Lake County Sheriff John Buncich

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich

HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich began his defense against bribery and public corruption charges Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court.

The sheriff's lawyers said they will call Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and possibly Porter County Sheriff David Reynolds, among others, to testify on Buncich's behalf.

Mitchell Mannino, owner of Alternative Towing of Merrillville, was the first defense witness. He said he voluntarily bought the sheriff's fundraising tickets and was never threatened or promised anything in return.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip C. Benson rested the government's case after six days of testimony.

His last witness, Gerard Hatagan, an IRS agent, testified he investigated Buncich's campaign donations and expenses as well as the sheriff's personal bank account.

He told Benson that Buncich failed to properly report some cash donations made by Scott Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department and owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville, and William "Willie" Szarmach, of Hobart, the former owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station. Both men agreed to become government witnesses.

The two testified last week they gave the sheriff about $30,000 in campaign contributions and kickbacks between 2009 and 2016 in return for more lucrative towing work.

Hatagan said the campaign's bank records indicated Buncich, who acted as his own campaign treasurer, sometimes waited weeks or months to deposit money in his campaign account after receiving the two towing firms' money.

Hatagan said Buncich once deposited more than $2,000 in his personal bank account within two days of receiving $2,500 from Jurgensen.

He said Buncich often refused to identify political donors on his campaign finance reports, listing them as "Anonymous cash depositions" or simply "Anonymous." Hatagan said he found nearly $20,000 in such anonymous donations over three years.

Hatagan agreed with Benson that "if you don't list it, you are trying to hide it."

Hatagan said on cross examination Buncich had lent his campaign committee, Buncich Boosters, more than $80,000 in personal funds and that it isn't illegal for Buncich to repay that loan from his campaign contributions as long as it is properly accounted for.

Hatagan said the only towing firms that donated to Buncich's campaign are those who were receiving work by being on the sheriff's towing list.

Buncich is pleading not guilty to six counts of wire fraud and bribery that allege he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting cash and campaign contributions.

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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.