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CROWN POINT — The U.S. attorney's office is asking a judge to impose what could become a life sentence on former Sheriff John Buncich next week.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson is asking U.S. District Court Judge James Moody to impose a prison term of between 15 and 20 years on the 72-year-old veteran of Lake County Democratic politics for accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from towing firms doing business with county government.

Benson is asking the judge to put Buncich in chains immediately after the sentencing hearing, now scheduled to take place Jan. 16, because "given Buncich's age, a sentence imposed at this level raises serious doubts as to Buncich's desire to appear to serve out this sentence."

Benson adds Buncich is Facebook friends with Frank Kollintzas, a former East Chicago city councilman who fled the country 13 years ago to avoid a lengthy federal prison sentence for his role in East Chicago's sidewalks corruption case. Kollintzas has been living safely in Greece, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.

Benson also reveals in a new court filing Buncich attempted to use the power of his office to locate potential government witnesses against him, but was stopped by "more virtuous and courageous members of the Lake County Sheriff's Department."

A federal grand jury indicted Buncich, Timothy Downs, the sheriff's former second-in-command at the Sheriff's Department, and William Szarmach, a Lake Station towing firm owner, in November 2016 on bribery and fraud charges.

The government alleged Szarmach and an undercover government informant, later identified as Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson's Towing of Merrillville, paid Buncich more than $35,000 from 2014 to 2016 to secure the most lucrative towing work the Sheriff's Department provided.

Downs pleaded guilty a month later, and admitted he collected much of that money on behalf of the sheriff. Szarmach followed last July, and both testified as government witnesses against Buncich.

Benson states that shortly after Downs' guilty plea, Buncich called Dennis Matthew Eaton, one of his top five department commanders, into his office and asked Eaton to look up Downs', Jurgensen's and Szamrach's names in the department's "CP clear system."

County Police Chief William Paterson said Monday the department uses the CP clear system to locate criminal suspects through utility billings and the cellphone records as well as suspects' family, and past and present associates.

Benson said the CP clear system also contains financial and other data on members of the public.

Benson said Eaton refused to do it on grounds it would be illegal witness-tampering and warned others in the department with access to the system not to run the names, either.

Eaton had this and a second database shut down to avoid their illegal use by Buncich, despite the fact it slowed the work of legitimate investigations.

Benson argues the former sheriff also deserves a longer prison term for violating state campaign funding laws by refusing to report cash paid to his Buncich Boosters election committee and for holding himself out as a moral authority.

"Buncich's hypocrisy is overwhelming," Benson said. "The false image he projected the entire time he was himself violating the law is disgusting and despicable. Buncich not only lied to the very people who elected him sheriff, the citizens of Lake County, but also to his fellow law enforcement officers and in all likelihood, even himself."

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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.