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Portage Mayor James Snyder

Portage Mayor James Snyder delivering a State of the City address.

HAMMOND — After more than five years of investigation and 26 months after he was indicted, Portage Mayor James Snyder will get his day in court Monday.

When it's done, a jury will decide whether Snyder took a loan from former co-defendant John Cortina or if that $12,000 was "juice money," as Cortina called it in undercover recordings, to have Snyder put him on the city's towing list.

Cortina, 79, owner of Kustom Auto Body, pleaded guilty Friday to paying Snyder the bribe. 

Jurors also have to decide if Snyder took another $13,000 in bribes in exchange for city contracts and whether he schemed to defraud the Internal Revenue Service by manipulating his private mortgage company books.

His public corruption trial, which is estimated to last four weeks, is set to begin at 10 a.m. Monday in front of U.S. Federal Court Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen. Jury selection should begin about 11:30 a.m.

Van Bokkelen said Friday during a status hearing, he anticipates the jury to be selected by the end of Monday's court session and opening statements to begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday, followed by calling the first witnesses.

Both defense and prosecuting attorneys estimated their opening statements would take one hour.

According to court records, the investigation into Snyder's alleged wrongdoing began in 2014 when FBI agents came to Porter County, seeking Snyder's campaign finance reports from his 2011 campaign. Over the next two years, agents made frequent trips to Portage, subpoenaing records from the city's Utility Services Board over payments involving an economic development trip to Austria; records from the street department regarding the purchase of garbage trucks; meeting minutes from the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge meetings; and numerous other financial and city records.

In an indictment handed down Nov. 17, 2016, Snyder was charged on two counts of bribery and one count of tax fraud. Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body of Portage, was charged with one count of offering a bribe.

Indictment

Snyder was indicted on the three charges, along with Cortina, and former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich. While Buncich was convicted in August 2017 and sentenced to 188 months in prison in January 2018, Snyder's and Cortina's trials were marked by a half-dozen continuances over the past two years.

Snyder pleaded not guilty to the allegations. Cortina had pleaded not guilty until Friday's plea deal.

The first count against Snyder alleges he solicited two bank checks, in the amounts of $10,000 and $2,000, from Cortina to put Cortina on the city's towing list.

In court filings, Snyder claims the $12,000 came from Cortina as loans to pay his attorney's bills. 

In transcripts of undercover recordings, Cortina refers to the money as "juice money" he paid Snyder in an effort to get on the city's towing list. During his plea hearing Friday, Cortina told the court he perceived the money to be a bribe.

The second count against Snyder also alleges he accepted $13,000 from a Portage company in exchange for favorable contracts with the city. Snyder is alleged to have solicited the $13,000 from Great Lakes Peterbilt days after the company received contracts worth more than $1.25 million for garbage trucks.

The third count against Snyder involves his private business operations with a mortgage company he previously managed. The count alleges, among other things, that Snyder, who managed the company, collected but failed to pay to the federal government employee payroll taxes. The alleged behavior dates back to 2007.

It also alleges Snyder created a company through which he funneled money in order to hide it from the IRS, failed to file appropriate tax forms, failed to pay personal income taxes and hired a friend to help "bury" income.

Twists and turns

A half-dozen continuances were granted in the cases since the indictment was issued. Many came because of issues with discovery and what both sides have said were voluminous numbers of documents expected to be introduced into evidence.

Prosecutors and Snyder's defense are expected to introduce about 120,000 pages/items into evidence, hear some 20 undercover recordings and hear from dozens of witnesses, including Snyder's brother, Jon. The mayor's sibling has been identified in court records as a confidential informant who wore an undercover wire to tape conversations with James Snyder and others for more than two years.

Jon Snyder, the Porter County assessor, pleaded guilty in federal court last year to a misdemeanor tax charge. He is expected to be sentenced in February.

Changes in the case

There were other "hiccups," a word used by Van Bokkelen during a hearing last year, referencing the delays in the case.

James Snyder hired Thomas L. Kirsch II to represent him when the investigation began in 2014. Kirsch was still his attorney when the indictment was filed.

Kirsch was tapped in 2017 to serve as U.S. attorney for Northern Indiana. Kirsch recused himself from the case, which now is being managed by the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago.

Snyder hired Jackie M. Bennett Jr., of Taft Stettinius & Hollister of Indianapolis, to represent him in the case in October 2017. Just this past week he added Neal A. Brackett of the Indianapolis firm of Barnes & Thornburg. Brackett is a member of the firm's white collar crime team.

In March of this year, Bennett filed a motion seeking the indictment be dismissed or, at the least, the present federal prosecutors be disqualified.

Snyder said his Sixth, Fifth and Fourth Amendment rights were violated, claiming investigators and prosecutors had viewed several dozen emails that should have been deemed attorney-client privilege, giving prosecutors an unfair advantage.

They also contended the "taint team" process used to review and sort the emails was flawed.

The claim came with a flurry of motions and series of predominantly closed-door hearings in May 2018 on the issue. 

Van Bokkelen ruled in late September against Snyder and refused to either dismiss the charges or disqualify the prosecution team. In November, Snyder asked Van Bokkelen to reconsider. Van Bokkelen has not yet ruled on that motion or others, including Snyder's request to suppress evidence involving a conversation with his brother. Those rulings likely will come Monday morning.

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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.