Indictments spotlight Lake County corruption

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Former Sheriff John Buncich

The federal indictment of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich has put the spotlight on Lake County and Lake County politics.

Buncich, who is also chair of the county Democratic Party, Lake County Chief of Police Timothy Downs and William Szarmach of Chase Street Auto, are all facing wire fraud charges. Buncich and Szarmach are also charged with bribery.

During a press conference on Nov. 18, U.S. Attorney David Capp announced an indictment in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Hammond. The three men were involved in a towing scheme which allegedly allowed Buncich and his political organization, Buncich Boosters, to receive thousands of dollars in bribes.

The indictment alleges that from April. 2014 to about September, 2016, Buncich received over $30,000 in either cash or checks from Szarmach, and during that same timeframe, Szamach gave Bunchich over $9,000 in either cash or checks.

As sheriff, Buncich was in charge of deciding which towing companies were used. The businesses given contracts were those companies which contributed cash or checks to Buncich and his campaign organization.

The indictment states that Bunchich had a list of more than a dozen towing companies used to handle tows in different parts of Lake County. From February, 2014 to October, Buncich steered towing business to firms based on their cash payments and contributions.

The indictment also alleges that certain towing companies on the list saw an increase or a drop in business based on their payments and campaign contributions. Whether these towing companies remained on the list was based on the number of campaign fundraising tickets they bought.

In addition to Buncich, Downs and Szarmarch, the indictment refers to “Individual A.” The indictment states “Individual A” was on the list of towing companies awarded contracts by Buncich, and along with Szarmach, received a large share of the towing in Gary. Capp said that “Individual A” was instrumental in cooperating with the investigation.

Buncich, Downs and Szarmach were arrested Friday and taken into custody. Buncich and Downs were each released on $ 20,000 unsecured bonds. Szarmach remains in custody at the request of the U.S. Attorney.

The indictments came a week after federal agents raided the Sheriff’s Department and served Buncich with warrants to search his home.

Following the raid, the Sheriff’s Office issued a statement indicating that services would continue uninterrupted and that there had been no disruption in the operations.

Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson reacting to the news of the indictments said from a personal and political standpoint, it was a very sad day. She said she is hopeful the county Democrats can move as a party and as elected officials.

A federal judge tentatively set January for Buncich’s trial.

 

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