March 26, 2019
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Indiana, Hammond Division. No.
2:16-cr-00161-JTM-JEM-1 - James T. Moody, Judge.
Bauer, Rovner, and Brennan, Circuit Judges.
Buncich was the Sheriff of Lake County, Indiana. He was
charged by a grand jury with five counts of wire fraud and
one count of accepting bribes. He was found guilty on all six
counts. For the reasons that follow, we vacate his conviction
on Counts I-III, affirm as to Counts IV-VI, and remand for
Buncich was elected Sheriff of Lake County, Indiana, and took
office on January 1, 2011. He named Timothy Downs his Chief
of Police, the highest ranking officer under the sheriff. The
sheriff was responsible for providing the county police with
towing services. Buncich created a list of twelve tow
operators and assigned each to a defined territory. Some
operators were assigned to specific police units and some
were responsible for completing certain assignments such as
heavy towing-the towing of semi trucks and other large
vehicles. Buncich was the final decision maker regarding
territories and assignments.
held an annual campaign fundraiser called "Summer
Fest" and directed Downs and other subordinates to sell
tickets to the event. Towing companies were specifically
targeted by the individuals selling tickets. Downs collected
the ticket sales revenue and gave it to Buncich; he testified
that he would not have kept his job if he refused to sell
county's second largest tower was Willie Szarmach of CSA
Towing. Szarmach and CSA contributed to Buncich to ensure a
spot on the tow list. During the campaign Szarmach gave $500
cash to Buncich through an intermediary and CSA gave the
campaign a check for $2, 000, the maximum allowed by Indiana
law. (Szarmach also gave cash above that limit.) After the
election, Buncich assigned Szarmach light and heavy towing
territories near Gary, Indiana. CSA was assigned gang unit
towing shortly after Szarmach gave $1, 000 cash to Buncich;
CSA was also given towing territory assigned to other
companies whose owners either paid only by check or declined
to buy tickets entirely.
Jurgensen, who owned Samson Relocation & Towing, was
assigned the auto theft towing detail. About five months
after Samson began towing, Downs approached Jurgensen about
making payments. The two largest towers told Jurgensen they
were paying off Buncich.
April 8, 2014, Jurgensen met with Downs at a restaurant.
(Unbeknownst to Downs, Jurgensen had become a confidential
informant for the FBI.) Jurgensen told Downs he would pay
"five hundred cash, two thousand dollar check like I did
last time." He asked Downs if he could get a rival
company's territory for another $2, 500. Downs told him
everything was "fair game" after the upcoming
Democratic primary in May. Jurgensen gave him a check and
cash; Downs said that he would"still need more after
June, Jurgensen and Szarmach met with Downs and expressed an
interest in increasing their territory. They asked if Buncich
was planning on "trim[ming] down the flock." Downs
said "some people that weren't very friendly [will]
probably bite the dust," but they would likely have to
wait until after the November election to get more of the
auto detail. Szarmach said he could provide $10, 000 with no
trio met again on October 8, 2014, when Downs told Jurgensen
he was selling Democratic fundraiser tickets. Downs said he
did not "like to pressure anybody into anything"
and that a purchase "don't gotta be big." He
also said he no longer sold tickets to S & S, another
towing company, because he believed its owner tried to record
next day Downs informed Jurgensen and Szarmach that Buncich
had decided to take all heavy towing away from S & S and
give it to Szarmach. He also showed them fundraiser tickets
that Buncich was "real interested in" and they
agreed to pay $2, 500. On October 14, 2014, Jurgensen and
Szarmach each gave Downs $500 cash and a check for $2, 000
made out to the Lake County Central Democratic Committee.
When they asked how much the county's largest tower,
Jerry Kundich had paid, Downs said that Kundich dealt with
sent out an email regarding "CSA's newly revised
towing district" on June 1, 2015. Two days later
Jurgensen provided Downs with $2, 500 cash for twenty-five
tickets to Buncichs's campaign fundraiser. He asked if he
would be "safe and left alone on the Lake County tow
list" and Downs assured he would be until Downs himself
ran for sheriff. After the meeting Downs was confronted by
FBI agents and agreed to cooperate with the investigation.
days later Downs met with Szarmach and Kundich who each gave
him $2, 500 cash. On July 15, 2015, Downs gave $7, 500 he had
collected from Jurgensen, Szarmach, and Kundich to Buncich.
When Downs asked Buncich about Jurgensen he ...