The second-in-command at the Lake County Sheriff’s Department pleaded guilty to wire fraud Friday in a bribery case in which the sheriff and a tow truck operator also are charged.
Chief of Police Timothy Downs admitted using his position to solicit campaign donations from tow truck operators in exchange for giving them towing contracts.
“I did wrong. I want to clear it up,” Downs told U.S. District Court Judge Rudy Lozano.
Downs, 65, also resigned Friday from the sheriff’s department, ending a tenure of more than 37 years, according to court documents.
Downs said he performed political fundraising while on duty and while using his publicly provided police car on the orders of Sheriff John Buncich.
Buncich attorney Bryan Truitt said his client disagrees with the allegations contained in the plea agreement.
“Sheriff Buncich is very proud of his honest public service and his good works, and is completely innocent,” Truitt said.
Buncich, Downs and William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto in Lake Station were named in a multicount indictment last month alleging the sheriff accepted more than $32,000 in bribes for towing contracts. All three were charged with wire fraud, while Buncich and Szarmach also were charged with bribery. Buncich and Szarmach have pleaded not guilty.
Downs said he sold fundraiser tickets to tow truck operators and would meet with them to make those transactions.
“The more they bought, the better they were treated,” Downs said.
Downs said he has been helping investigators and will cooperate in any future prosecutions in return for the government’s promise to recommend he receive the minimum possible prison time under federal sentencing guidelines. Downs also could face up to 20 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine for the crime, said Lozano, who took the plea agreement under advisement.