A pro tem sheriff for Lake County, Indiana, will be appointed in the next month after Sheriff John Buncich was convicted Thursday in connection with a bribery and fraud scheme involving towing contracts.
A federal jury in Hammond, Indiana, convicted Buncich of five counts of honest services wire fraud and one count of bribery in connection with soliciting, demanding, and receiving over $25,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks in exchange for favorable actions on towing contracts, according to U.S. Attorney’s Office for Northern Indiana.
Buncich was immediately removed from office, and the Lake County Democratic Central Committee will appoint a pro tem sheriff within the next 30 days, according to the sheriff’s office. The time, date and location of the caucus have not been set.
Until a new sheriff is appointed, Chief Dennis Matthew Eaton will run the department.
“The Lake County Sheriff’s Department is working closely with the Lake County Board of Commissioners and the Lake County Council to ensure a smooth transition to new leadership,” a statement from the sheriff’s office said. “The citizens of Lake County can be assured that the core functions of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department will continue without interruption and public safety will remain our highest priority.”
Buncich, Timothy Downs and William Szarmach were indicted in November 2016, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Northern Indiana. Downs was a former chief and second-in-command in the sheriff’s department, appointed by Buncich. Szarmach owns and operates CSA Towing in Lake Station, Indiana.
According to the indictment, the sheriff had “exclusive authority to determine who would do vehicle towing” and from February 2014 until October 2016, the sheriff “devised a scheme to enrich Buncich personally and his campaign committee.”
Trial evidence included checks and cash payments, many collected by Downs, from Szarmach and Scott Jurgensen “in exchange for Buncich awarding them county towing business and towing in the City of Gary for ordinance violations.”
Jurgenson, a former Merrillville police officer and owner of Sampson Relocation and Towing, “provided significant assistance during the course of this investigation,” according to prosecutors.
Both Szarmach and Downs, who both testified, await sentencing. Downs pleaded of guilty to one count of honest services wire fraud, and Szarmach pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud, bribery and failure to file a tax return, prosecutors said.
“Taxpayers expect their elected officials to protect and improve their communities,” Gabriel Grchan, IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge, said in a statement. “Rather than serve his community, Buncich abused his position and devised a pay-to-play towing scheme that benefited him and few others financially.