Lake County Sheriff on trial for bribery in illegal towing scheme

HAMMOND, Ind. -- Prosecutors claim tapes showed to jurors Tuesday in Lake County Sheriff's corruption trial show  him accepting bribes for his campaign as part of an illegal towing scheme.

Two key witnesses also testified on the second day ofJohn Buncich's trial in Hammond, IN. Buncich is charged with wire fraud and receiving thousands of dollars in bribes as he oversaw towing contracts in northern Indiana.

His two co-defendants have already taken plea deals but the sheriff – who is still the acting sheriff in Lake County – insisted on a trial. It started Monday, when a confidential informant testified he knew he had to pay up if he wanted to get towing business from the county. He says he gave Buncich thousands of dollars over breakfast meetings to expand his towing business in Gary and North Chicago.

On Tuesday, Buncich's Chief of Police and a tow truck operator took the stand. One of the co-defendants also testified about all the money he gave the sheriff in order to secure towing contracts. He said the pay to play scenario was an understanding – but defense attorneys tried to point out the sheriff never asked for the money and never threatened anything if he didn’t get it.

The FBI raided the sheriff’s office last year and Buncich was indicted in November. The indictment alleges Buncich received some $27,000 in cash and $7,000 in checks with the towing contracts, according to former U.S. Attorney David Capp. Prosecutors say the sheriff later sold his office to pay himself back all the money he had spent on his own campaign. Tow companies also claim they had to buy tickets to the sheriff’s fundraisers and pay additional money to get on the Lake County tow list – referred to as joining the “boys” club in court documents.

Buncich has maintained his innocence, and his lawyers say the FBI paid their confidential informant more than $100,000 dollars to testify, and the feds are trying to buy a crime where one doesn’t exist. Some of nine hours of secret recordings were played at the trial on Tuesday. Buncich's attorney believes the tapes will help them.

“Sheriff Buncich is not in many of the tapes and we think – and he never discussed money or anything else. So it’s our anticipation that the tapes will actually help us,” defense attorney Bryan Truitt said.

Last fall, when this indictment was announced the U.S. Attorney said it should be a warning to any other public officials that might be taking part in this kind of towing scheme. A lot of names came up in court Tuesday, but it’s unclear if there are more investigations ongoing. The trial will continue again Wednesday.

Defense attorneys say the evidence will show the sheriff committed no crime.