Feds: Indiana Sheriff Charged In Pay-To-Play Towing Scheme
In past years, Lake County Sheriff John Buncich would stand alongside U.S. Attorney for Northern District of Indiana David Capp to announce indictments against northwest Indiana gang members.
On Friday, Buncich was the target of the indictment.
Buncich, who was re-elected as sheriff in 2014, was charged with deprivation of honest services and receipt of illegal money in connection with towing contracts in the county.
“Today is a sad day for the citizens of northwest Indiana,” Capp said at the federal courthouse in Hammond, Indiana. “And today is a sad day for all of us in law enforcement.”
The indictment came a week after FBI agents raided Buncich’s office in Crown Point, Indiana, and his home in nearby Merrillville. Buncich is also chair of the Lake County Democratic Party.
Also indicted Friday were Portage Mayor James Snyder, Lake County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Tim Downs and towing operators John Cortina and William Szarmach. Snyder was also charged with allegedly obstructing internal revenue laws.
The indictments claim another towing operator contacted federal authorities after allegedly being asked to pay a bribe in order to provide services in Lake County.
According to the indictment, Buncich, Downs and Szarmach “devised a scheme to to enrich Buncich personally and his campaign committee, known as Buncich Boosters.”
The indictment lists a number of checks and cash payments Downs collected from Szarmach in exchange for Buncich giving hem county towing business.
The indictment alleges Buncich “solicited, demanded and received” more than $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks in exchange for the towing contracts.
The last Lake County Sheriff to be indicted was Rudy “Bart” Bartoleomei, who was convicted of extortion while serving as sheriff in 1985.
Under Indiana law, neither men are required to resign from their position. Lake County Commissioner Mike Repay said it is up to Buncich to decide whether to resign or not.
“That’s a personal decision that he has to make for himself. I have faith in the criminal justice system and will allow it to run its course,” Repay said.
Capp said the investigation is not over.
“We anticipate more charges in the near future,” he said. “The citizens of the (northwest Indiana) region are tired of this. Those others out there in law enforcement, or in elected positions who have been engaging in conduct similar to that announced today, you know who you are, and we know currently who some of you are. We are coming after you.”
Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr., who once served as chairman of the Lake County Democratic Party, believes Buncich should resign both positions.
“He’s been indicted and charged with this serious crime,” he said. “I think he has bigger fish to fry. And, as county sheriff, you’re the top law enforcement official in the county. How can you effectively do your job with this cloud hanging over your head. John and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy."
Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.