An attorney for former Portage Mayor James Snyder argued Wednesday that his convictions on federal bribery and tax charges should be vacated and he should be granted a third trial due to evidentiary issues and mischarging him under the federal bribery statute before a three-judge panel at the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
In October 2021, Snyder was sentenced to 21 months in prison and one year supervised release for soliciting bribes and obstruction, but the judge ruled that Snyder did not have to report to prison while his appeal was ongoing. Snyder was first indicted in 2016, on the same day former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich was indicted for receiving bribes as part of a towing scheme. While Buncich was sent to federal prison in 2018, Snyder has been convicted twice, shaken up his legal team and spent most of the past six years proclaiming his innocence.
Chicago attorney Andrea Gambino argued on Snyder’s behalf before Circuit Judges David Hamilton, Candace Jackson-Akiwumi and John Z. Lee. Gambino focused on three main issues: the screening process of Snyder’s communications was insufficient; prosecutors did not provide enough evidence that Snyder’s actions constituted a bribery scheme; and the District Court erred in failing to grant Snyder’s motion to acquit him on the bribery count.
Gambino alleged that the U.S. Attorney’s office in Northern Indiana erred in putting an nonlawyer in charge of determining what emails and phone calls could be entered into evidence and didn’t adequately set aside all attorney-client privilege communications.
“This issue means that Mr. Snyder’s case should not have gone to trial at all,” Gambino told the court. “The government interfered with attorney-client communications in several ways,” she said, arguing that the search warrant’s scope was too broad in terms of time period and content.
“It was a particularly important in this investigation because the relationship between Snyder and his attorney was specifically in preparation for litigation, and the government had reason to believe there would be communications between the two.”
Gambino also alleged that attorneys, who are not involved in the investigation or prosecution of the case, could still be biased during the screening process.
“In a very small office, like the office in Indiana, it’s very hard to imagine that (the Great Wall of China) is going to be effective,” she said.
The evidence was examined by several groups at the U.S. Department of Justice, including in Washington, as Judge Hamilton pointed out.
Debra R. Bonamici, a U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, countered that it’s not useful for the government to ignore attorney-client privilege claims.
“The court identified certain aspects of the implementation that resulted in the disclosure of documents that shouldn’t have been disclosed, albeit just a small number,” Bonamici said. “The government has a compelling interest to be as thorough as possible to maintain the integrity of the investigation.
“The district court expressly found none of actors in this case did anything untoward; none had any intent to breach the privilege at issue here.”
Prosecutors argued at trial that Snyder rigged a garbage truck bidding process so his preferred company — Great Lakes Peterbilt — would get the contract. Not long after it was awarded, Snyder got a job doing health insurance consulting from Great Lakes Peterbilt’s owners Stephen and Robert Buha, but no contracts were written and there was no documented proof work was done, prosecutors alleged.
“It’s our position that even if you draw inferences in favor of the government, you can’t get to a finding of a bribe or a gratuity without speculation,” Gambino said. “In order to get to corrupt intent, you have to speculate content of phone calls or meetings and those were few.”
When Gambino mentioned Snyder doing work for the Buhas, Hamilton responded “That’s the work that nobody could remember.”
Bonamici said the evidence supports that Snyder was properly convicted under the federal bribery statute.
“The defendant was properly convicted of that count, and the evidence was more than sufficient to establish his violation of that statue — and that is true whether or not we were to accept the defendant’s construction of the statute, which we disagree with entirely,” Bonamici said. “In this case… there is ample evidence to support the notion that the defendant had an advance agreement with the Buhas and that the payment that was made after the delivery of the trucks was a function or the product of that prior arrangement. That’s what the District Court found when it reviewed the evidence and denied the (Snyder’s) Rule 29 motion.”
Kim asked why the government viewed Snyder entering into an installment payment plan with the IRS as a benefit.
Bonamici detailed Snyder’s attempts to avoid paying $40,000 in personal taxes and $97,000 in payroll taxes while he was moving $110,000 from his business to his personal account, which didn’t go toward settling the debt but other purposes.
“Everything that he did was not an effort to repay the debt as soon as possible or whenever he could but rather to misrepresent to the IRS his ability to make payments,” she said. “He went to a lot of effort if he didn’t get anything for it.”
Alexandra Kukulka contributed to this report.