Crusader staff report
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich on Thursday, August 24, was convicted of all six counts of bribery and wire fraud charges after being accused of running a towing scheme that steered county business to tow truck operators.
The verdict ended a 14-day jury trial before District Court Senior Judge James T. Moody.
Buncich, 71, Timothy Downs and William Szarmach were indicted in November 2016 on multiple federal charges.
Buncich, the current Lake County Sheriff, served as sheriff for two terms from 1994 to 2002, and was re-elected in 2010 and again in 2014. Downs, formerly the Chief in the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, was the second person in command at that Department; Downs was appointed to that position by Buncich. William Szarmach owns and operates CSA Towing in Lake Station, Indiana.
Pursuant to a Lake County ordinance, the sheriff has exclusive authority to determine who would do vehicle towing as required by the sheriff’s department. From February 2014 to October 2016, prosecutors said Buncich “devised a scheme to deprive the citizens of Lake County of their right to the honest services of the sheriff’s office.”
Prosecutors said the scheme was designed to enrich Buncich personally, and his campaign committee, known as Buncich Boosters. During the trial, prosecutors showed a number of checks and cash payments that were collected by Downs, who along with Szarmach and Scott Jurgensen were given towing business from the county and the City of Gary, as a result of ordinance violations.
Former Merrillville Police Officer Scott Jurgensen, is the owner of Sampson Relocation and Towing. Prosecutors said Jurgenson provided significant assistance to them during the course of the investigation.
The jury convicted Buncich of five counts of wire fraud in connection with this scheme. The jury also convicted Buncich of bribery in connection with “corruptly soliciting, demanding, and receiving over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions regarding the towing contracts.”
Szarmach and Downs, both of whom testified at trial, await sentencing on their guilty pleas to the following charges in the indictment: Timothy Downs entered a plea of guilty to one count of wire fraud. William Szarmach entered a plea of guilty to three counts of wire fraud, bribery and failure to file a tax return.
Acting United States Attorney Clifford Johnson states, “The United States Attorney’s Office will continue to vigorously prosecute public officials who use their public office as means for personal enrichment. All citizens deserve public officials who work for the public interest and not their own interest.
“Public officials who abuse their positions for personal financial gain at the expense of the taxpayers will not be tolerated. The FBI and our federal, state, and local partners will continue to aggressively pursue those across Indiana who corrupt their office for self-serving motives,” said W. Jay Abbott, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Indianapolis Division. “Also instrumental in these investigations are the honest and patriotic citizens who come forward and assist in uncovering the truth as was the case in Lake County.”
Gabriel Grchan, IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge stated, “Taxpayers expect their elected officials to protect and improve their communities. Rather than serve his community, Buncich abused his position and devised a pay-to-play towing scheme that benefited him and few others financially. Today’s verdict reminds us that public corruption will not be tolerated and no one is above the law.”
This case was the result of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation Division. The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Philip C. Benson and Maria N. Lerner.