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Cautionary Tale

Former sheriff's recent public corruption trial provides pointers on what not to do as a candidate and public official

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John Buncich

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich

HAMMOND — The just-concluded trial of now-former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich on federal public corruption charges leaves a number of lessons for current and aspiring politicians.

A U.S. District Court jury found Buncich guilty of six counts of wire fraud, honest services wire fraud and bribery counts alleging he corruptly used his authority over towing contracts to enrich himself by soliciting and accepting cash and campaign contributions following a two-week trial.

Some of the lessons to be gleaned from more than two dozen witnesses include:

+ Beware of political donors bearing cash.

+ Campaign contributions and promises don't mix.

+ Running for public office isn't a get-rich-quick scheme.

+ Campaign finance reports get read.

+ Trust is misplaced when skirting the law.

+ Be careful what you pledge.

Beware of political donors bearing cash

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said Buncich accepted more than $20,000 in cash over a two-year period.

Jurors saw images of Buncich receiving $7,500 on July 15, 2015, while seated behind his office desk from Timothy Downs, his then second-in-command; $2,500 on April 22, 2016, in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville from FBI confidential informant Scott Jurgensen; $2,500 on July 21, 2016, from Jurgensen; and $7,500 on Sept. 2, 2016, again from Jurgensen.

FBI informant Jurgensen, a 20-year veteran of the Merrillville Police Department and owner of Samson's Towing, and William "Willie" Szaramch, of CSA towing in Lake Station, testified to thousands of additional dollars they paid the sheriff to win more lucrative towing assignments.

Szarmach, a cooperating government witness, testified he asked the sheriff April 22, 2016, to look inside Szarmach's new truck. An FBI surveillance camera caught the sheriff reaching inside. Szarmach said Buncich came out with thousands of dollars in cash Szarmach had left on the driver's seat.  

FBI Agent Nathan Holbrook testified, "Cash is more indicative of criminal behavior." Holbrook said the consensus among elected officials he has interviewed is that they prefer checks, not cash, to avoid such suspicion.

Buncich's lawyers argued he never demanded cash and blamed the FBI for cash payments Jurgensen made. Benson said, "It was the best way to see if that man was honest."

Several towing firm owners testified they donate by writing business checks to ensure they can deduct it on their taxes. Stephen R. "Chip" Lukasik, owner of Stan's Towing in St. John, testified, "You want a trail, to be above board."

Jurgensen said he reluctantly agreed to become an FBI informant because he was frustrated over demands for bribes.

Kay Williams, of Bennie's Towing in Gary, testified he bought the sheriff's fundraiser tickets that Willie Stewart, a former jail warden for the sheriff, regularly brought him, but not willingly. "I had to," Williams said. "It was the only way to stay in towing."

Campaign contributions and promises don't mix

Szarmach said he got on the county police towing list after he began giving Buncich cash in 2009. He said he went to one of Buncich's campaign fundraisers at the Paragon Restaurant in Hobart, but was afraid to give Buncich money directly.

"I was afraid he would reject it," Szarmach said. Szarmach said he instead gave $500 to Louis Gerodemos, a friend of both Szarmach's and Buncich's, to give to Buncich. The two exchanged the money during a handshake, and Szarmach said he was added to the sheriff's approved tow list and received his first towing job shortly after midnight of the first day of Buncich's administration.

However, Szarmach said he soon wanted more tows than he received under the system the sheriff set up to give all 12 towing firms work. Szarmach said he finally met the sheriff one-on-one during a luncheon in Cedar Lake, gave him an envelope with $1,000 and always bought more fundraising tickets than his competitors.

Szarmach said he got more work, particularly in heavy towing of large trucks and tractor trailers, which could yield as much as $10,000 per job.

Szarmach and Jurgensen later met and paid the sheriff for more work in Gary, New Chicago and the Indiana University Northwest campus. Buncich said he would contact people he knew. "We'll make it happen," he is overheard saying to to the towing owners in a March 11, 2016 meeting.

When asked whether it was illegal to give a cash donation to a candidate for public office, Holbrook responded it was legal, "As long as no promises are made."

Running for public office isn't a get-rich-quick scheme

In the years between 2003 and 2010 when he was out of public office, Buncich ran up considerable unpaid bills, including $40,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and $30,000 in credit card debt.

He was forced to borrow more than $134,000 from friends and some former employees. At one point he wrote a friend, whose loan he wasn't repaying, "I'm so ashamed of myself. I'm trying to get back up on my feet."

He emptied his retirement account of more than $600,000 to repay debt.

He was later forced to loan his campaign $85,000 in personal funds to run for sheriff again and was fearful of never getting it back, once out of office again.

Buncich is heard on an FBI audio surveillance tape, "I've got $85,000 (expletive) dollars I'm owed. And I'm going to settle that debt."

Benson said this throws light on what motivated Buncich to solicit towing firms for donations and accept bribes from Jurgensen and Szarmach.

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Former Lake County Sheriff Roy Dominguez
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Lake County Police Commander Anthony Ramirez
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Lake County Clerk Mike A. Brown
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Schererville Police Chief David Dowling
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Richard Ligon, of Gary

Campaign finance reports get read.

The government presented evidence that Buncich didn't report cash payments from Jurgensen and Szarmach on campaign finance reports as required by state law.

Gerard Hatagan, an IRS agent, testified Buncich failed to properly report some cash donations made by Jurgensen and Szarmach and listed nearly $20,000 in "Anonymous cash depositions," or simply, "Anonymous" donors. Hatagan agreed with Benson that "if you don't list it, you are trying to hide it."

Buncich, who was the Lake County Democratic party chairman at the time, testified at trial he had legal opinions that he could do it. "I've never been questioned on it." Benson replied, "You are now, sir."

Trust can be misplaced

The sheriff trusted Downs, his second-in-command and longtime co-worker, to sell fundraising tickets to towing firms doing work for the county.

Downs trusted Jurgensen to buy tickets. They had known each other professionally and socially for 20 years.

Downs didn't suspect Jurgensen was an FBI informant and wearing a wire until the FBI cornered him in 2015 and talked him into cooperating and wearing a wire in the sheriff's office.

Downs testified he was careful to never threaten towing firms while selling them tickets. Downs didn't tell Buncich on the FBI surveillance video he was bringing "bribes" to him.

Be careful what you pledge

The sheriff signed the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission ethics pledge, which asks candidates and public officials to "avoid impropriety and refrain from misusing an official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for myself or others."

Buncich also posted on the Lake County Sheriff's Department website the promise, "I strictly adhere to standards of fairness and integrity in the conduct of campaigns for election and I shall conform to all applicable statutory standards of election financing and reporting so that the office of the sheriff is not harmed by the actions of myself or others."

Benson argued at the end of the trial, "It was his own ethics code and he did the exact opposite."

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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.

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