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HAMMOND — U.S. District Court Judge James Moody handed out get out of jail free cards Monday to two major players in the towing bribery scandal who helped bring down former Sheriff John Buncich.

Timothy Downs, 67, of Monticello, Indiana, the former second-in-command of the Lake County Sheriff's Department, will serve two years probation and six months of home detention, to be served concurrently, for receiving bribes on behalf of former Sheriff John Buncich, who shook down towing firms seeking business from county police. He also was fined $6,000.

William Szarmach, 61, of Hobart, who owns CSA Towing in Lake Station, received two years probation and one year home detention, also to be served concurrently, for paying Buncich bribes to win the former sheriff's favor and receive more lucrative towing assignments.

U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch II said Monday afternoon, "Public corruption is a top priority of my office. Mr. Downs and Mr. Szarmach’s immediate cooperation was instrumental in the prosecution of former Sheriff John Buncich and the court’s sentence reflects these acts.

"For those involved in public corruption, my office has a team of investigators that are working on investigating all leads related to all acts of public corruption. I encourage anyone with information about such possible corruption to report it to me or to the FBI. Citizens demand, and in fact deserve, honest public service from their elected and appointed officials," Kirsch said.

Moody and Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said Downs and Szarmach deserved leniency because they helped government investigators end the former sheriff's extortion of towing firms and the sale of government influence to the highest bidder.

"It took a lot of guts to do that. It is unusual in history of Lake County corruption," Benson said. "Some officials become more indignant when their corruption is uncovered," he said.

Moody agreed both defendants have demonstrated genuine remorse, which distinguishes them "from the rest of the universe of Lake County corruption."

An investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Department of Labor prompted a federal grand jury to indict Buncich, Downs and Szarmach on Nov. 17, 2016, on honest government service fraud and bribery counts alleging the sheriff sold his public office to the towing firm that gave him the most campaign contributions.

Moody told Downs, "What were you thinking? You just wanted to save your job? You would have been better off telling Mr. Buncich it's not legal. You had an honorable law enforcement career. It's all tarnished now."

Downs served as a county police officer and jail guard from 1979 until his initial retirement in 2000. He was elected president of the state Fraternal Order of Police in 1998 and remained president for 18 years.

Downs returned to the Sheriff's Department in 2011 to serve as Buncich's chief of police, an office he held until his resignation four weeks after the indictment when he pleaded guilty to wire fraud when he revealed in court he had been secretly cooperating for more than a year.

Benson said Downs returned to undercover work, which he hadn't done in many years by wearing audio and video recording devices in his talks with the sheriff.

Downs testified for hours on the second day of Buncich's trial last year, detailing the inner workings of the sheriff's control over which towing firms worked for county government and a first-hand account of Downs' distribution of Buncich's political fundraising tickets and collection of the cash they paid.

One of the most dramatic pieces of evidence at last year's Buncich trial was a video from a camera concealed in a briefcase Downs carried July 15, 2015, into the sheriff's office that recorded Buncich receiving $7,500 in campaign contribution cash and shoving the bills into his desk drawer.

Benson said that ended any argument Buncich could make that only Downs was taking bribes. Moody said, "You didn't steal a nickle. You did it just because of Mr. Buncich. That is unfortunate.

A jury convicted Buncich of bribery and wire fraud after a 15-day jury trial in August. Buncich is serving prison sentence of 15 years, 6 months in a federal secure medical facility in Springfield, Missouri.

U.S. attorney encourages ethical behavior

Defense attorney Matthew N. Fech argued in a sentencing memo that Downs shouldn't get off scot-free, but granting him leniency would "encourage other, similarly situated political figures in Lake and surrounding counties to do what is right and accept responsibility for their actions and, when needed, cooperate with the federal government."

Benson also praised Downs cooperation. Moody added, "But he didn't do that until he was caught. Otherwise he would have kept screwing the taxpayers of Northwest Indiana."

Downs said he takes responsibility for this crime. He and Szarmach apologized to the court.

Szarmach pleaded guilty to fraud and bribery charges a year ago, only days before Buncich's trial began late last summer. But U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch II said that once arrested, following his indictment, Szarmach immediately began his cooperation and provided great insight "revealing that Buncich was soliciting bribes even prior to obtaining the office of sheriff."

He said Szarmach was an effective witness against Buncich, providing evidence that Buncich used his influence to obtain towing opportunities for Szarmach in return for campaign cash, despite attacks on his character by Buncich's trial lawyer.

Szarmach broke down Monday while telling the court that he had built up his company, C.S.A. Towing in Lake Station, single-handedly from the late 1970s from a few trucks to one that did specialty towing other companies couldn't.

"I bought the trucks. I answered the phones and all the office work. I did the oil changes, the tire changes to keep money in the company," he said.

His defense lawyer, Daniel Purdom, said Szarmach paid Buncich bribes because he had little other choice to get access to the sheriff who had exclusive control over county police towing.

"I made a poor choice," Szarmach said.

He said imprisonment would result in him having to shut down his company and ruin him financially, making it impossible to pay restitution or put his son through college.

Szarmach agreed to pay $89,448 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid taxes related to the illicit behavior. He said he would make a $24,000 down payment on it this week.

Benson said other federal prosecutors might have considered Szarmach a victim and not charged him, but they were unsure of whether to trust him at the time. Benson said once they arrested Szarmach, he cooperated completely. Purdom said Buncich extorted bribes from a dozen towing firms, but none of the others was charged.

The federal investigation into the Lake County Sheriff's Department has swept up a number of local government figures, including in neighboring Porter County, where Portage Mayor James Snyder and John Cortina, owner of a Portage towing firm, are now set to stand trial Oct. 9 in U.S. District Court.

Daniel Murchek, a 24-year veteran of the Lake County police force and former third-in-command under Buncich, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about receiving illegal campaign contributions as part of a towing bribery scandal. He is awaiting sentencing.

Tom Goralczyk, a former Merrillville town councilman, must serve a 15-month sentence for his guilty plea earlier to accepting bribes — of a 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee and a 2008 Ford Focus — in return for promises of a lucrative contract to Scott Jurgensen, the undercover FBI informant who is a former Merrillville police officer and towing company owner.

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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.