Philip Benson

Philip C. Benson, wearing a red tie, and U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch II, far right are shown at a news conference in January following the sentencing of former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich.

HAMMOND — Lawyers for Portage Mayor James Snyder aim to remove some of the most veteran and successful trial lawyers from the government team seeking to convict him of public corruption.

Snyder's defense attorneys are scheduled to argue Thursday before U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen that the government's prosecution team is guilty of effectively infiltrating the mayor's defense camp.

They argue this occurred when federal investigators seized the mayor's email communications, including those with his former defense lawyer, Thomas Kirsch II, in violation of Snyder's attorney-client privilege, which protects the privacy of his defense strategies. The mayor hired Kirsch in 2014.

The government last year named Kirsch as U.S. Attorney for Northern Indiana. Kirsch has recused himself from the case, which now is being managed by the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago.

Snyder's defense lawyers suggest the disclosure of defense secrets is so severe the judge should consider barring the current team of federal prosecutors from leading the case against Snyder at trial, now scheduled to begin June 4.

If successful, the defense would be denying the government some of ifs most veteran trial attorneys: Assistant U.S. Attorneys Philip C. Benson and Jill R. Koster have appeared in hundreds of criminal cases for the government in the last two decades.

Koster won the conviction of former Hammond megachurch Pastor Jack Schaap for his sexual relationship with a 17-year-old parish girl. Schaap was sentenced in March 2013 to 12 years in prison for transporting the teen he was counseling to Illinois and Michigan for sex.

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Forcing out Benson would deny the government an attorney who has won a number of public corruption cases, many of them at trial in recent years. That includes:

  • Former Merrillville Town Councilman Thomas "Tommy" Goralczyk, for bribery in awarding towing for that town's police.
  • Former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich for bribery in awarding towing for county police.
  • Vahan Kelerchian, a Pennsylvania gun dealer, and former county police officers Edward Kabella, Ronald Slusser and Joseph Kumstar for conspiring to buy guns and laser sights, intended solely for the military or law enforcement, and selling the parts online.
  • Former Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist and his wife for fraudulently using his campaign and the city's food pantry funds to gamble at area casinos.
  • Former Lake County Surveyor George Van Til for making his public employees do his campaign work on county time.
  • Former Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin and her son, Steven Hunter, for extorting campaign contributions and work from township employees.
  • Former Lake County Clerk and Coroner Thomas Philpot for stealing thousands in federal dollars earmarked to improve the collection of court-ordered child support payments.
  • Former Calumet Township Trustee Dozier T. Allen Jr. and two deputies for defrauding taxpayers by pocketing federal funds meant to provide the federal government with data on poverty.
  • Former Lake County Councilman Will Smith Jr., former county government tax collector Roosevelt Powell and former attorney Willie Harris for a real estate deal that defrauded a public charity, county government and the IRS.

Federal prosecutor Koster argues in court papers that a separate team of government prosecutors has gone through the email collection and filtered out all of Snyder's privileged material, so any other material Benson and Koster have seen in their trial preparations is fair game.

Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service agents began in July 2014 questioning the mayor about criminal matters. The mayor hired Kirsch in late 2014.

The government began in the fall of 2015 seizing Snyder's emails under a court-ordered warrant, and a federal grand jury Nov. 18, 2016, indicted Snyder on bribery charges related to a city towing vendor and public works contracts and tax evasion charges related to Snyder's private business.

Although Kirsch, who now is the federal government's top prosecutor in northern Indiana, has recused himself, Benson and Koster remain on the case.

Indianapolis attorney Jackie M. Bennett Jr., who represents Snyder, argues these two trial lawyers have seen "multiple privileged communications you had no right to see" and have undermined Snyder's confidence that he can confidentially communicate with his present counsel.

"The appropriate remedy may be recusal of the entire prosecutorial team and case agents or even, potentially, dismissal of the indictment," Bennett claims in federal court papers.

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.