Tow truck driver prepared to link Lake County Sheriff John Buncich in bribery scheme

HAMMOND — A Lake Station tow truck owner has agreed to plead guilty to federal wire fraud and bribery charges and to testify against Lake County Sheriff John Buncich. The plea agreement filed early Friday could make a star government witness of William Szarmach, of Hobart, who owned and operated CSA Towing, on the 2500 block of DeKalb Street, Lake Station, since 2008. Szarmach is prepared to tell a jury next month he purchased Buncich’s political fund-raising tickets by check and cash between 2009 and 2016 to retain and increase his business of towing vehicles for county police.

Buncich is contesting allegations he was shaking down towing firms for campaign contributions and is set to stand trial beginning Aug.

7 before Senior U.S. District Court Judge James T. Moody.

Szarmach also will plead guilty to failing to file a federal income tax return reporting he received more than £75,000 in taxable income during 2015 and owed more than £17,000 in federal taxes. Szarmach’s towing company was one of several the sheriff approved to tow vehicles from public streets and highways for county police before the Lake County Board of Commissioners took over the towing contract approvals this year. Szarmach alleges in his plea agreement he was one of 12 tow companies on the Lake County Sheriff towing list.

Buncich had the sole authority at the time to authorize towing firms to remove vehicles from public road ways in the county. Szarmach, who had owned his towing firm more than eight years, states, “Based on my experience in the towing business in Northwest Indiana, it was my belief that in order to remain on the Lake County tow list, or to increase my towing area, I would have to buy tickets to many, if not all of Sheriff John Buncich’s fundraising events and pay additional cash payments.” He states these purchases were sometimes directly to the sheriff and at other times through other individuals employed by the county sheriff, including Downs, then chief of county police operations.

Szarmach said he made fund-raising ticket purchases in exchange for specific promises by Buncich that included: retaining Szarmach’s spot on the Lake County tow list, enlarging Szarmach’s towing areas, giving Szarmach access to towing county police ordered to enforce violations of the Gary city parking ordinance and the sheriff using his influence to help Szarmach obtain towing assignments at Indiana University Northwest. A federal grand jury indicted Szarmach, Buncich and Timothy Downs, the sheriff’s former second-in-command, on Nov.

18, 2016. Szarmach had, until Friday, been pleading not guilty to bribery and wire fraud counts alleging he paid the sheriff £9,500 between June 2015, and last August to influence the sheriff to give Szarmach more lucrative towing assignments.

Szarmach’s lawyer, Daniel Purdom, of Lisle, Illinois, signaled on June 20 that Szarmach and the U.S. attorney’s office were trying to conclude a plea agreement in the bribery case. No plea agreement was made public Thursday afternoon. The agreement indicates Szarmach can win reduction of his sentence, if he cooperates fully with the government.

This deal mirrors one the government made seven months ago with Downs, who pleaded guilty to collecting Buncich’s campaign contributions on public time. Downs also agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in return for a lenient sentence. Buncich’s lawyer, Bryan Truitt, has stated in pre-trial court documents the improper activity the government is alleging was confined to Downs, Szarmach and another government witness, Scott Jurgensen, owner of Samson’s Towing of Merrillville.

Truitt has stated, “Sheriff John Buncich maintains he has done nothing wrong. There is little to no direct evidence or a smoking gun,” Truitt said in court records. The U.S. attorney’s office has said Jurgensen deserves credit for uncovering public corruption.

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