Rich James: Sheriff Buncich's risky public defense
Thursday, April 20, 2017 9:11 AM
MERRILLVILLE – The case involving Lake County Sheriff John Buncich seemingly gets more bizarre by the week. Buncich, who is in his fourth term as sheriff, was indicted in November on bribery charges. His latest trial date is Aug. 7, but even that may well get continued.
The most interesting twist came a week ago when the sheriff issued a press release proclaiming his innocence. While Buncich entered a not guilty plea when charged, last week was the first time he made a public comment. The sheriff issued a press release through his attorney, Bryan Truitt. Buncich said, “I assure you that I am absolutely innocent.” He went on to say, “For those of you who know me and my 45 years in law enforcement, you know I would never compromise my integrity or professionalism and cannot be guilty of these charges. Trust that I would never sell my office, not for any amount.”
Why the sheriff issued such a statement five months after the indictment has raised some eyebrows. Some say it simply is a matter of looking for support in the court of public opinion before he goes to trial. Buncich always has been a popular public figure and that hasn’t been diminished much by the indictment. The sheriff said he issued the statement now because he had expected the U.S. attorney’s office to have dropped the charges by now, or that he would have gone to trial and been acquitted. Neither, of course, has happened.
Because he has proclaimed his innocence, Buncich may simply be trying to reassure the public that the sheriff’s department is running well. The allegation is that the sheriff took kickbacks from towing firms wanting to do business with the police department.
Buncich, of course, has two options. He can enter into a plea agreement by pleading guilty. Or, he can go to trial and either be acquitted or convicted. Therein is the rub. Those who plead guilty to public corruption charges generally receive lesser sentences. Those who go to trial and lose generally receive longer prison terms. It makes one wonder why someone who exercises his constitutional right to a trial ends up worse off if he loses. Go figure.
In the meantime, Schererville Police Chief David Dowling appears to be emerging as the leading candidate to replace Buncich at a caucus election or the next general election in 2018, whichever comes first.
Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years.