I stopped by the trial of Lake County Sheriff John Buncich this afternoon. FBI agent Nathan Holcomb was still on the stand. He’s the guy who gathered the video and voice recordings of the Sheriff and others. Somewhere in these scratchy recordings and blurry video there’s a bribery scheme, so says the government. Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re wrong. The one thing I would suggest, however, is to quit using a fisheye lens for undercover work.
Fisheye lenses look good on paper. You can catch a wider range of view. But for some reason they always come out blurry and distorted. So when the moment came for the camera to catch Buncich accepting $7500 in casn and putting it in his top drawer, it was anticlimactic because it was so blurry.
That’s what the couple of hours of testimony was all about this afternoon, at least the part I sat in on. Assistant US attorney Phil Benson painstakingly walked agent Holcomb through Government Exhibit 17, and then Government Exhibit 17 a, and 17 b, and so on. We, the Times reporter Bill Dolan and the Post-Trib reporter Becky Jacobs and a few others and me… we got to listen to a whole bunch of tapes made by wiring up tow truck drive operator Scott Jurgensen and chief of police Tim Downs.
This could have been high drama. There actually were some parts of the tapes in which it sounded like they were talking about divvying up tow areas, and of course that seems to be at the heart of the government’s case. It’s the theory that tow truck operators bribed Buncich to get favorable towing contracts.
But there was so much tape to listen to, and so much blurry video to view. I asked Alexis this evening why they have to play all of this audio and video in the courtroom, and, since she’s a lawyer, she gave me a lawyerly answer.
“They have to introduce it as evidence, or it’s not evidence.”
“Seems like a waste of time.”
“Well it’s not. It’s how courtrooms operate. You’re just ADD boy who can’t sit still for anything.”
She’s right on that. It’s not the first time that Alexis, my wife by the way – although the three or four of you already know that – has called me ADD boy. I don’t like to sit still. I like to keep moving at a slow, steady pace through life, kind of like I drive. Slow and steady.
Anyways, for some reason with this Buncich trial, the cooler things to observe happen outside of the official game that’s being played by attorneys. One of the things to do is to watch Judge Moody’s face as testimony is presented.
Now, I’ve never met the man, but he’s gruff enough to be one of my uncles or someone who used to work in the mill, or both. And during particularly lengthy tapes that are being played in the courtroom – right about the time that I feel like standing up and shouting, “enough already. I can’t take it anymore” – you look up at Judge Moody in his black robe and you get the feeling that he’s thinking the same thing.
Really, after covering enough court stuff in his courtroom, I know and so the three or four of you, that the judge is capable of an outburst at any moment. Just ask attorney Poulous, who represented Tom Philpot in his trial a few years ago. Judge Moody layed into Poulous so many times it’s a wonder that the attorney can still stand up straight and pee into a urinal.
But for some reason, despite the general scowl, Judge Moody didn’t burst out at all while I was there. He just rested his head on his hand and watched and, at least I think, stayed awake for the whole thing.
Essentially, the big dramatic point that the audio and video tape was leading to, at least while I was there, was that Buncich took the money. Yes, there he is on camera taking an envelope from his chief of police, who was acting as a government informant. . The envelope is alleged to have contained $7500 in cash for fundraiser tickets, as follows:
- $2500 from tow operator Willie Szarmach
- $2500 from tow operator Jerry Kundich
- $2500 from tow operator Scott Jurgensen
With Szarmach and Kundich, evidently that was their own money. From how I read the testimony, though, the money from Jurgensen actually came from the government. Jurgensen, remember, was a paid informant for 4.5 years.
Confused? Too bad. Read my previous blogs.
So here’s what I observed. The government went through all of this tape to lead up to video that shows Buncich taking the money. It looks really bad for the Sheriff. Video can cut you up if you’re doing something on it that looks suspicious.
The judge called for a break, and then after the break but before the jury came in the room, Buncich's attorney Bryan Truitt stood up in court:
“Judge, may I say something, real quickly?”
“You don’t say anything real quickly,” Moody said, or something to that extent.
“I was wondering if you might remind the jury that selling fundraising tickets and fundraisers in general are not illegal. With the presentation by the government, the jury might be led to believe that these activities are in and of themselves are illegal. Can you give them instructions to the contrary?”
“No. I won’t do that. Bailiff, bring the jury in.”
Now of course I’m paraphrasing this. The three or four of you can go get the court transcript one day and it’s not gonna be anything like what I just laid out. I’m doing it from memory of the essence of the conversation, not the verbatim part.
And the essence of what I saw was that AUSA Benson was walking slowly through a pile of audio and video to show Buncich taking campaign money and sliding it into his top drawer. In the meantime, Buncich and the defense team are sitting there looking as if at any moment they could blurt out at the top of their lungs – “it’s not illegal to sell campaign tickets. It’s not illegal.”
Here’s some other observations:
- there’s one guy in the jury box who just stands up and stretches in the middle of the judge talking.
- Feds must all go to the same barber
- Judge Moody keeps his courtroom at about 63 degrees. Bring a sweatshirt with you, and if you’re a woman who’s thinking about wearing a sleeky silk shirt, don’t do it. Or, better yet, go ahead.
- I used to think that the Purdue Northwest Commercialization Center where our studios are located was the nicest building in Hammond. That’s not true. The federal courthouse is. There’s marble, fountains, art work, high-priced elevators, and automatic-flushing toilets like in airports.
I’ll try to stop by the trial tomorrow afternoon. Hopefully they’re done with agent Holcomb by then.
…. In other federal news, I went over to Centennial Park Clubhouse in Munster to take in congressman Todd Rokita announcing that he’s running for Senate. He certainly has the right pedigree:
- St. Thomas More
- Munster High School
- Wabash College
- Indiana secretary of state
- And now what?
Todd is in my sister’s class, so I’ve known him for a while. His wife Kathy has way more color to her personality than Todd does, but as far as looking at him and trying to figure out if you could trust him, if indeed you could trust any politician, you might say at least, “Maybe.”
Todd’s running in the Republican primary against Luke Messer, whom he went to Wabash College with. Luke is the congressman whose wife is alleged to be making 20 grand a month from the town of Avon, Indiana, to review documents. And, supposedly, she lives in DC much of the time.
Todd’s campaign slogan, by the way, is “Defeat the Elite.” He talked about six of the ten richest communities in America being just outside Washington, DC. After the gathering, I set up an interview with Todd’s campaign guy for Todd to call the show tomorrow.
There’s more to my radio day, but I get the feeling that by now none of the three or four of you are even reading anymore. You’re doing what Judge Moody does when somebody rambles on. You’re resting your head on your left hand looking as if you could nod off any moment. If you’re in your bed reading this on your laptop, however, you’re probably a hell of a lot warmer than you’ll ever be in Judge Moody’s courtroom. Bring a sweatshirt and, once again, if you’re a woman, maybe not.