Lake County Sheriff John Buncich

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich at a recent news conference.

John J. Watkins, The Times

More than just the criminal behavior of Lake County's top cop was on trial in a recent federal bribery trial.

Also appropriately in the cross-hairs of federal prosecutor Philip Benson was former sheriff, and now convicted felon, John Buncich's propensity for flouting the very government ethics policies Buncich publicly espoused to follow.

All public officials, government employees and elected officeholders should see the trial for what it is: an indictment of any government leader who believes they're beyond the reproach of ethical guidelines and behavior.

A telling exchange came during the trial on Aug. 18 when Benson questioned Buncich about accepting political contributions — as it turns out, bribes — "on county property, on county time." The practice was a clear violation of the Lake County government employee handbook.

"It was my personal office," Buncich replied, then noting he didn't believe the employee handbook of ethics applied to him.

"Oh. So you don't have to follow the handbook for employees? Lake County pays your salary," Benson responded.

The federal prosecutor's response should send a chilling ripple down the backs of all government officials and employees who think they're somehow above laws and ethical rules of conduct.

Buncich clearly believed his elected sheriff's office gave him special dispensation beyond the rules other county employees are expected to follow.

It's the same vein of thinking that has led to more than 70 public corruption convictions of Region public officials, government employees and politically connected vendors since the late 1970s.

"Do you see a problem with having people you supervise selling campaign fundraising tickets to government vendors whose contracts you control?" Benson asked Buncich during the trial.

"It's no different than any other elected official," Buncich replied.

And therein lies a serious problem. Repugnant, unethical and illegal behavior has become so commonplace in some of our local political institutions that some pass it off as "no different" than what everyone else is doing.

Though he clearly felt himself above the rules governing other county employees, Buncich had previously signed on to the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission ethics pledge. That pledge asks candidates and public officials to "avoid impropriety and refrain from misusing an official position to secure unwarranted privileges."

We all should take heart, however, in justice being served.

The federal jury didn't accept as a defense that Buncich was just following the mold of his peers by accepting bribes and violating employee ethics or other rules or laws.

The felony guilty verdict issued Thursday was more than a victory over business-as-usual political corruption in Northwest Indiana.

It also can and should serve as a reminder to other public officials that a seat at the defense table of a Hammond federal courtroom awaits anyone using a government position as license to violate our trust.

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Members of The Times Editorial Board are Publisher Christopher T. White, Editorial Page Editor Marc Chase, Editor Bob Heisse, Politics/History Editor Doug Ross and Managing Editor Erin Orr.