HAMMOND — Portage Mayor James Snyder is either a manipulative liar or a young family man caught up in a government conspiracy to bring him down, jurors were told Tuesday.
The different portraits of Snyder were presented as both the prosecution and defense presented their closing arguments in Snyder's public corruption case.
Who Snyder is and whether he accepted two bribes for personal gain and schemed to prevent paying taxes is now in the jury's hands. The 17th day of the trial ended Tuesday just after 5:30 p.m. with jurors telling the judge they wanted to begin their deliberations at 9 a.m. on Wednesday.
"We are here because James Snyder does not believe rules apply to him," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Koster told the jury and a packed courtroom primarily filled with Snyder family members and supporters.
Koster walked the jury through the three charges and the government's evidence against him in her nearly two-hour closing argument.
Snyder is charged with obstructing the IRS from collecting some $97,000 in back payroll taxes from his business, First Financial Trust Mortgage, and some $30,000 in personal income tax.
He also allegedly took a $12,000 bribe from former co-defendant John Cortina and Scott Jurgensen, former Merrillville police officer and owner of Samson Towing to put the duo on the city's tow list. Jurgensen was an undercover agent for the FBI gathering evidence against Snyder on the charge.
Cortina pleaded guilty last month to paying Snyder the bribe. He pleaded the Fifth Amendment and did not testify. Cortina is set to be sentenced in April.
The third charge alleges Snyder took a $13,000 bribe from Steve and Bob Buha, former owners of Great Lakes Peterbilt, a truck dealership in Portage, in exchange for steering $1.2 million in garbage truck bids their way.
On the tax charge, Koster said Snyder acted purposely to obstruct the IRS from collecting the back taxes by lying on forms and hiding income by creating a shell company, SRC Properties LLC. Koster said Snyder diverted money to SRC so that the IRS could not levy income to pay the tax debt and then lied on forms about the existence of SRC.
"It was a piggy bank out of which James Snyder lived a more comfortable lifestyle," Koster said.
Defense attorney Neal Brackett countered the charge, saying Snyder got into the back tax situation before becoming mayor because of the economy's downturn and a collapse of the real estate market.
Brackett said Snyder, married with four children, collected a "modest income" as mayor and could not keep up with his debts. Brackett further told jurors that Snyder hid nothing and that the IRS did not do a thorough investigation.
Instead, he said, they put up a front of "smoke and mirrors" to make his client look guilty.
As for the bribery charge involving the garbage trucks, Koster said Snyder lied about the purpose of the $13,000 given to him by the Buhas, saying it was for consulting, from health care to information technology, telephones, payroll and tax issues the Buhas were facing with their failing company.
"The problem with lying is you have to remember the lies that you told. James Snyder told a lot of them," Koster said, adding Randy Reeder, the assistant street department superintendent put in charge of purchasing garbage trucks as the city moved to automated trash collection, was nothing more than a "yes man" for Snyder.
Reeder recanted incriminating testimony he gave against Snyder in grand jury testimony, in which he said he felt like Snyder's pawn and that Snyder had directed him to make sure Great Lakes Peterbilt received the contracts.
"You just don't get to retract" statements, Koster said, telling the jury they can consider what Reeder said during his grand jury testimony.
Defense attorney Jackie Bennett said the charges were based on the word of former street superintendent Steve Charnetzky and were "chock full of lies."
Those lies, Bennett said, continued a federal investigation in which they "found holes in every aspect of the case."
"This man has not been treated fairly by his government," Bennett said.
As for the tow-for-pay charge, Koster said, while Snyder said he had no involvement, he directed the removal of one company to put Cortina and Jurgensen on Portage's list and was smart enough to wait several months between receiving the bribe and putting them on the list in an effort to avoid an appearance of quid pro quo.
"If it's this for that, it's a bribe in this context, even if it is a campaign contribution," Koster said, countering Snyder's claim that Cortina gave him a $2,000 campaign contribution and a $10,000 loan through his campaign committee to pay attorney fees.
Koster also defended Snyder's brother, Porter County Assessor Jon Snyder, for standing up and becoming an informant for the FBI.
"No one forced him to cooperate," she said, adding the defense has painted him as a "horrible brother" and ungrateful.
"Jon Snyder is the stronger member of the family. He takes responsibility for his actions," Koster said.
Bennett attempted to discredit Jurgensen and Cortina, saying Jurgensen is guilty of the actions, paying money to politicians to be on municipal tow lists. He also said Jurgensen received $140,000 from the federal government over recent years to cooperate in several investigations.
"He paid lots of people lots of money over the years," said Bennett, adding, "Cortina was the perfect foil for Scott Jurgensen to target Mayor Snyder."
Bennett also criticized the federal investigation for not interviewing some potential witnesses.
"I ask you to wonder about why those interviews didn't get done. Mayor Snyder has his life and liberty at stake," Bennett said.