Radio is dying. We all accept that.
Also this morning, sports announcer Brian Jennings and I talked about the two high school football games that we’ll be broadcasting this Friday. It’s a little different than in the past in that we will be Facebook Living in video two football games simultaneously for the first time. Let’s see if it works.
Another part of doing local radio around here in Lake County, Indiana, which is the corruption capital of America, is that every once in a while you have to cover a trial. And for the past 14 days, every spare moment that I have had has been spent in court 1 in the Hammond federal building on Hohman Avenue.
It was the corruption trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.
I have covered a lot of trials. It goes back to when I worked at WJOB the first time around in the mid 1980s. That’s when the feds cracked down on the drunk driving ring in the Lake County courts. Judge Stodola, Sheriff Rudy Bartolomei, Judge Steven Bielak and others were snared.
Since we bought the radio stations in 2004, I’ve covered a ton of trials and hearings, almost all involving elected officials. By some counts, there have been indictments of more than 60 officials since Joe Van Bokkelen, then the federal prosecutor, started handing them out on “Indictment Fridays.”
I have covered many of these trials and hearings because I’m the most experienced journalist we have. A lot of innovative and hungry young people work with me, and a few more seasoned radio personalities – but in the end, when it’s a trial, you gotta get it right. So I do them myself.
And it has been quite draining. It’s the Thursday of the third week of the Buncich trial and the verdict just came down a few minutes ago –
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich - Guilty on all counts.
There were five counts of wire fraud and honest services wire fraud and one count of bribery. What I want to do now is just type out some of my immediate reactions and remembrances of the trial so that the four or five of us can review them later.
- Hey JED - Did you sense that Buncich would be found guilty?
Yes. For the past couple of weeks I have sensed that no matter how the trial played out, Buncich would be found guilty on most if not all counts. That’s because of the video.
As the three or four of you know, Buncich has been the Sheriff of Lake County off and on for more than a generation. He’s a big guy with broad shoulders – a former football player at Andrean. He acts like a cop and walks like one and swears like one.
One of his most trusted confidantes, his former chief of police Tim Downs, is also cut from the same cloth. Big, strong, massive handshake. They’re two cops in a pod.
But at some point in 2015, the feds arrested Tim Downs and offered to go a little more lenient on him if he would wear a wire to try to catch Sheriff Buncich. Downs took the offer and wore a wire for a year and a half or so.
One of Downs’ jobs was to go around to tow truck drivers and sell them fundraising tickets for Buncich’s major fundraiser that took place once a year. After one of these excursions to pick up money for the tickets, Downs got out of his car with a satchel and walked into the glass-enclosed entryway of the Sheriff’s office.
Downs walked down a hall where he ran into my wife’s cousin, Tony Ramirez, who is a Sheriff’s deputy – “He’s in a shitty mood,” Ramirez said to Downs about Buncich.
Downs walked further down the hall and into Buncich’s office. There was someone else in the office, too, sitting in front of Buncich. Downs and Buncich talked about the tickets and who bought how many and so forth, and then the turning point of this entire trial took place. Down’s handed Buncich $7500 cash. Buncich held the money in his hands and then put it into a drawer in his desk.
And all of this, from the walk through the parking lot to the brief discussion with Tony to the handing of the cash to Buncich to Buncich putting it in his top drawer – all of it was caught on video.
In the courtroom, the first time that Assistant United States Attorney Phil Benson played the video, Benson paused the video on Buncich holding the cash in his hand. Benson circled it in yellow and pointed to it on the screen.
And at that moment, the three or four of you would have sensed, as I did, that Buncich was going down.
In a way, it really didn’t matter what happened after that moment. It didn’t matter what the defense said or presented, you would have sensed, as I did, that the video image was so powerful that there was no explaining it away.
So, even though I’ve been going to the trial for three weeks every day, I pretty much knew from the moment that the video was played in Judge James Moody’s courtroom that it would be a guilty verdict… despite what I said to people who asked me and despite how I played it on the air.
2.Hey JED – tell us about AUSA Phil Benson
Tom Kirsch, the incoming United States Attorney – if he gets approved by the Senate – will have a Michael Jordan on his team. Phil “Bulldog” Benson is that good.
Benson, like Buncich, has an Andrean past and the build of a football player. Benson has a wide head and the limp of someone who either got tackled too many times or stepped in a gopher hole on a recent hike.
