HAMMOND — After years of working on his campaign, paying for meals and playing chauffeur for Portage Mayor James Snyder, John Cortina only could get on the city's tow list after he paid Snyder a $12,000 bribe, according to testimony Friday.
Cortina, 79, pleaded guilty Friday morning to one count of bribery in Snyder's public corruption case. He will be sentenced April 22.
The plea agreement comes three days before the public corruption trial begins. The trial, now just against Snyder and with Cortina as a cooperating witness, will start Monday morning as planned.
One of Snyder's defense attorneys, Jayna Caccioppo, of Indianapolis, emailed a statement Friday prior to the start of Cortina's hearing.
"Mr. Snyder never solicited or accepted any bribes from anyone at any time. Mr. Cortina's plea is of no consequence to the defense of Mr. Snyder. The plea is unremarkable given Mr. Cortina's age. Mr. Snyder and his defense team look forward to exonerating Mr. Snyder during the trial that begins next Monday," read the statement emailed to The Times.
Accompanied by his attorney, Kevin Milner of Crown Point, Cortina stood before U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen and admitted to giving Snyder two checks totaling $12,000 in return for being put on the city's tow list.
Answering most questions with a "yes," "yes, sir" or "I understand," Cortina, owner of Kustom Auto Body, laid out the scenario that led to paying the bribe.
Under questioning by Milner, Cortina told the court he had known Snyder for several years and assisted in his campaign for mayor, including driving him around and attending fundraisers. Cortina had requested consideration from Snyder several times between November 2015 and December 2016 to be placed on the tow list.
Each time Snyder brushed him off and avoided giving Cortina an answer.
In his written statement to the court, Cortina stated he initially thought he was friends with Snyder, but after having to "foot the bill" for several dinners, he felt he was being taking advantage of. Cortina stated he continued being friendly with Snyder because he wanted to do business with the city.
It was only when Snyder told Cortina he needed $12,000 to help pay his legal bills, and Cortina delivered the money, that he was put on the tow list, according to testimony.
Cortina worked with Scott Jurgenson, owner of Sampson Towing, to secure the lucrative job. Unknown to Cortina, Jurgenson was working with the FBI investigating public corruption in municipal towing contracts at the time. Jurgenson agreed to front Cortina half of what Cortina referred to as "juice money" in undercover tape recordings.
Cortina "perceived it to be a bribe," Milner said, adding when Cortina had the two checks in hand, he called Snyder and told him it was "Christmas." He met with Snyder 15 minutes later at the offices of Snyder's mortgage company and handed over the checks.
In Assistant U.S. Attorney Phil Benson's explanation of evidence federal prosecutors had against Cortina in the bribery case, he said the checks were made out to Citizens for Snyder, Snyder's campaign fund, and the mayor's roundtable where, Benson said, "they'd eat lunch with Snyder once a month at a hot dog stand."
Benson said Snyder directed Cortina how to make the payment and once he received the two cashiers checks Jan. 27, 2016, Snyder crossed out "donation" on the memo line of the $10,000 check and replaced it with the notation "loan."
Within days of the exchange, Cortina and Jurgenson were informed by Snyder they were on the city's tow list, Benson said.
Van Bokkelen questioned Cortina extensively to assure his understanding of and competency to accept the plea deal.
Van Bokkelen also told Cortina he had to make sure no one was threatening him or offering him any other enticements outside the plea deal.
"Nobody's pushing me," Cortina said, adding he fully understood the ramifications of his actions.
The bribery charges carries a maximum term not to exceed 10 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 or a combination of the two. It also requires three years of supervised release.
Van Bokkelen said there could be variations made to the sentencing guidelines.