Monday, August 7, 2017

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










Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is set to come to embattled Lake County Sheriff John Buncich's defense
NWI Times
August 13, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/gary-mayor-karen-freeman-wilson-is-set-to-come-to/article_a41594c3-c81d-59b8-bc25-11aa62d665db.html
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
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-day-5-st-0812-20170811-story.html#nt=oft12aH-1la1
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
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.










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
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/lake-county-sheriff-trial-day-gary-wrecker-on-buying-buncich/article_664ebac2-225c-5fb4-b915-e14354bc8f4f.html
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
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/trial-day-jurors-see-videos-of-lake-county-sheriff-buncich/article_8391bb7d-1483-52d3-bd6e-6b9c682c4944.html
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
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-day-4-st-0811-20170810-story.html
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
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-day-3-st-0810-20170809-story.html
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
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/buncich-trial-enters-third-day-jury-hears-audio-tapes-featuring/article_841d4707-0e8e-5fbd-8ff9-f0fc05e9d1de.html
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
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-buncich-trial-day-2-0809-20170808-story.html
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
cltv.com/2017/08/08/secret-recordings-may-be-played-at-lake-county-sheriffs-bribery-trial


video




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
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/buncich-s-second-in-command-at-lake-county-sheriff-s/article_3f1ea4d2-0934-5957-82be-2f4c89ae17ce.html
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
wsbt.com/news/regional/sheriffs-lawyer-tells-jurors-fbi-invented-bribery-case
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
wgntv.com/2017/08/08/secret-recordings-may-be-played-at-lake-county-sheriffs-bribery-trial/


video

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
chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune/news/ct-ptb-lake-sheriff-buncich-trial-st-0808-20170807-story.html

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
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/update-us-attorney-says-lake-county-sheriff-

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
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/of-people-considered-for-the-jury-in-lake-county-sheriff/article_ea977e9a-8033-5c6e-a4c3-2783418b7263.html

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.










Lake County Sheriff Buncich's bribery trial is set to begin Monday
Here's what you need to know
NWI Times
August 06, 2017
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/lake-county-sheriff-buncich-s-bribery-trial-is-set-to/article_db7175cc-291a-513e-9496-87745446a102.html
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
nwitimes.com/news/coming-sunday-lake-county-sheriff-john-buncich-s-bribery-trial/article_fe499578-3152-564a-8622-92e4f7605342.html

* 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 
nwitimes.com/news/local/lake/lake-newsletter/lake-news/judge-declines-to-postpone-lake-county-sheriff-s-trial-jury/article_f10b851f-4b31-5873-888c-8e4bc4831137.html
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 
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/a-look-at-the-case-against-lake-county-sheriff-john/collection_813bffa7-2e65-5bf3-b490-9812c9358964.html
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
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 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
nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/court-documents-lake-county-sheriff-john-buncich-s-attorney-seeks/article_f2c7b79e-5ec8-5b3b-82e6-c411505cc142.html

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

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

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

He has pleaded not guilty.

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

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

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

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

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

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










Rich James: Sheriff Buncich heads for a rare corruption trial
Howey Politics
By Rich James
August 03, 2017
howeypolitics.com/Content/Columns/Columns/Article/Rich-James-Sheriff-Buncich-heads-for-a-rare-corruption-trial/10/20/15570

MERRILLVILLE –  Unless something drastic happens in the next couple of days, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is going to trial on charges that he accepted kickbacks from tow truck operators. The trial will be in U.S. District Court in Hammond. The government alleges that Buncich accepted cash and checks from towing operators in exchange for the right to tow vehicles for county police.
    
Should Buncich actually go on trial, it would be counter to what generally happens with public corruption cases in Lake County. Rarely does an elected official actually go on trial. In virtually all cases in the last several decades, the defendant has entered into a plea agreement with the government. The plea agreement generally results in less prison time than if the defendant had gone to trial and lost.
    
Not only does Buncich deny taking kickbacks from towing businesses, he is putting the blame on Timothy Downs, his second in command and the former president of the Indiana Fraternal Order of Police. In pretrial motions, Buncich alleges that Downs acted on his own to collect money from the towing firms. Downs, however, entered into his own plea agreement early on and will testify for the government.
    
Two towing firm operators – William Szarmach of Hobart, the owner of a Lake Station towing company, and Scott Jurgensen, owner of Sampson’s Towing of Merrillville –  have entered into plea agreements as well and will testify against the sheriff.
    
Buncich served as sheriff from 1994 to 2002 and was reelected in 2010 after sitting out for eight years. The indictment already has cost Buncich. He was elected Lake County Democratic chairman in 2014. He didn’t seek reelection in March because of the indictment. Ironically, Buncich broke a tie between Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay and Schererville attorney Jim Wieser when he opted for Wieser to be the new chairman.
    
Since the indictment, politics has been heavy in the county as several potential sheriff candidates have surfaced. The only question is whether there will be a precinct election to replace Buncich or will things be decided in 2018 when his term expires. 










Tow truck owner pleads guilty in fraud and bribery case, intends to testify against Lake County Sheriff
NWI Times
Jul 31, 2017 
http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/tow-truck-owner-pleads-guilty-in-fraud-and-bribery-case/article_984a9585-e226-5cf9-af04-fd32f51e5a9e.html

HAMMOND — A Lake Station tow truck owner pleaded guilty Monday afternoon to federal wire fraud and bribery charges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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