And he’s mean. He’s not necessarily mean outside of the courtroom, but in the courtroom he goes after defendants as if they were personally responsible for stealing his lunch money.
Sitting in the courtroom, do you get tired of Benson objecting all of the time? Of course you do. You just want to hear the answers to the questions. You want to stand and yell –
“Bulldog Benson, shut the fuck up.”
But you and I would never do that. It’s best to sit there quietly and on the inside of your cheeks shout the words. Hold the words, watch the strategy. I don’t know if I can adequately describe just how good Bulldog Benson is in a courtroom. You would have to watch him perform – and that’s what it is, a “performance” – and if any of the three or four of you did, you would concur.
It was as good of a performance as I have ever seen in a courtroom. Further, it’s one of the top performances I have personally witnessed in any venue, courtroom or no courtroom.
One small thing that is either minor or is not is that it appears that Benson is trying the case all by himself. He had FBI agent Holcomb sitting next to him, and a female AUSA sitting on the end of the table, but he rarely consulted with them. And it was Benson who spoke for the government for the whole trial and played all of the tape and video and set up all of the documents on the screen and introduced them as evidence.
The last time I saw a one-man show this good was at The Quarterback Club in East Chicago in1987. That’s when I walked into the back room and saw Jim Skafish play some of the most beautiful music ever. Skafish played the drums, keyboard, guitar and sang – all at the same time. I’m not kidding. If the three or four of you are ever given the chance to see Skafish perform as a one-man band – if he still does it – take the chance. It’s the closest you will ever get to seeing the incredible one man band of Bulldog Benson.
3. Hey JED – how do you feel about Sheriff Buncich?
I am saddened. For several years I interviewed Sheriff Buncich every other week on my radio show. I got to know him. I called him “Sausage Fingers.” I invited him to my daughter’s graduation party and he came.
I looked up to Sheriff Buncich as a law-and-order cop who could make Lake County a safer place. You need a hardheaded cop at the helm in Lake County, and I, like the the three or four of you, thought that John Buncich was the man.
I am saddened for all of Lake County that he is not. Without asking anyone, not even the three or four of you, I know that almost everyone who listened to Buncich on the radio and who knew John Buncich personally feels the same way right now. We have been collectively disappointed. We wanted to believe and we did. And now, once again, we are left with disappointment. It is Lake County, after all.
For his girlfriend and his close supporters – many of whom came every day to the trial – I feel sad for them, too. Depending on how long Judge Moody sets as the sentence, they’re not gonna see someone they love for a long time. That hurts.
But John Buncich has made some mistakes and he will have to pay for them. In one sense, I am angry at him for betraying the trust of all of us, including the three or four of you. In another sense, I am disappointed. We looked up to the man and he turned out not to be what we thought he was.
In another sense, I hold empathy for John Buncich. He is a proud Gary native who did a lot of good for this area. He fucked up, and without the betrayal of those around him that he thought he could trust, he would have lived out his life as Sheriff and then law enforcement icon emeritus.
Instead, he may live out his life in prison, behind bars, told when to shower and when to phone home….if indeed there will be anyone there to answer.
It’s a sad day for all of us, including John Buncich.
4. Hey JED – what will be the fallout from this trial?
There could be a lot of fallout. It could end here.
I have told the three or four of you who read this blog – plus the other three or four who listen to my morning radio show – that I have never been able to tell what was a legitimate campaign contribution and what was something more than that.
As you know, I existed much of my adult life well outside of the scene here in Lake County. When we bought the radio stations in 2004, I had been a pit trader for the preceding 18 years. And before that – other than a brief stint at WJOB – I had just been a young doofus who didn’t pay any attention to how things operate around here.
So when I came on the scene in 2004 and went to a couple of political fundraisers, I couldn’t figure out how all of the people who did business with a city or town or the county or the state were the same people who wrote big checks to support the candidate. I still can’t figure it out. So when it comes to asking if the feds are gonna go after other people who take in money for their campaigns and then give work to those who donate – I have no freaking idea.
5. Hey JED – what are you gonna do now?
For whatever reason, my wife Alexis is home early in the afternoon. I’m gonna go downstairs and tickle her. That’s what I’m gonna do. She doesn’t really like when I do that, but if I went a couple days without tickling her, she might think I was tickling someone else.
You gotta keep routine, even in the face of another fall from grace, another disappointment, another reason to say “the hell with Lake County.” Routine is the route to hope. So I will tickle.