff. No other potential witnesses were seen entering the courtroom this morning, including Downs, William "Willie" Szarmach, of Hobart and former owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, and Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing, of Merrillville.

Moody late last week denied a suggestion by the sheriff's defense lawyer to pick a jury Monday, but delay the start of presenting evidence to either Aug. 14 or Aug. 21.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery alleging he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting $34,500 in cash and campaign contributions.

Court documents state the government's evidence includes video and audio surveillance.

Buncich's attorney, Truitt, argued in a motion, made public Thursday, that the government waited until earlier this week to turn over to the defense more than 1,000 pages of transcripts of dialogue from "multiple dozens of hours of tapes."

Truitt complained the last-minute filing of transcripts gave him little time to respond to the new information.

Moody issued an order Friday stating he was denying any one- or two-week continuance, or Truitt's other suggestion for short "continuances from time to time."

Moody stated, "Defendant is cautioned that requests to delay trial will be highly disfavored and, absent extraordinary circumstances, such requests will be denied."

Truitt responded late Thursday to reports that Buncich might resign or plead guilty by telling The Times his client has done nothing wrong and they would prove so at trial.

Truitt said in pretrial court documents the improper activity the government is alleging was confined to Downs, Szarmach and Jurgensen.

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

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

Szarmach pleaded guilty a few weeks ago to bribing the sheriff for contracts for towing work and said he will testify for the government as well. The U.S. attorney's office has said Jurgensen deserves credit for uncovering public corruption.










'Day is finally here' for Lake County sheriff's bribery trial
POST-TRIBUNE NEWS
August 07, 2017
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-roundup-st-0806-20170804-story.html
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, who has maintained his innocence over accusations that he accepted thousands of dollars in bribes for his campaign fund as part of an illegal towing scheme, is set to start his federal jury trial Monday.

Nine months after being indicted, Buncich has opted to go to trial, as his two co-defendants in the case, Timothy Downs, former chief of police, and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, took plea agreements with the government.

The trial, estimated to last roughly a month, is scheduled to begin with jury selection Monday morning.

"We're just ready to get going. We've been working on this thing for nine months. The day is finally here," Buncich's attorney Bryan Truitt said.

In the days leading up to trial, the defense and prosecution have been working final details of the case, some in motions sealed from public view. In one public filing this week, Truitt said there are "dozens of hours of tapes" and "over 1,000 pages of proposed transcripts."

"It's stressful preparation leading up to it, for both sides, but we are confident and we think have all of our ducks in a row," Truitt said.

Buncich will be allowed to call three character witnesses at trial, but they "may only testify to 'a limited range of issues'," according to an order Thursday from U. S. District Judge James Moody. Their testimony must refer to a "pertinent trait" and "may not testify as to (Buncich's) religious or moral beliefs" or to "(Buncich's) charitableness," the order states.

Moody already ruled on other matters, including limits on how the defense can discuss Buncich's good acts outside the realm of the indictment. The court also decided that the defense cannot admit parts of "secretly recorded conversations" that the prosecution hasn't already introduced, except with the court's permission at trial, according to an order filed Friday.

Truitt said in a filing earlier this week that "it is unusual for a case of this volume of discovery to go to trial within 9 months, as this case is scheduled," although the counsels were ready.

In his order Friday, Moody cautioned that "requests to delay trial will be highly disfavored, and absent extraordinary circumstances such requests will be denied."

Then-U.S. Attorney David Capp held a press conference in November to announce the multi-count indictment against Buncich, Downs and Szarmach. Capp also announced, in a separate case, an indictment against Portage Mayor James Snyder and Portage tow operator John Cortina, of Kustom Auto Body. Snyder and Cortina pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to go to trial in January.

The week before Capp's announcement, the FBI served search warrants at the Lake County Sheriff's Department and the county's E-911 Department.

Since the indictment, the case has gone through judges and trial dates, as attorneys have gone back and forth in filings.

Buncich unsuccessfully tried to have the federal government return his firearms, arguing his gun is necessary for his duties as sheriff. The prosecution countered that agents never saw the sheriff carrying a weapon during his work duties in its investigation, according to court records.

In April, the prosecution filed a new indictment against Buncich, adding two wire fraud charges to his case for wire transfers Buncich allegedly made April 8, 2014, and Oct. 21, 2014, according to the indictment.

