Jury convicts northwest Indiana sheriff in bribery case

John Buncich

HAMMOND, Ind. — 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.