HAMMOND — U.S. Attorney Philip Benson began his cross-examination of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, as Buncich's public corruption trial entered day 10 in U.S. District Court.
Their exchanges shifted in mood over the course of six hours Friday from impassioned, to cordial, to mockery of each other.
Buncich responded, "Absolutely not," when Benson asked him if he had been accepting bribe money from tow truck owners.
Buncich was particularly incensed about an accusation that he reached into William "Willie" Szarmach's tow truck April 22, 2016, and grabbed envelopes stuffed with thousands in cash off the driver's seat left by Szarmach.
"I did not get into his truck. I don't go into tow trucks," Buncich said.
Benson replayed an FBI surveillance video of the moment. Benson said, "Aren't you leaning into the truck. Aren't you bending over to take the money?"
Buncich replied, "I'm looking inside like, 'Wow,' like I care about a new truck."
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, is denying all wrongdoing.
The sheriff conceded he took $2,500 seconds later from tow truck owner Scott Jurgensen. As part of a transcript of an FBI surveillance recording, Jurgensen says to Buncich, "You did everything you said you were going to do. Thank you so much."
As part of the recording, Buncich replies, "You're welcome."
On cross-examination, Benson asked the sheriff what he had done for Jurgensen. The sheriff said he didn't know what Jurgensen was talking about. The sheriff said he later gave Jurgensen dozens of fundraising tickets in exchange for the $2,500.
Benson questioned why Buncich listed thousands of dollars on his campaign finance report as "Anonymous."
Buncich said he believed cash donations didn't have to follow state regulations, which require listing the donor's full name and mailing address if the donation is over $100, and the donor's occupation if the donation is over $1,000.
Benson said, "The public has no way of knowing who donated to you. Does that show transparency? Does it fulfill your ethical pledge?"
The sheriff, who appointed the lawyer advising Democratic members of the county election board when he was Democratic Party chairman replied, "My interpretation has never been challenged by the election board legal team."
Benson shot back, "It's being challenged now isn't it?"
Buncich said, "Other candidates do it." Benson replied, "Are other candidates the top elected law enforcement officer?"
Benson also reviewed the ethical standards expected of Lake County police officers, county employees and an ethics pledge Buncich took as a sheriff candidate in 2014.
In it, Buncich pledged to be transparent and act in the public good.
Benson asked the sheriff whether taking $7,500 in cash in a parking lot bears close public scrutiny. Benson also asked him whether accepting a different $7,500 from Timothy Downs, his former chief of police, on county property and county time was acceptable.
The sheriff replied: "I don't see anything wrong with accepting it. I don't think it was a problem. It's been done forever."
Downs was charged along with Buncich last November. He has pleaded guilty and agreed to testify he did political fundraising among the tow truck owners under Buncich's orders.
Benson asked the sheriff why he was accepting political contributions "on county property, on county time" in violation of the county employee handbook.
Buncich said, "It was my personal office." Benson then asked Buncich if he was paying rent for his office. Benson said the sheriff's office is owned and paid for by taxpayers.
The sheriff also said he didn't believe the county employee handbook of ethics applied to elected county officials.
Benson, in an incredulous voice, said, "Oh. So you don't have to follow the handbook for employees? Lake County pays your salary."
Benson asked Buncich, "Do you see a problem with having people you supervise selling campaign fundraising tickets to government vendors whose contracts you control?"
Buncich said, "It's no different than any other elected official."
The sheriff testified for six hours Thursday, saying the money he took from two tow truck owners who now are government witnesses, were legitimate campaign contributions, not bribes as the government alleges.
Buncich said although tow truck company owners Jurgensen and Szarmach paid him thousands of dollars in the last two years for more Lake County towing work, he never used used his public office to benefit them.
Jurgensen, a former Merrillville Police Department officer and confidential FBI informant, and Szarmach, now a cooperating government witness, testified last week that Buncich promised and delivered more towing in Gary by having county police tag abandoned cars in Gary.
Buncich previously testified he and Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson agreed in 2014 the county would do more towing in Gary to help the understaffed police department and remove derelict vehicles contributing to city blight and crime, months before Jurgensen and Szarmach requested work in Gary.
Benson questioned Buncich about a spring 2016 meeting he had with Jurgensen and Szarmach, who asked the sheriff for exclusive towing the sheriff needed done to enforce city of Gary ordinances against derelict cars.
Buncich told the two men, "We'll make it happen."
Benson asked Buncich what he meant by that remark. The sheriff said, "I don't know. That's my standard reply." Benson asked, "Do you ever mean it? Do you mean it when somebody makes a political contribution?