HAMMOND — Former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is repentant, but still must remain in prison for shaking down towing vendors for bribes while in office.
U.S. District Court Judge James T. Moody resentenced the former top cop to 151 months in prison Wednesday.
That is approximately three years shorter than his original sentence from 2017, but his defense attorney, Kerry Connor, had wanted him released immediately and warned that anything longer “would be a life sentence for him.”
Buncich appeared in court wearing an orange jump suit that concealed his more gaunt figure, having lost nearly 100 pounds during his last 30 months of imprisonment.
His voice remained full throated but at times wavered with emotion as he pleaded for mercy.
“Since my (first) sentencing, I’ve spent long days and months going over my life’s mistakes...the hurt and embarrassment I caused family, relatives, friends and colleagues. I will feel shame for the rest of my life causing them grief," Buncich said. “I hope to find peace and solitude and humbly appeal to this court for mercy.”
Conner said Buncich's prison term has been "devastating" to the former sheriff.
She said Buncich, who will soon be 75 years old, was elderly and suffering from a variety of illnesses that leave him vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the country and federal prisons.
She said he is incapable of committing more crimes, so making him serve more time would be pointless.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson, who won Buncich’s conviction in a jury trial three years ago, argued Buncich’s weight loss and the medical care he has received in federal prison have left him in a better medical condition than before his incarceration.
Benson said what hasn’t changed are the facts of Buncich’s criminal conduct that prompted him to extract bribes from county government vendors and then trying to lie his way out of his predicament during three days of testimony during the 2017 trial.
The judge said Buncich used his 25-year career as a law enforcement officer, his former authority as one of the highest elected officials in Lake County and former Lake County Democratic Party chairman to betray the public trust and illegally enrich himself.
He said Buncich brought shame on himself, his public office and local police officers "who put their lives on the line."
He said Buncich’s arrogance, greed and “blind obedience” to Lake County’s culture of public corruption is another “disgraceful chapter in Lake County history."
"Lake County deserves better,” the judge said.
Facts of case
The resentencing Wednesday was brought on by Buncich’s partially successful appeal of the six guilty verdicts he received three years ago that still left him of three felony counts of bribery and fraud.
Buncich joined the Lake County police in the early 1970s and rose through the ranks over the decades to be elected sheriff in 1994 and 1998 and again in 2010 and 2014.
Buncich was in the midst of campaigning for another term in office as the government began investigating allegations of bribery between towing companies which remove cars from Lake County highways and streets and publicly elected officials who control the towing firm’s access to lucrative work.
The government claimed Buncich's reelections were so expensive he had dig into his own pocket to finance his 2014 campaign and became obsessed recovering that money through aggressive political fundraising.
Buncich used his authority to grant contracts to private towing firms to squeeze donations from firms eager to be on the sheriff’s towing list and receive the most lucrative territories, the government maintains.
Benson said Buncich’s bribery solicitation yielded $40,000 in illicit donations.
Federal prosecutors indicted Buncich Nov. 17, 2016.
Benson presented a jury in the 2017 trial with testimony by two tow firm owners who testified they paid Buncich bribes and testimony by Timothy Downs, the sheriff’s second-in-command, that he collected money from towing firms and promised lucrative work for generous donors, even at the expense of more stingy towing firms on the sheriff’s list.
Downs and one of the towing firm operators who paid illicit bribes pleaded guilty to reduced charges and were released on federal probation after they testified, at trial, they were corrupted by Buncich.
The other towing operator was an undercover FBI informant and wasn’t accused of wrongdoing.
Buncich took the witness stand at his federal trial to insist he did nothing wrong either.
But jurors returned six guilty verdicts on evidence that included hours of video and audio recordings and testimony of how the former sheriff’s political fundraising had become a solicitation of bribery to towing firms working for county police.
Moody imposed a 188-month sentence Jan. 16, 2018, on Buncich, who is currently housed in a U.S. Bureau of Prisons medical center in Springfield, Missouri.
Buncich appealed his conviction to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, arguing the convictions were tainted by inadmissible evidence.
That three-judge panel overturned three of Buncich’s guilty verdicts in 2019, but let the remaining three convictions stand.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused late last year to hear Buncich’s further appeals.
Buncich is expected to return to the federal prison in Springfield to serve out the remaining 8 years of his prison term.