HAMMOND — A U.S. District Court jury has found Lake County Sheriff John Buncich guilty on all six counts of wire fraud, honest services wire fraud and bribery.
The jury came back to the courtroom at 10:05 a.m. after deliberating for four hours Wednesday night and one hour this morning.
Buncich is free on bond until his sentencing on Dec. 6, when he faces lengthy prison time. He is also immediately removed from office.
Buncich displayed no emotion when his verdict was read in open court this morning. Some of his supporters in the audience appeared shocked and grief stricken.
Bryan Truitt, one of Buncich's defense attorneys, said he didn't agree with the verdict and would be preparing an appeal. Buncich declined comment outside the courthouse in Hammond.
Larry Rogers, another of Buncich's attorneys, argued Wednesday night to the jury that the government entrapped Buncich by giving him tens of thousands in cash uninvited and selectively editing dozens of hours of audio and video recordings to make Buncich look his worst.
The defense offered no video of its own.
Buncich took the daring step of answering the charges by testifying over three days of the trial. He insisted he was legitimately raising campaign contributions and didn't manipulate towing assignments to reward the largest donors.
But he couldn't explain away images of his grabbing and pocketing large wads of cash taken surreptitiously by the FBI and their undercover agent, Scott Jurgensen, a former Merrillville police man and towing firm owner.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson told jurors Wednesday night, "Does this look like a campaign contribution? He was taking money for doing his job. It's time to hold him responsible."
John Dull, who has been county attorney for several decades, said today the U.S. Attorney's office has won all of the public corruption cases it has prosecuted against elected public officials since the 1970s. He said most of them pleaded guilty rather than risk trial.
Acting United States Attorney Clifford Johnson said, “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.”
W. Jay Abbott, special agent in charge of the FBI's Indianapolis Division, said, "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."
Johnson added, "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."
'SAD SAGA' ENDS
Mike Repay, president of the Lake County Board of Commissioners, issued a statement this afternoon that said, "This is the end of a sad saga for the people of Lake County, who put their trust in John Buncich to enforce the law and remain accountable to the public.
"John Buncich violated the public trust with his actions. It will not only cost him his freedom, it adds another black mark against Lake County."
Repay added the Board of Commissioners offer their full support to Lake County Chief of Police Matt Eaton, who will supervise the sheriff's department until a caucus of Lake County Democratic precinct committeemen and vice committeemen elect a new sheriff next month.
The investigation of the sheriff began with a wide-ranging FBI investigation of local government towing contracts when they recruited Jurgensen, who took up towing after he retired after 20 years as a Merrillville police officer.
He testified on the first day of trial he was frustrated that he couldn't get a contract from the department he had served for so long because he wouldn't pay bribes.
Jurgensen said he was one of about a dozen who had received towing contracts from the sheriff's department.
He said he didn't have to pay to get on the list, but Timothy Downs, a longtime friend and the sheriff's former second in command who pleaded guilty late last year to conducting the sheriff's political campaigning on county government time, approached him on behalf of the sheriff to buy a campaign fundraising ticket.
The FBI wired Jurgensen and gave him buy money to give to Downs. They later arrested Downs and forced his cooperation with their undercover investigation. Downs carried a video camera into the sheriff's office in 2015 to deliver campaign crash.
Jurgensen videotaped two meetings with the sheriff in which cash changed hands.
Buncich's lawyers criticized FBI tactics for paying Jurgensen $130,000 over a five-year period.
They suggested Downs was unbelievable as a witness because he pocketed some of the money he collected for the sheriff.
They characterized as a drunk William "Willie" Szarmach, a Lake Station towing owner who pleaded guilty to paying the sheriff kickbacks and who testified as government witness.
Benson answer was to replay for jurors the video tapes.
He showed them an FBI video surveillance recording of: Downs delivering $7,500 July 15, 2015, to Buncich in the sheriff's office.
Benson praised Jurgensen's courage. "Think about the guts it took for Mr. Jurgensen to do this to himself and his business and family. What does he get for it? He's called a liar on the witness stand. Its hell to be a cooperator."
Defense lawyers argued the sheriff never delivered more lucrative towing to Jurgensen or Szarmach despite their political contributions.
Benson disagreed, but said it was illegal for the sheriff to take the money and make such promises regardless of the outcome. Even if the sheriff rips them off, its still a crime.