The sheriff of Indiana's second most-populous county was convicted Thursday of federal bribery and wire fraud charges stemming from an illegal towing scheme.
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich is free on bond until his sentencing on Dec. 6. His attorney, Bryan Truitt, said state law could require Buncich to tender his resignation.
Jurors in U.S. District Court in Hammond found Buncich guilty of five counts of wire fraud and one count of bribery following a 13-day trial that included three days of testimony from Buncich. He denied all wrongdoing.
WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana bureau reporter Michael Puente covered Buncich for years and followed the case. He spoke with WBEZ’s Melba Lara from our studio in Crown Point, Indiana.
What kind of pay-to-play scheme was Buncich convicted of?
Michael Puente: Sheriff John Buncich had the authority to determine who got to do towing for the sheriff’s office throughout the county. There was a list of [vendors] who got to do the towing, and the case started when a retired Merrillville police officer who ran his own towing firm wondered why he couldn’t get on this list. He started doing his own undercover work and then contacted the FBI. It turns out the Buncich was accepting cash bribes from towing companies to be placed on that list.
Who is John Buncich?
Puente: He’s a very big deal in Northwest Indiana. He’s a career law enforcement official. He served as a detective in the sheriff’s office, moved up the ranks, and then ran for sheriff. He served eight years from 1994 to 2002, then he ran again in 2010 and got re-elected in 2014. And he was also at some point the head of the Lake County Democratic Party. He just got removed from that position in March. So he’s been a major figure in Northwest Indiana politics for a long time.
What’s next for Buncich?
Puente: I’ve been told that he is facing five to 10 years in federal prison. It sounds like they are going to appeal, but during that appeal process, he’s likely to remain in custody.
I should add that he is not in custody right now but once his sentencing comes down in December, he’s likely to have to serve his prison time as any appeals go through.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire segment, which was produced by Patrick Smith.
Web story compiled by Justin Bull. The Associated Press contributed to this report.