HAMMOND — A U.S. attorney indicted Lake County Sheriff John Buncich Friday on public corruption charges.
Buncich and Tim Downs, Buncich’s chief of police and second in command, are charged with wire fraud. Buncich also is charged with receiving bribes. They face prison terms of up to 20 years if convicted.
U.S. marshals arrested and escorted Buncich and Downs into a federal courtroom about 10:30 a.m. Buncich initially appeared nervous, but later regained his composure and winked at two supporters in the audience. The rest of the courtroom was filled with federal agents and media.
Buncich, 70, Downs, 65, and William “Willie” Szarmach pleaded not guilty to a five-count indictment alleging they deprived the public of honest government services. A judge magistrate ordered them to surrender their passports and personal firearms. They are free on bond.
Buncich is accused of receiving more than $30,000 in bribes from towing firms wanting work from county police. Szarmach owns and operates CSA Towing in Lake Station.
Authorities arrested Szarmach Friday in Hobart. The government asked for him to be detained pending trial, which is now set for Jan. 17, but could be delayed. Szarmach will appear in a detention hearing Tuesday.
The indictment alleges that between February 2014 and last month Buncich set in motion a scheme to enrich himself and Buncich Boosters, his political campaign committee.
The government alleges the sheriff has sole authority in Lake County to designate towing companies his officers can use to remove cars from the public streets. County records indicate that between 10 and 12 firms removed thousands of vehicles in the past two years.
The government claims Buncich accepted bribes allegedly from towing firms for cash and campaign contributions, although he didn’t record all those contributions in his campaign finance reports, as state law requires.
The government said Downs collected some of the bribes for Buncich. Sometimes Buncich is alleged to have personally grabbed the cash and put it in his pocket.
Firms that paid bribes got on the sheriff’s approved towing list and received a larger district in which they could collect large fees from people seeking to recover their towed vehicles.
The indictment lists seven bribes over the last two years, the last being $7,500 paid Sept. 2.
The government alleges bribes were paid by Szarmach and an unidentified firm, referred to in the indictment as “Individual A” that U.S. Attorney David Capp said was the whistleblower who started the multi-year investigation rolling.
Capp warned that he expects that investigation to continue and more are likely to be charged. “We are coming after you. Time is running short.”
Buncich is the county’s highest elected law enforcement official as well as the chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party.
He gave no indication he is stepping down as the county’s top cop or as party boss. Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington, who has been a sharp critic of Buncich, said Friday night he isn’t calling for Buncich’s removal at this time. “I believe the party will come together and be stronger.”