United States v. John Buncich (7th Cir. June 2019)

The Federal Docket

August 25, 2019

Bribery – There was sufficient evidence supporting the defendant’s bribery conviction where he wa sa sheriff in charge of contracting towing operators and assigning them territory, and the evidence showed that the giving and taking away of towing territories directly corresponded to the bribes being paid to the defendant.

Evidence/404(b) – 404(b) evidence regarding substantial bank deposits during alleged crime was not admissible where the sum was more than double the amount of money involved in the offense.

John Buncich was a sheriff in Indiana who was charged and convicted of wire fraud and accepting bribes. Buncich, whose duties as sheriff involved contracting towing operators and assigning them to certain territory, was charged with accepting bribes in exchange for giving towing companies certain contracts and assigning them to favorable territory.

To that end, Buncich had instructed his Chief of Police and other subordinates to sell tickets for his fundraiser to towing companies in the county in exchange for granting them additional or better towing territory. On at least one occasion, the Chief of Police sat down with a towing operator (acting as an informant) and told the operator he would get more territory if he paid more money and that operators that hadn’t been particularly “friendly” would soon “bite the dust.” The Court detailed many communications and monetary transactions between Buncich and other tow operators in connection with redistributing territories among operators.

On appeal, Buncich argued that there was insufficient evidence to support his wire fraud convictions, which was based on a theory of “honest services fraud” wherein the Government had to prove that the bribe in question “entailed a plan to change how the employee or agent does his job.”

The Government conceded that the wire fraud convictions on counts 1 through 3, based on payroll transfers, were not supported by sufficient evidence. However, the Court found sufficient evidence supporting the other wire fraud and bribery convictions.

The Court held that there was ample evidence that the money paid to Bucnich’s campaign was more than a “campaign contribution,” and that they were in fact made in exchange for “official acts.” This included testimony by an operator-turned-informant and other evidence that towing companies that did not pay Bucnich “had territory taken away.” The evidence showed that the giving and taking away of towing territories directly corresponded to the bribes being paid.

The Court also held that the district court erred in admitting Rule 404(b) evidence regarding the deposit of a substantial amount of money in Bucnich’s bank account. While “unexplained wealth evidence” is admissible where it creates an inference that the defendant was involved in the crime, was acquired during the criminal conduct, and the government presents other evidence to support the charge, the Court held that this evidence unduly prejudiced Bucnich and provided limited probative value. In particular, the amount deposited was more than double the amount of bribes taken in. While it was error to admit the evidence of the deposit and corresponding testimony, the Court held the error was harmless.

Appeal from the Northern District of Indiana

Opinion by Bauer, joined by Rovner and Brennan

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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