Free speech, fair trials collide at ex-Lake County sheriff’s sentencing

With Lake County seemingly awash in political corruption, a local newspaper is trying to uproot the culture of kickbacks and payouts by putting the spotlight on those who speak in favor of the latest elected official to be convicted.

john buncich mug Buncich

The Times of Northwest Indiana columnist Marc Chase points out he has a constitutional right to call out public officials and community leaders who “carry water” for John Buncich, the former Lake County Sheriff found guilty of federal bribery charges, who’s scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 6.

However, local attorneys view the paper’s actions as inhibiting the judicial process and possibly creating reversible error, giving an appellate court grounds for overturning whatever sentence is imposed, or even the entire conviction. Moreover, it could set a precedent for media outlets and bloggers to pick winners and losers in court proceedings.

“It’s well beyond editorializing,” said Crown Point attorney Geoffrey Giorgi. “It’s judicial interference.”

geoffrey giorgi mug Giorgi

Giorgi has been warning about the potential consequences since he read Chase’s column in August. He has talked with other attorneys as well as a constitutional law scholar and garnered the support of the Lake Court Bar Association, which took the unusual step of issuing a statement criticizing the paper’s intentions.

‘Apologist watch’

The controversy started when Chase, a longtime investigative reporter and now editorial page editor for the Times, started the “apologist watch.” After Buncich was found guilty of accepting checks and cash payments in exchange for awarding towing contracts to certain businesses, Chase wrote a column announcing the newspaper will publicize the officeholders and prominent citizens who write letters asking Northern Indiana District Judge James Moody for leniency when imposing a sentence.

Chase promised to report in future columns on the people who take the “misguided approach” of supporting Buncich.

He explained that the individuals and politicians who vouch for the disgraced former sheriff in court are giving an “atta boy!” to their friend and reinforcing the culture of acceptance around corruption. Chase wants the supporters to know the public is watching those propping up the person who betrayed the voters’ trust.

Giorgi, of Giorgi & Bebekoski, LLC, and the bar association maintain the column might squelch participation in the sentencing procedure. People could decide not to tell the judge things that might mitigate Buncich’s sentence for fear they will be put under the microscope by the newspaper.

As a consequence, the ex-sheriff could have his constitutional rights compromised. He will not be able to prepare a comprehensive defense and present his complete case to the judge.

The bar association’s statement read, in part, “It is the height of hypocrisy for a news outlet to discourage individual citizens from exercising their rights to make their voices heard for fear of being publicly shamed, depriving a defendant of resources that our Constitutional system provides.”

Yet, as Gerry Lanosga, assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University Bloomington, noted, the newspaper is not doing anything unlawful. The letters written in support of Buncich are public record and the First Amendment gives the newspaper columnist the right to opine on the contents.

He was also dubious of the attorneys’ concerns about the column deterring people from participating in the proceeding.

Courtrooms and trial proceedings are intimidating by themselves, he said. Add to that the circumstances in Lake County, where the ex-sheriff may now be considered toxic. The media will likely be putting television cameras and reporters in the courthouse for the sentencing, and colleagues and friends might have second thoughts about speaking up because they do not want to be publicly linked to a convicted felon.

“The cost of having an open trial proceeding is you’re going to get public scrutiny,” Lanosga said.

Chase is unapologetic.

“If a sitting office-holder refrains from offering support to a convicted felon, I fail to see how that is a bad thing,” he said, arguing his right to free speech is not impinging on anybody’s right to submit a letter to the court asking for leniency. “They have every right to write a letter. I have every right to call them into question for doing so.”

Stopping the corruption

Giorgi concedes the level of corruption in northwest Indiana is disheartening. Highlighting the most recent news of Merrillville Town Councilman Thomas Goralczyk being indicted and pleading guilty to federal bribery charges also involving towing contracts, Giorgi dejectedly noted public officials on the take seem to be business as usual.

Since September 2016, a township assessor, a former mayor and a former township trustee have either been found guilty or pled guilty to illegally taking money. Also, Portage mayor James Snyder, indicted with Buncich, has been charged with accepting a bribe of $13,000 and not paying his taxes.

Ultimately, all the unlawful acts erode the public’s trust, Chase said. The taxpayers elect a leader they believe has integrity only to have that faith trounced when a federal indictment gets handed down. Something needs to be done to stop the perpetual cycle of corruption, he said.

adam sedia mug Sedia

Adam Sedia, president of the Lake County Bar Association, does not dispute Lake County has a great deal of corruption. Certainly, the media is justified in reporting on that activity, but in regard to the newspaper attempting to reduce public misdeeds by exposing who stands up for the accused and convicted, he noted, “… the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Both Giorgi and Sedia, associate at Hoeppner Wagner & Evans, LLP, argued criminal defendants could have their right to defend themselves curtailed because the media’s focus discouraged supporters from taking part in the proceeding. Conversely, defendants who the media favors could get softer treatment because their friends and colleagues are not being put under the harsh spotlight.

Lanosga said if he were writing the column, he would have waited until after the proceeding to point out those who wrote letters of support.

Still, he noted, the Constitution protects fair comment about public officials and columnists can try to influence policy. “I have trouble with the concept of a newspaper threatening to do its job is unlawful,” Lanosga said. “I think that’s problematic if we come to that.”

Giorgi disputed that what the Times column did is covered by the First Amendment. He characterized it as threatening people, which is not protected speech.

Had Chase not announced the “apologist watch” until after the sentencing, Giorgi and Sedia said they would have had no concerns. Likely supporters would not have been intimidated about coming forward and the defendant would not have been denied a fair hearing.

“They shouldn’t be creating the news,” Giorgi said. “I don’t want my newspaper to be in the news-making business. I want my newspaper to be a source of information of what’s happening in the community.”•

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