Lake County Sheriff John Buncich

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich

John J. Watkins, The Times

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 examination 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."

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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.