Ex-northwestern Indiana sheriff gets 15 years in prison

January 18, 2018

A former northwestern Indiana sheriff was sentenced Tuesday to more than 15 years in prison on convictions of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from towing businesses.

A federal judge ordered the roughly 15-year sentence for John Buncich, who was removed from office as Lake County sheriff after a jury convicted him in August of bribery and wire fraud charges after a roughly two-week trial that included three days of testimony from Buncich. He denied all wrongdoing.

Prosecutors presented evidence and testimony that Buncich accepted bribes to help tow operators get more jobs through the county. The bribes often were in the form of campaign fundraising tickets.

Federal prosecutors sought a sentence of at least 15 years in prison, arguing that the 72-year-old Buncich committed "a calculated abuse of power over a prolonged period of time for personal enrichment."

Buncich's defense attorneys maintain he was doing legitimate campaign fundraising.

Buncich is a Democrat who was elected in 2015 to his fourth term as sheriff of Indiana's second-most populous county.

The trial included testimony from Scott Jurgensen, a former Merrillville police officer and towing company owner, who said FBI agents recruited him to pay bribes to Buncich and record the meetings. Jurgensen testified that the FBI paid him more than $130,000 over five years, including bribe money.

Another tow truck operator, William Szarmach, previously pleaded guilty to charges of bribery, wire fraud and tax evasion and agreed to testify for prosecutors in Buncich's trial. Szarmach said in a plea agreement that he bought tickets to Buncich's fundraising events and made additional cash payments to Buncich to secure towing work with the sheriff's department.

Former Lake County police Chief Timothy Downs, who was Buncich's second-in-command, pleaded guilty to collecting money on Buncich's behalf.

Republican Portage Mayor James Snyder faces federal bribery charges in a related case of accepting money in exchange for towing contracts in his city, which is in neighboring Porter County. Snyder, who was elected to his second term as mayor in 2015, has pleaded not guilty and has a trial scheduled to begin in June.


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