CROWN POINT | The Lake County sheriff is defending his decision last month to dismiss a physically disabled employee and hire an ex-convict.
Sheriff John Buncich said James F. Piunti's inability to hear or speak meant he couldn't perform adequately in the department's Bureau of Identification, where employees must constantly speak with the members of the public requesting police reports, criminal background checks and gun-permit applications.
"We made every accommodation we possibly could to help him fit in, but things just didn't work out," Buncich said.
Piunti, 34, of Hobart, who can communicate fluently only through text or sign language, recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the county, alleging he is the victim of disability discrimination.
A spokesman for the EEOC declined to comment.
Piunti's father, Frank, said his son may be a pawn in the political feud between Buncich and former Lake Sheriff Roy Dominguez, who hired his son in August 2005 as a computer technician.
"Absolutely not," Buncich replied. "I know that family. It is hard with a disability like that. For two years we tried. I didn't get rid of him on Day One like everybody else does when they take over."
Dominguez and Frank Piunti said they have known each other for decades as members of the Hobart-based social club, Sociedad Mutualista Mexico.
Dominguez said, "I interviewed James when he applied. I was aware of his physical challenges. We wanted to reduce our computer repair costs with an outside vendor and wanted someone immediately available to make repairs.
"His disabilities in no way hindered his ability to perform. The staff loved James. He did work above and beyond because he loved his job. Now we've lost all that," Dominguez said.
Piunti's father said he declined to support Buncich's attempt to defeat former Sheriff Roy Dominguez in 2006.
"I backed John before, but I couldn't go against the man who gave my handicapped son a job," he said. The father also refused to support Buncich's election three years ago.
James Piunti said he was moved from computers to the Bureau of Identification after Buncich took office in January 2011, given no training and his department-issued cellphone's texting service was canceled.
Buncich said he couldn't comment on what caused James Piunti's termination. Days later, Buncich hired 43-year-old Robert M. Nickovich, of Merrillville, into the Bureau of Identification.
About four years earlier, Nickovich pleaded guilty to official misconduct as an employee of the sheriff's work-release center, where he accepted money from inmates to let them out of their minimum-security confinement, without official permission.
A judge later reduced Nickovich's felonies to misdemeanors after Nickovich completed his sentence and probation.
Merrillville defense attorney Ihor Alexander Woloshansky said Monday that Nickovich showed true remorse, raised money for the families of police officers who had fallen in the line of duty and worked as a volunteer youth mentor.