HAMMOND — The government is prepared to grant immunity to businessmen Robert and Stephen Buha to explain why they paid former Portage Mayor James Snyder $13,000 six years ago.
The deal was outlined in papers a federal prosecutor filed recently in court.
Prosecutors say the $13,000 payment was an illicit bribe, a reward the Buhas gave the mayor for greasing city approval of a $1.125 million deal for the Buhas to sell garbage trucks to Portage.
And federal prosecutors convinced a jury that bribery was committed based on circumstantial evidence rather than direct evidence from the Buhas.
Federal prosecutors said they didn’t call the Buhas to testify because they have given conflicting and implausible explanations for the payment.
Snyder’s defense lawyers argued the Buhas could have exonerated the former mayor if they had testified, but federal prosecutors intimidated the Buhas into silence — they exercised their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and refused to testify under oath on Snyder’s behalf.
The Buhas' silence so troubled U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen, who presided over last year’s trial, he overturned Snyder’s guilty verdict on the bribery count and ordered a new jury to hear that evidence over again.
However, U.S. District Court Judge Theresa L. Springmann, the new judge in the case, must first decide whether she will grant the government a second chance to convict Snyder.
Snyder’s lawyers are not arguing a second trial would violate the prohibition against double jeopardy, the constitutional protection against anyone being charged and tried twice with the same crime.
Prosecutors argued in a memorandum to the court, made public last weekend, that Snyder must stand trial again because double jeopardy doesn’t apply in this convoluted tangle of charges and countercharges that began when a federal grand jury indicted Snyder Nov. 17, 2016.
Prosecutors alleged Snyder twice solicited bribes, as Portage mayor, to steer city business to private vendors, once to towing firms working with the police department and a second time to a dealership for the sale of trucks for city garbage collection.
They also alleged Snyder evaded federal taxes owed by Snyder’s private mortgage contract business.
These charges were tried in early 2019.
A jury found Snyder innocent of bribery over towing and guilty of bribery involving city garbage truck purchases and tax obstruction.
Snyder is expected to appeal his tax conviction, but the garbage truck bribery count is still in play at the jury trial level.
Snyder’s lawyers say the prosecutors’ animosity toward the Buhas was so threatening the brothers refused to testify on Snyder’s behalf to avoid being charged with crimes themselves.
But if a second trial is held, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill R. Koster, stated to the judge in her memo, “the government is prepared to move ... for ... immunity covering the Buhas’ testimony at trial as witnesses for the defense ... on the ground that to do so now appears necessary to a successful prosecution of Snyder.”