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Convicted former Portage mayor's sentencing postponed until September

With his wife, Deborah, at his side, former Portage Mayor James Snyder talks to reporters at the U.S. District Court in Hammond after he was found guilty Feb. 14 on two of three counts in his public corruption trial.

HAMMOND — Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys still are arguing about whether former Mayor James E. Snyder is guilty of public corruption nine months after a jury convicted him of two felony counts.

Allegations of prosecutorial misconduct most concerned U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen, who ordered Snyder and lawyers on both sides of the dispute into his courtroom Friday afternoon for their final words on the matter.

Dozens of Snyder’s supporters were in the courtroom. Snyder smiled through most of the hearing, even when he was accused of lying repeatedly to government investigators.

The judge heard three hours or argument and counterargument without signaling who’s right. He has promised to issue his verdict as early as Dec. 17, when the judge stated he intends to announce Snyder’s sentence.

Snyder, a Republican businessman, served as mayor of Portage, the third-largest city in Northwest Indiana, from 2011 until his conviction and removal from office on two felony counts of bribery and tax evasion Feb. 14 following a 19-day trial.

Snyder’s legal team, which includes Indianapolis attorney Jackie Bennett, argued Friday and for months that the verdicts should be overturned on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct and insufficient evidence to support any conviction.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Philip Benson and Jill Koster rehashed the evidence and their argument that Snyder’s guilt was overwhelming and nothing in their conduct of the case warrants a new trial or his acquittal.

The judge expressed the most doubt and concern he has about whether prosecutors improperly silenced two crucial witnesses, Steve and Bob Buha, the former owners of a Portage trucking sale firm, who paid Snyder $13,000.

Prosecutors said the money was a bribe Snyder demanded in return for steering $1.125 million in city business to the benefit of the brothers.

Defense attorneys argue the money was legitimate pay Snyder earned as a consultant, advising the brothers on matters of how their business could save money on employee health insurance and information technology.

Snyder didn’t take the witness stand in his own defense.

Nor did the Buhas. They refused to testify after Koster warned they had no immunity from self-incrimination.

Federal prosecutors gave the Buhas immunity three years earlier in the hope they would give testimony to a federal grand jury bolstering the case against Snyder.

Koster said the Buhas have contradictory stories, at one time claiming Snyder was a legitimate consultant and later saying they felt they had to pay the mayor’s demand for money.

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Koster informed the Buhas’ attorney she wouldn’t call them as government witnesses and warned they would not have immunity if they testified as defense witnesses.

Without immunity, the brothers took the Fifth and wouldn’t testify at all.

Bennett said the Buhas would have denied bribing the mayor. “All of the evidence of his innocence never reached the jury," Bennett said. "The government blocked it, and (Koster) abused her immunization authority.”

Koster said it would have been unethical for her to let the Buhas testify under immunity when she thought they would lie.

The judge took issue with Koster on whether withdrawing the brothers’ immunity was correct in a heated exchange with her. At one point the judge apologized for rolling his eyes in disbelief at Koster’s arguments.

Snyder’s defense team argued prosecutors fooled jurors into believing the former mayor guilty based on arguments and “gut feelings” that didn’t add up to proof of guilt.

Benson responded Friday that the defense’s message was, “The government didn’t know what it was doing, and the jury didn’t know what it was doing. Only (the defense) knew.”

He said the government presented documentary evidence and testimony Snyder accepted a $13,000 bribe in 2014 in return for steering a $1.125 million garbage collection contract to the Buhas' Great Lakes Peterbilt firm.

They said Snyder actively sought to award those contracts to Great Lakes Peterbilt, a truck sales firm in Portage, by rigging the specifications for garbage trucks the city was buying to give Great Lakes an unfair advantage.

Prosecutors said Great Lakes gave Snyder $13,000 within weeks of Great Lakes winning the contracts in the form of a check made out to SRC Consulting, which prosecutors said was a non-existent company. They said the money eventually found its way to Snyder’s personal bank account.

The government also argued and presented evidence Snyder obstructed the Internal Revenue Service’s efforts to collect unpaid business and personal taxes he owed by hiding his taxable income.

Defense lawyers argued there was no evidence Snyder was knowledgeable about tax matters and intended to defraud the Internal Revenue Service. They said the IRS eventually collected all overdue taxes.

Benson said Snyder is still guilty of falsely underreporting his income from private business sources and delaying tax collections by more than six years.

Although jurors convicted Snyder on two felony counts, they acquitted Snyder of another bribery count alleging he steered contracts to towing firms seeking city business.

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