Lake County Sheriff John Buncich

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich at a recent news conference.

John J. Watkins, The Times

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.

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Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.