The same month, Buncich issued a statement calling the charges "absurd."

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

Truitt said Friday, "I know the sheriff is looking forward to this trial, which he believes it will exonerate him."

In July, Truitt asked to for more stringent efforts to select a jury given the publicity around the case, citing "an endless negative campaign by the Northwest Indiana Times and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott." Moody denied the request.

Outside of court, the Lake County commissioners implemented a new vehicle towing protocol in May. Previously, the sheriff's department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, but the commissioners took control over the contracts.

The indictment accuses Buncich and Downs of steering business toward towing operaters in exchange for money to Buncich's campaign, Buncich Boosters.

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

At the sheriff's department, Downs was replaced by Cmdr. Dennis Matthew Eaton as chief of police in May.

The indictment has hung over Buncich, who first served as sheriff from 1994 to 2002 before he was re-elected in 2010 and 2014, said Truitt.

"I think all of us want to get this thing resolved, and I know that the sheriff hates how his reputation has been impugned," he said.










Lake County Sheriff Buncich's bribery trial is set to begin Monday
Here's what you need to know
NWI Times
August 06, 2017
HAMMOND — Federal prosecutors have the challenge of proving that a man with all the power and money of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich would stoop to bribery.

Buncich has a law enforcement career stretching over four decades. He commands 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.

But he is scheduled to be in the dock like any common criminal defendant Monday in U.S. District Court where wire fraud and bribery counts against him are to be tried before a jury.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Philip C. Benson and Maria N. Lerner are set next week to begin presenting evidence that Buncich solicited and accepted about $30,000 in bribes over seven years from two towing firms removing vehicles from public roads for county police.

Defense attorneys Bryan M. Truitt and Larry W. Rogers, of Valparaiso, have argued in a pre-trial document that no bribes reached the sheriff's hand.











Instead, they say the sheriff delegated trivial matters like towing to Timothy Downs, his former chief of police, and that Buncich is now disappointed Downs failed to act honestly.

The government is expected to call Downs to the witness stand as well as tow truck owners who are expected to testify that Buncich accepted kickbacks willingly.

Defense attorneys have left open the possibility the sheriff may testify, too.

Federal investigators began investigating towing bribery allegations about three years ago, but that only became public Nov. 10, 2016, when an FBI panel truck pulled up outside the sheriff's office and agents began seizing county towing records.

Eight days later, a federal grand jury indicted Buncich, Downs and William Szarmach, owner and operator of CSA Towing in Lake Station.

Downs pleaded guilty last December and Szarmach last week to playing roles in the alleged scheme.


Court records indicate county police called towing firms to remove more than 12,000 vehicles that stalled or were involved in accidents or crime investigations between 2012 and 2016.

Towing contracts lucrative to owners

Buncich had sole authority over which firms were on the county's approved towing list those years.

Benson stated in federal court last week that towing was a vital concern to the towing firms, which could make $10,000 or more from just one job involving a heavy vehicle, like a tractor trailer.

Szarmach alleges he knew from experience he must contribute to Buncich's political campaign for sheriff to get that lucrative work.

Downs admitted in his plea agreement he delivered campaign fundraising tickets to towing firms and their contributions to the sheriff, because the sheriff ordered him to do so.

Szarmach alleges he paid Buncich $500 cash in 2009 and $1,000 months later.

But even though Szarmach was then on the towing list, he states in his plea agreement he was only one of a dozen such firms splitting up the work. He thought his share was too small, so he made additional payments in cash and a check of $2,500 in 2015, $3,500 in April 2016 and $3,500 in August 2016.

A confidential government informant now identified as Scott Jurgensen, of Samson Towing of Merrillville, also is alleged to have made similar payment to Buncich.

Buncich's lawyers allege in a court document that Downs, Szarmach and Jurgensen conspired to take over all county police towing, but Buncich did nothing wrong.

The government made extensive recordings in connection with its bribery investigation.

Buncich's lawyers say $1,000 the sheriff is seen accepting from Szarmach was the repayment of money the sheriff earlier loaned Szarmach.










Coming Sunday: Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's bribery trial to begin
NWI Times
Aug 05, 2017

* Federal prosecutors have the challenge of proving that a man with all the power and money of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich would stoop to bribery.

