HAMMOND — The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has declined, for the second time in a month, to grant a new trial to former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.
Unless he successfully appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, Buncich is stuck with a June 5 split decision that overturned three of his wire fraud guilty verdicts, but left him convicted of one count of bribery and two other counts of wire fraud.
His attorney, Kerry C. Connor, recently requested that a new panel of appeals judges afford Buncich a rehearing. However, the appeals court ruled the three original appeals judges declined the rehearing, and none of the other 11 appeals judges were interested either.
Absent a new appeal, Connor can now be expected to request a new and significantly shorter prison term than the 188-month sentence Buncich is now serving.
However, the appeals court didn’t mandate such a reduction.
Although Buncich’s sentences on the now reversed wire fraud counts will likely be removed, District Judge James Moody could leave in place 188-month sentences on the two remaining wire fraud counts against Buncich and a 120-month sentence on the remaining bribery count.
Buncich had hoped the appeal would salvage his life-long career in law enforcement.
He joined the Lake County police in the early 1970s and rose in the ranks over the decades to become the county’s top cop when he was elected sheriff in 1994 and 1998. Term limits forced him to step down until his reelection as sheriff in 2010 and 2014.
The government claimed Buncich's reelections were so expensive he had to personally loan his campaign tens of thousands of dollars. He became obsessed with reimbursing himself through political fundraising.
Buncich held the sole authority to grant contracts to private towing firms to remove cars from streets and highways that county police patrolled. The government said he used that authority to squeeze donations from firms eager to be on the sheriff’s towing list and receive the most lucrative territories.
Federal prosecutors indicted Buncich Nov. 17, 2016, and presented evidence against him during a 14-day jury trial that ended Aug. 24, 2017, in six guilty verdicts.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson presented jurors 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.
“Some people weren’t friendly (and will) bite the dust,” Downs predicted in one recording a government informant secretly made.
When Buncich denied wrongdoing from the witness stand, the government countered with testimony that Buncich’s bank accounts swelled with unexplained wealth that prosecutors suggested was the result of illegal kickbacks.
Connor argued in her appeal to the 7th Circuit the claim of unexplained wealth was inadmissibly vague and prejudicial evidence.
And a government attorney later conceded last year that three of the five wire fraud counts were based on inadmissible evidence and should be reversed. But the government contended the remaining wire fraud and bribery counts were untainted.
Appeals Judge Ilana Rovner took federal prosecutors to task during a March 26 hearing in Chicago over such inadmissible evidence.
However, she and Appeals Judges William Bauer and Michael Brennan ultimately delivered the final judgment against Buncich on the three remaining felony counts last week.
That appeals court ruling states the prosecutorial error over the inadmissible bank account evidence was harmless because “other evidence presented to the jury was extensive” and a rational jury could rightly reject Buncich’s excuses as implausible.
The investigation of the sheriff began years ago with a wide-ranging FBI investigation of local government towing contracts when they recruited Scott Jurgensen, who took up towing after he retired after 20 years as a Merrillville police officer.
Jurgensen told jurors he became frustrated over his inability to win a towing contract because he wouldn't pay bribes.
The FBI wired Jurgensen, who contacted Downs about buying tickets to Buncich’s annual Summer Fest fundraiser and getting on the county police towing list.
Federal authorities concluded Downs was part of the bribery scheme but could be turned into a government witness.