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.