His trial is set to begin Monday in U.S. District Court where wire fraud and bribery counts against him are to be tried before a jury. Buncich is alleged to have solicited and accepted more than $30,000 in bribes over seven years from two towing firms removing vehicles from public roads for county police. His defense attorneys, Bryan M. Truitt and Larry W. Rogers maintain he did nothing wrong.










Judge declines to postpone Lake County sheriff's trial
Jury selection is set to begin early Monday
NWI Times
Aug 4, 2017 
HAMMOND — A federal judge is refusing to delay the trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

U.S. District Court Judge James T. Moody denied a suggestion by the sheriff's defense lawyer to pick a jury Monday, but delay the start of presenting evidence to either Aug. 14 or Aug. 21.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery alleging he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting $34,500 in cash and campaign contributions.

Court documents state the government's evidence includes video and audio surveillance.

Buncich's attorney, Bryan Truitt, argued in a motion, made public Thursday, that the government waited until earlier this week to turn over to the defense more than 1,000 pages of transcripts of dialogue from "multiple dozens of hours of tapes."

Truitt complains the last-minute filing of transcripts gives him little time to respond to the new information.

Moody issued an order Friday stating he was denying any one- or two-week continuance, or Truitt's other suggestion for short "continuances from time to time."

Moody stated, "Defendant is cautioned that requests to delay trial will be highly disfavored and, absent extraordinary circumstances, such requests will be denied."

Truitt responded late Thursday to reports that Buncich might resign or plead guilty by telling The Times his client has done nothing wrong and they will prove so at trial.

Truitt said in pretrial court documents the improper activity the government is alleging was confined to Buncich's police chief and second-in-command Timothy Downs, William "Willie" Szarmach, of Hobart and former owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station, and another government witness, Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing, of Merrillville.

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

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

Szarmach pleaded guilty earlier this week to bribing the sheriff for contracts for towing work and said he will testify for the government as well. The U.S. attorney's office has said Jurgensen deserves credit for uncovering public corruption.










A look at the case against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich
NWI Times
Aug 4, 2017 
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's bribery trial is set to begin Monday. The jury will decide whether kickbacks reached Buncich's hand. Here's a look at all the stories we've done so far in regards to his upcoming trial.















































'Day is finally here' for Lake County sheriff's bribery trial
Post-Tribune
August 04, 2017
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, who has maintained his innocence over accusations that he accepted thousands of dollars in bribes for his campaign fund in a towing scheme, is set to start his federal jury trial Monday.

Nine months after being indicted, Buncich opted to go to trial, as his two co-defendants in the case, Timothy Downs, former chief of police, and William Szarmach, of CSA Towing in Lake Station, took plea agreements with the government.

The trial, estimated to last roughly a month, will begin with jury selection Monday morning.

"We're just ready to get going. We've been working on this thing for nine months. The day is finally here," said Bryan Truitt, Buncich's attorney.

In the days leading up to trial, the defense and prosecution have been working final details of the case, some in motions sealed from public view. In one public filing this week, Truitt said there are "dozens of hours of tapes" and "over 1,000 pages of proposed transcripts."

"It's stressful preparation leading up to it, for both sides, but we are confident and we think have all of our ducks in a row," Truitt said.

Buncich will be allowed to call three character witnesses at trial, but they "may only testify to 'a limited range of issues'," according to an order Thursday from U. S. District Judge James Moody. Their testimony must refer to a "pertinent trait" and "may not testify as to (Buncich's) religious or moral beliefs" or to "(Buncich's) charitableness," the order states.

Moody already ruled on other matters, including limits on how the defense can discuss Buncich's good acts outside the realm of the indictment. The court also decided that the defense cannot admit parts of "secretly recorded conversations" that the prosecution hasn't already introduced, except with the court's permission at trial, according to an order filed Friday.

Truitt said in a filing earlier this week that "it is unusual for a case of this volume of discovery to go to trial within 9 months, as this case is scheduled," although the counsels were ready.

In his order Friday, Moody cautioned that "requests to delay trial will be highly disfavored, and absent extraordinary circumstances such requests will be denied."

