Friday, August 4, 2017

08042017 - Federally indicted Sheriff John Buncich - Plea agreement or trial delay?

Hmmm .. which way will it go with federally indicted Lake County Sheriff Buncich? Lake County Police Chief Timothy Downs and William Szarmach [CSA Towing] - who were indicted along side of Sheriff Buncich -  have pleaded guilty and will be testifying against Buncich.

'Day is finally here' for Lake County sheriff's bribery trial
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.

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. 

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.

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