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Portage Mayor James Snyder

Portage Mayor James Snyder delivers his State of the City address in February.

HAMMOND — A rift between attorneys Wednesday during a hearing prior to Portage Mayor James Snyder's public corruption trial caused the judge to issue a warning about being civil.

During defense attorney Jackie Bennett Jr.'s cross-examination of the lone witness in the hearing, retired FBI Agent Donald Cooley, Bennett began asking Cooley about the fate of fellow FBI Agent Eric Fields, who also was involved in Snyder's investigation.

Bennett asked Cooley if he knew if Fields was transferred because of a disciplinary issue.

Cooley replied Fields was promoted and transferred.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson objected to the questioning as not being relevant.

Bennett pressed Cooley about any disciplinary problems involving Fields; confidential informant and the mayor's brother Jon Snyder; and Jon Snyder's attorney, Christopher Buckley. Bennett asked Cooley if he knew if Fields was disciplined for trying to force Buckley to turn over records. Bennett continued asking Cooley about the alleged incident, including a meeting between Buckley and Benson.

Benson immediately objected, accusing Bennett of making up facts and telling U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen he would immediately take the stand and testify under oath that Bennett was lying.

Van Bokkelen reeled the two in and redirected the testimony, but he issued a warning near the end of the two-hour hearing.

"I'm a big guy on civility," Van Bokklen said, warning both sides that if civility isn't maintained, they "will be called out."

He also told them the case, stemming from a November 2016 indictment of James Snyder on two counts of bribery and one count of tax evasion, has "had hiccups all the way along." The hiccups, he said included a change in judges along with a change in Snyder's defense team after his original attorney, Thomas Kirsch, was appointed U.S. attorney for Northern Indiana.

Despite the hiccups and any others that might come up in the next month, the trial will go forward Jan. 14 "unless I drop over,"  Van Bokklen said.

On Wednesday, Van Bokklen heard testimony on a defense motion to suppress evidence, claiming a Dec. 5, 2016, text between James Snyder and his brother, Jon Snyder, the Porter County assessor, was confidential.

Jon Snyder, who recently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor tax charge in federal court, worked as a confidential source for the FBI for at least three years. He reported the conversation to investigators. Investigators then reported the conversation to prosecutors.

The conversation included trial strategy and was attorney/client privileged, said defense attorney Jayna Cacioppo, adding Jon Snyder was acting as an agent of the government.

In the text, James Snyder told his brother Kirsch suggested he hire another attorney because Kirsch's calendar did not mesh with the original trial date set in January 2017. James Snyder also told Jon Snyder the tax issues in the indictment were unfounded and work being done by the Dogan & Dogan law firm and Kirsch involved tax issues and was for James Snyder's wife.

"He should have stopped listening," Cacioppo said during her closing argument, adding it violated James Snyder's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.

Bennett asked that any evidence obtained by the government after Jan. 23, 2017, the date of the original trial, be suppressed during trial.

Benson disagreed, saying the information came during the investigation of James Snyder's possible attempt to defraud the city and, if it were a violation, the information contained wasn't a surprise, unexpected or helpful to the government.

Cooley, who was one of Jon Snyder's handlers during the investigation into his brother as well as other public corruption investigations within Porter County, said the FBI also was investigating whether James Snyder attempted to use some $93,000 in Portage Utility Service Board funds to pay his attorneys. 

Cooley testified once James Snyder was indicted, Jon Snyder was instructed not to broach certain subjects, to ignore him as much as possible and, if James Snyder initiated a conversation, to just listen. He added they were interested in the Dec. 5, 2016, conversation because it contradicted claims James Snyder made to others regarding the $93,000 payments to attorneys from city coffers.

Cooley said he did not believe it violated James Snyder's rights because James Snyder was not under indictment for possibly defrauding the city of the funds, nor had Jon Snyder initiated the conversation.

Van Bokklen said he would issue a ruling within 10 days.

Van Bokklen did rule against the defense team on two other motions filed in the case. The motions involved requests to exclude a tape recording from evidence and punishing prosecutors for filing the 83-page proffer, which included transcripts of undercover tape recordings, after deadline.

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.