HAMMOND, Ind. (AP)
- A former northwestern Indiana sheriff was sentenced Tuesday to more than
15 years on convictions of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes
from towing businesses.
A federal judge
ordered the roughly 15 1/2-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 following a roughly two-week trial that
included three days of testimony from Buncich. He denied all wrongdoing.
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.
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.”
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.
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