HAMMOND — A Lake Station tow truck owner has agreed to plead guilty to federal wire fraud and bribery charges and to testify against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.
The plea agreement filed early Friday could make a star government witness of William Szarmach, of Hobart, who owned and operated CSA Towing on the 2500 block of DeKalb Street in Lake Station since 2008.
Szarmach is scheduled to appear Monday afternoon before Magistrate Judge John Martin to plead guilty to wire fraud, bribery and failing to file a federal income tax return reporting more than $75,000 in taxable income during 2015 when he owed more than $17,000 in taxes.
Szarmach is prepared to tell a jury next month he purchased Buncich's political fundraising tickets by check and cash between 2009 and 2016 to retain and increase his business of towing vehicles for county police.
Buncich is contesting allegations he was shaking down towing firms for campaign contributions and is set to stand trial beginning Aug. 7 before Senior U.S. District Court Judge James Moody.
Buncich's lawyer, Bryan Truitt, said in pretrial court documents the improper activity the government is alleging was confined to Downs, Szarmach and another government witness, Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing, of Merrillville.
"Sheriff John Buncich maintains he has done nothing wrong. There is little to no direct evidence or a smoking gun," Truitt said in court records.
The U.S. attorney's office has said Jurgensen deserves credit for uncovering public corruption.
Szarmach's towing company was one of several the sheriff approved to tow vehicles from public streets and highways for county police before the Lake County Board of Commissioners took over the towing contract approvals this year.
In separate federal charges, Portage Mayor James Snyder is pleading not guilty in U.S. District Court to soliciting and receiving $12,000 in bribes from John Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body, 5409 U.S. 6, Portage, for a towing contract with the city of Portage.
Snyder and Cortina, who also is pleading not guilty to allegations he gave bribes to Snyder, are scheduled to stand trial Jan. 29.
Plea agreement details alleged deals
Szarmach alleged in his plea agreement he was one of 12 tow companies on the Lake County sheriff towing list. Buncich had the sole authority at the time to authorize towing firms to remove vehicles from public roads in the county.
Szarmach, who had owned his towing firm more than eight years, said, "Based on my experience in the towing business in Northwest Indiana, it was my belief that in order to remain on the Lake County tow list, or to increase my towing area, I would have to buy tickets to many, if not all, of Sheriff John Buncich's fundraising events and pay additional cash payments."
He said these purchases were made sometimes directly to the sheriff and at other times through individuals employed by the county sheriff, including Downs, then chief of county police operations.
Buncich served as sheriff from 1994 to 2002 and was running to return to office in the 2010 election. Szarmach said that is when he started going to Buncich fundraisers and making contributions to join the so-called "boys club."
"I knew that Person X had a better relationship with Buncich than I did." Szarmach said in the plea agreement. "At one of these restaurant meetings, after discussing Buncich with Person X, I gave Person X $500 cash. I then saw Person X hand the cash to Buncich. Buncich shook my hand and said, 'Thank you.' I knew that by giving Buncich this cash, it opened the door to towing for the Sheriff's Department."
The court document does not identify Person X.
Szarmach said he received his first towing assignment from a county police dispatcher the first day Buncich took office after winning in fall 2010.
"This was when I knew I was on the Lake County tow list," Szarmach said in the plea agreement.
He said Buncich initially promised there would be only five towing firms working with county police, but he later learned he was competing with a dozen towing firms that were on the sheriff's list.
Szarmach said he had several meetings with Buncich at an unidentified restaurant in Cedar Lake and signaled he was prepared to make more payments by telling the sheriff, "I'm here for you."
Szarmach alleged he gave Buncich $1,000 folded up in an envelop during their second Cedar Lake meeting "to grease the wheels." He said that six months later, Buncich gave Szarmach towing assignments associated with the sheriff's Lake County Gang Unit, a group of county police detectives whose work focuses on criminal gang activity.
Competition among tow firms alleged
Szarmach said he believed he ranked in the middle of the pack of 12 towing firms doing county police business in terms of towing assignments he received from the sheriff, but he wanted more so he began increasing his payments to the sheriff.
"Sometimes these payments were in cash, other times disguised as campaign check contributions, or sometimes a mix of both cash and checks," Szarmach said in the plea agreement.
Szarmach recounted giving Downs $500 cash and a $2,000 check in October 2014 payable to the Democratic Party of Lake County. This was four months after Democratic precinct committee members elected Buncich as their party chairman.
Buncich was running for re-election as sheriff in 2014 and raised more than $200,000 from hundreds of contributors, according to county elections board records. Szarmach's agreement stated he made other payments in 2015 and 2016.
Szarmach said he began cooperating in 2016 with Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing, and recently identified as a government informant who is referred to in the indictment as "Individual A." He said together they paid Buncich $6,000 in April 2016.
"To obtain my portion of this bribe payment, I told Buncich to look inside my new vehicle. Buncich entered my vehicle and retrieved $3,500 from the vehicle's front seat," according to the plea agreement. He said he and Jurgensen afterward were given sole rights to do the towing county police ordered when enforcing Gary's ordinance violations.
Szarmach alleged he and Jurgensen talked Buncich into eliminating the need for their towing firms to pay the county treasury a $50 fee, earmarked to pay the salaries of some county police officers. They told Buncich this would free up more money to pay him kickbacks.
Szarmach also stated he wanted Buncich's help to gain towing business from Indiana University Northwest in Gary. "Buncich told me he would have someone from his office speak to IUN," Szarmach said in the plea agreement.
"I gave Buncich $1,000 in cash in the parking lot of a restaurant where we were eating. This $1,000 cash payment was for Buncich's help in getting me the IUN towing and for helping me with a union issue in Lake Station," Szarmach said.
Initial indictments came down Nov. 18
A federal grand jury indicted Szarmach, Buncich and Timothy Downs, the sheriff's former second-in-command, on Nov. 18, 2016.
Szarmach had, until Friday, been pleading not guilty to bribery and wire fraud counts alleging he paid the sheriff $9,500 between June 2015 and last August to influence the sheriff to give Szarmach more lucrative towing assignments.
Szarmach's lawyer, Daniel Purdom, of Lisle, Illinois, signaled on June 20 that Szarmach and the U.S. attorney's office were trying to conclude a plea agreement in the bribery case.
The agreement indicates Szarmach can win a reduced sentence if he cooperates fully with the government.
This deal mirrors one the government made seven months ago with Downs, who pleaded guilty to collecting Buncich's campaign contributions on public time. Downs also agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in return for a lenient sentence.