Then-U.S. Attorney David Capp held a press conference in November to announce the multi-count indictment against Buncich, Downs and Szarmach. Capp also announced, in a separate case, an indictment against Portage Mayor James Snyder and Portage tow operator John Cortina, of Kustom Auto Body. Snyder and Cortina pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to go to trial in January.

The week before Capp's announcement, the FBI served search warrants at Lake County Sheriff's Department and the county's E-911 Department.

Since the indictment, the case has gone through judges and trial dates, as attorneys have gone back and forth in filings.

Buncich unsuccessfully tried to have the federal government return his firearms, arguing his gun is necessary for his duties as sheriff. The prosecution countered that agents never saw the sheriff carrying a weapon during his work duties in its investigation, according to court records.

In April, the prosecution filed a new indictment against Buncich, adding two wire fraud charges to his case for wire transfers Buncich allegedly made April 8, 2014, and Oct. 21, 2014, according to the indictment.

The same month, Buncich issued a statement calling the charges "absurd."

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

Truitt said Friday, "I know the sheriff is looking forward to this trial, which he believes it will exonerate him."

In July, Truitt asked to for more stringent efforts to select a jury given the publicity around the case, citing "an endless negative campaign by the Northwest Indiana Times and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott." Moody denied the request.

Outside of court, the Lake County commissioners implemented a new vehicle towing protocol in May. Previously, the sheriff's department was in charge of deciding which companies were called for towing services, but the commissioners took control over the contracts.

The indictment accuses Buncich and Downs of steering business toward towing operaters in exchange for money to Buncich's campaign, Buncich Boosters.

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

At the sheriff's department, Downs was replaced by Cmdr. Dennis Matthew Eaton as chief of police in May.

The indictment has hung over Buncich, who first served as sheriff from 1994 to 2002 before he was re-elected in 2010 and 2014, said Truitt.

"I think all of us want to get this thing resolved, and I know that the sheriff hates how his reputation has been impugned," he said.









Court documents: Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's attorney seeks trial delay
NWI Times
Aug 3, 2017
HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is seeking to delay his Monday trial start date, citing the government's recent disclosure of redacted transcripts, court records show. 

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

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

He has pleaded not guilty.

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

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

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

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

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

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










Rich James: Sheriff Buncich heads for a rare corruption trial
Howey Politics
By Rich James
August 03, 2017
MERRILLVILLE –  Unless something drastic happens in the next couple of days, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is going to trial on charges that he accepted kickbacks from tow truck operators. The trial will be in U.S. District Court in Hammond. The government alleges that Buncich accepted cash and checks from towing operators in exchange for the right to tow vehicles for county police.
    
Should Buncich actually go on trial, it would be counter to what generally happens with public corruption cases in Lake County. Rarely does an elected official actually go on trial. In virtually all cases in the last several decades, the defendant has entered into a plea agreement with the government. The plea agreement generally results in less prison time than if the defendant had gone to trial and lost.
    
Not only does Buncich deny taking kickbacks from towing businesses, he is putting the blame on Timothy Downs, his second in command and the former president of the Indiana Fraternal Order of Police. In pretrial motions, Buncich alleges that Downs acted on his own to collect money from the towing firms. Downs, however, entered into his own plea agreement early on and will testify for the government.
    
Two towing firm operators – William Szarmach of Hobart, the owner of a Lake Station towing company, and Scott Jurgensen, owner of Sampson’s Towing of Merrillville –  have entered into plea agreements as well and will testify against the sheriff.
    
Buncich served as sheriff from 1994 to 2002 and was reelected in 2010 after sitting out for eight years. The indictment already has cost Buncich. He was elected Lake County Democratic chairman in 2014. He didn’t seek reelection in March because of the indictment. Ironically, Buncich broke a tie between Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay and Schererville attorney Jim Wieser when he opted for Wieser to be the new chairman.
    
Since the indictment, politics has been heavy in the county as several potential sheriff candidates have surfaced. The only question is whether there will be a precinct election to replace Buncich or will things be decided in 2018 when his term expires. 










Tow truck owner pleads guilty in fraud and bribery case, intends to testify against Lake County Sheriff
NWI Times
Jul 31, 2017 
HAMMOND — A Lake Station tow truck owner pleaded guilty Monday afternoon to federal wire fraud and bribery charges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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