HAMMOND — Former Portage Mayor James E. Snyder has won a new trial on a bribery charge.
U.S. District Court Judge Joseph S. Van Bokkelen ruled Wednesday afternoon there were enough irregularities in the government’s prosecution to warrant a new trial by a new jury on whether Snyder solicited a bribe from former owners of a Portage truck sales firm.
Snyder, a Republican businessman, served as mayor of Portage from 2011 until his conviction Feb. 14 by a federal jury on felony counts of bribery solicitation and tax evasion following a 19-day trial.
The judge’s ruling Wednesday means the bribery conviction is now null and void.
The judge did rule in favor of federal prosecutors and denied defense requests to either acquit Snyder or grant Snyder a new trial on the tax evasion charge.
The split decision represents a victory for Snyder and his legal team, led by Indianapolis attorney Jackie M. Bennett Jr. and a rare loss for federal prosecutors.
Bennett staked Snyder’s defense following the guilty verdicts on accusations of prosecutorial misconduct and a prosecutorial failure to submit sufficient evidence to convict Snyder of wrongdoing.
Had Wednesday’s ruling had completely gone against the former mayor, Snyder could have faced years in prison.
The judge has canceled Snyder’s sentencing for now and has yet to schedule a date for a new trial.
Neither Snyder, his defense attorneys nor a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago handling the federal prosecution could be reached for comment.
As the case stands, federal prosecutors must now prove to a new jury he solicited a $13,000 bribe in 2014 from the former owners of Great Lakes Peterbilt of Portage in return for steering a $1.125 million contract to firm's owners to provide the city with garbage trucks.
Snyder is pleading not guilty to the charge.
The judge stated in his 17-page ruling Wednesday the Feb. 14 bribery verdict against Snyder had to be overturned because of several irregularities practiced by federal prosecutors.
He said the government tried to prove bribery against Snyder without the testimony of the central players — Steve and Bob Buha, former owners of Great Lakes Peterbilt, who made the $13,000 payment to Snyder five years ago.
Federal prosecutors refused to call the brothers to the witness stand at trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill R. Koster told the judge she believed the brothers might give the jury false or conflicting testimony about their motive in giving Snyder $13,000.
The brothers then refused to testify as defense witnesses, on Snyder’s behalf, either.
Snyder’s legal team said they were unable to call the Buhas as defense witnesses because federal prosecutors refused to grant the brothers immunity from future prosecution.
The government had given the brothers immunity earlier to testify before a grand jury investigating the bribery allegations three years ago.
Faced with the threat of future prosecution, the brothers exercised their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.
Snyder didn’t take the witness stand either.
Van Bokkelen stated in a footnote of his ruling, “From years of experience on every side of litigation, (Van Bokkelen) cannot recall a case that was tried without the testimony of the giver or the receiver of the bribe or the testimony of some other direct witness of the bribery."
The judge also criticized federal prosecutors for alleging the corrupt award of reconstruction work of Willowcreek Road, a major traffic thoroughfare in Portage and then failing to present any evidence to support that allegation.
The judge said the government failure to go forward on the Willowcreek road construction allegation unfairly caused Snyder’s lawyers to waste time preparing to defend against allegations the jury never heard.
The judge said another irregularity involved federal prosecutors presenting evidence at trial they hadn’t previously disclosed to Snyder’s attorneys.
The judge said the effect was to unfairly deny Snyder’s lawyers the chance to better prepare against the surprise evidence.
The judge said federal prosecutors presented too much of the government’s case against Snyder through testimony by an FBI agent who investigated the case, rather than witnesses with first-hand knowledge of the disputed acts by Snyder and others.
This tactic denied Snyder’s defense attorneys a meaningful chance to question the validity of government allegations. Defense efforts to interrogate the FBI agent were stymied by federal prosecutors objections.
The judge did find the government met its burden to prove Snyder obstructed the U.S. Internal Revenue Service efforts to collect taxes from a private mortgage firm Snyder managed, beginning in 2010.