HAMMOND — Twelve jurors will begin hearing testimony Tuesday to decide whether Portage Mayor James Snyder took two bribes and manipulated a scheme to evade paying federal taxes.
The 12, along with three alternates were chosen after nearly five hours of closed door questioning by both defense and prosecuting attorneys in Snyder's public corruption case which began Monday nearly 26 months after he was indicted on the three counts. There were 10 men and five women chosen.
The jury selection process was closed to the media and public with officials citing the 68-person jury pool filled the courtroom to its capacity and outsiders weren't allowed to possibly mingle with potential jurors inside U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen's court room.
The jury will, beginning Tuesday at 9 a.m., hear opening statements from both sides. Each side has been given an hour to lay out their case. Following arguments, presentation of evidence and the calling of witnesses in the estimated four week-long case will begin.
Snyder gained a small victory as his case began Monday morning before prospective jurors were brought into the room.
Van Bokkelen ruled a conversation between Snyder and his brother, Jon Snyder, will not be admitted into court.
The conversation happened two days after the indictment was handed down.
While Van Bokkelen stated he didn’t believe there was anything worthwhile in the conversation, he said it should not have happened.
Van Bokkelen said the demarcation line should have been when the indictment was issued. Prosecutors crossed that line when a report was made on that conversation.
“At the end of the day, it probably makes no difference, other than it was wrong,” Van Bokkelen said.
Prosecutors received a boost when the judge ruled in their favor that the defense team had no right, for the time being, to view the full personnel file of an FBI agent involved in the investigation.
Snyder's attorney Jackie Bennett of Indianapolis argued they requested the personnel file of FBI agent Eric Fields after they received word Fields may have stepped over the line in demanding privileged information from Jon Snyder's attorney.
Bennett said Jon Snyder's attorney Christopher Buckley, now a Lowell judge, would testify Fields "screamed at him" to turn over the information. Only later, Bennett said, former U.S. Attorney David Capp and Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson told Buckley they didn't need the information for the grand jury because "Fields made a mistake."
Bennett said they wanted to review the personnel file to see if Fields overstepped and was disciplined for his behavior, including being transferred from the Merrillville office.
"This dog won't hunt," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Koster told the judge, saying they have no right to see Fields' personnel file. Citing a 1951 law protecting such files, Koster said it could set a dangerous precedent.
Koster said Fields' record was reviewed by the FBI's assistant counsel; that Fields was never disciplined and had applied for and received a promotion to work at the FBI headquarters.
Koster said there is nothing in Fields' file that would help the defense.
Van Bokklen said the Snyder team's subpoena was over broad and premature. Will granting the motion to suppress, he added he could reconsider the right to re-raise the issue if it becomes relevant in Fields' testimony.
Snyder, a Republican in his second term as Portage's mayor, was indicted in November 2016 and charged with two counts of bribery and one count of tax evasion. He has been under investigation by the FBI for about five years.
John Cortina, 79, owner of Kustom Auto Body in Portage, pleaded guilty on Friday to paying Snyder a $12,000 bribe and has agreed to fully cooperate with federal prosecutors. He is expected at some point to testify against Snyder.
Also expected to testify is James Snyder's brother, Porter County Assessor Jon Snyder, who worked with the FBI as a confidential informant, secretly audio taping conversations with his brother and others. Jon Snyder pleaded guilty last year to a misdemeanor federal tax charge and is awaiting a February sentencing date.
Scott Jurgenson, owner of Sampson Towing, is also anticipated to testify during the trial. Jurgenson also worked as an undercover agent with the FBI during its investigation into corruption in government tow contracts in the Region.
Several other Portage officials and employees are also expected to take the stand.
Court documents have indicated there will be some 120,000 pages/pieces of evidence introduced during the trial along with some 20 undercover audio tapes.