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Former Portage mayor’s recent court filing says case should have been heard by appeals court

If disgraced former Portage Mayor James Snyder is guilty of accepting a bribe, then so is just about everybody else.

So goes the argument by Snyder’s attorneys in their most recent filing, made Monday, as his case meanders its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and they argue that a federal appeals court should have agreed to meet as a panel to hear his request for an appeal.

In an order filed July 14, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago noted that “no judge in active service has requested a vote on the petition” that Snyder filed asking for a rehearing before the full court, and “all the judges on the original panel have voted to deny the petition for panel rehearing.”

The order goes on to note that “Circuit Judge Thomas L. Kirsch II did not participate in the consideration of this petition for rehearing en banc.” Early on in Snyder’s case, Kirsch was his defense attorney before being appointed as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District and later being appointed as an appellate judge.

Snyder’s attorneys, in their Feb. 5 filing, said the appellate court made the wrong call and should have agreed to the rehearing en banc.

“Section 666 (the federal bribery statute) does not suspend a Sword of Damocles over millions of citizens’ heads, whereby everyday gift-giving could be repackaged as a federal crime subject only to unknown conceptions of when gratitude turns into unlawful gratuities,” the filing states, before concluding, “The court of appeals’ judgment should be reversed.”

Whether the $13,000 Snyder received for supposed contract work from Great Lakes Peterbilt after the city hired the local firm for garbage trucks is a bribe or a gratuity is at the heart of Snyder’s case before the Supreme Court, as is a split in how appellate courts across the country have ruled on the matter in other cases.

The Supreme Court agreed in December to hear Snyder’s case after he submitted a writ of certiorari in August, thus delaying reporting to the Bureau of Prisons to serve out his 21-month sentence. Snyder’s case has dragged on for several years after two federal trials and two convictions, one on the bribery charge and another on defrauding the IRS through his personal business. A federal jury found Snyder, 45, a Republican, not guilty in a third case, a bribery charge involving a tow truck contract.

Snyder’s case has moved in fits and starts since he was first indicted in U.S. District Court in Hammond in November 2016 on a charge of corrupt solicitation involving a contract with Great Lakes Peterbilt for garbage trucks; interfering with the IRS, for hiding funds from the federal agency from his mortgage company; and receiving a bribe for a tow truck contract.

A federal jury found Snyder guilty on the charges involving the garbage truck contract and the IRS and acquitted him on the allegations involving the towing contract.

That didn’t end the case, however. Snyder went on to request and receive a second trial on the garbage truck charge and a jury convicted him a second time.

Snyder was first elected mayor in 2011 and was reelected in 2015.

The last year of his second term was cut short in February 2019 when a federal jury convicted him of taking $13,000 in exchange for contracts to sell five garbage trucks to the city, under the guise of providing consulting services in human resources and information technology for which there was no contract, and using a shell company to hide income from the IRS when he owed personal and business taxes from his private business.

He was acquitted on the charge involving the towing contracts, a charge that generated a guilty plea from co-defendant John Cortina.

Snyder asked for and received a new trial on the count involving the garbage trucks, and that trial, in March 2021, also resulted in a jury conviction.

Snyder filed another appeal in October 2021 in an attempt to have both of his convictions overturned and the court granted him bond pending that appeal. The appeals court rejected Snyder’s bid to have his convictions dismissed in a June 15 ruling.

alavalley@chicagotribune.com