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HAMMOND — Lake County Sheriff John Buncich answered his accusers Thursday.

The county's top elected law enforcement took the witness stand on the ninth day of his public corruption trial in U.S. District Court and denied all wrongdoing.

He said he considered the money he took from two tow truck owners, now government witnesses, to be legitimate campaign contributions.

He said he used the thousands he received from them to pay campaign expenses and repay campaign debts arising from more than $70,000 in personal funds he lent his campaign earlier.

He said he had written a memo to his campaign accountant to report the debt repaid, but that memo has disappeared since the FBI raided his home and seized his campaign documents in the fall.

He said Timothy Downs, his former chief of police and second-in-command, and now a government witness, never gave him cash the tow truck owners gave Downs.

Buncich testified for six hours Thursday in response to questions from his defense lawyer, Larry Rogers. Court recessed for the day Thursday afternoon with more testimony yet to come, including cross examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson.

On direct examination, Buncich said it cost $200,000 to run for sheriff, and that he was more concerned the Lake County Jail was under a Department of Justice consent agreement to improve jail and inmate health conditions, than he was with towing contracts. 

The DOJ in 2010 entered into an agreement with Lake County to revamp the running of the jail, which had been under federal scrutiny since it became the site of seven suicides, an outbreak of MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, and other health care complaints between 2003 and 2008 that became the basis of a class action suit against the county.

Buncich also 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 tow truck company owners Scott Jurgensen and William "Willie" Szarmach asked for more Lake County towing work.

The government alleges cash payments were made to the sheriff by its witnesses, Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department, owner of Samson's Towing in Merrillville and a confidential FBI informant and Szarmach, of Hobart, the owner of CSA Towing in Lake Station. Szarmach has pleaded guilty to bribing the sheriff with cash.

Buncich said he gave Szarmach eight more city blocks in Gary from which to tow, not because of money, but to stop Szarmach from calling him at all hours of night.

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.

Buncich took the stand at 9 a.m. Thursday and testified for more than an hour about his long career in law enforcement, and how he set up the towing list for county tow truck companies and county police.

Buncich also testified Thursday that he never distributed campaign fundraising tickets. He said Downs did it voluntarily, not as part of his job.

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.

Buncich could have stood silent and rested his fate on his not guilty plea and the testimony of 11 witnesses that he is an honest and law-abiding man who solicited legitimate campaign donations without pressure or the promise of favors.

The sheriff said he chose towing firms to work for county police based on his experience of their efficiency to handle jobs quickly so both officers and the public stay safe.

He said he also included black- and Hispanic-owned wreckers to bring diversity to the sheriff's list of vendors.

Buncich said he never encouraged donors to give him cash, but he accepted it from Jurgensen and Szarmach.

He cast doubt on Szamach's credibility by telling jurors that Szarmach was frequently intoxicated in his presence. Although Szarmach told the jury he considered himself a friend of the sheriff, Buncich said, "I tolerated him."

He said he allowed Szarmach to remain as an approved wrecker for the county because Szarmach used others to drive his CSA trucks and that he never received any complaints about Szarmach from police officers who called for Szarmach's services.

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Lake County Reporter

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.