Monday, September 26, 2016

09262016 - Portage Mayor James Snyder had checks issued for his attorney fees, related to FBI investigation - Without Board approval

On September 26, 2016 - without Board approval - Mayor Snyder directed the Portage Utility Services Board secretary to issue checks, totaling over $90,000 for his attorney fees associated with the FBI's investigation of him. 

On November 17, 2016, Mayor Snyder was federally indicted on charges related to the FBI's two year investigation:

Portage mayor's legal fees turned over to outside attorney
Joyce Russell, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2222
November 11, 2016
PORTAGE — Mayor James Snyder’s $93,000 in legal fees will be turned over to an outside, independent attorney for review and investigation.

Utility Services Board Vice Chairman Mark Oprisko said this week he had hired John Hughes of Hoeppner Wagner & Evans in Valparaiso to review Snyder’s legal fees associated with a more than 2-year-old federal investigation. However, Oprisko said after spending an hour and a half with Hughes on Thursday, Hughes decided it would not be in his law firm’s best interest to take on the issue, Oprisko said.

Oprisko said he would move forward, seeking another attorney for the job.

Oprisko, also president of the City Council, said after last month’s controversy he spoke with City Council and Utility Services Board members and felt this is the right way to go. Snyder chairs the board.

Snyder, who has been under investigation by the FBI, had two checks cut by the utility department on Sept. 26, totaling more than $93,000 to pay his two attorneys representing him during the investigation. The checks initially were sent to the firms without board approval. The money was returned to the utility department after the firms said they couldn’t collect payment from the utility department because it was not their client.

The request for reimbursement for the legal fees is legal under Indiana law, but only “if a grand jury fails to indict the officer or employees and the acts investigated by the grand jury were within the scope of official duties of the officer or employee.”

Snyder’s request for reimbursement would indicate the federal investigation is over.

Oprisko, who was on vacation and out of the country at the time, asked the matter be tabled upon further investigation.

Oprisko said he has no guarantee that the investigation is over and if the funds are reimbursed to Snyder and Snyder is indicted, the utility department will have lost the money.

He also said he’s uncertain if the entire investigation has to do with Snyder’s role as board chairman. The investigation began over Snyder using a utility department credit card to take a trip to Austria that he said was for economic development. However, it spread beyond to include the street department and purchasing of garbage trucks.

Snyder said before Wednesday’s Utility Board meeting that he had no intention of submitting the claims to the board a second time until the review was completed. Even then, he added, he may not submit the claims.

“This is the right, the fair thing to do,” said Oprisko about reviewing the claims. “I till have an obligation to anyone sitting on this board to find out what is correct and legal.”

Oprisko said he will share what information he receives with the board and council

EDITORIAL: Snyder skipped propriety in legal fees matter
The Times Editorial Board
Updated October 17, 2016
It’s the type of mistake, innocent or not, that paints an undesirable portrait of local government.

Portage Mayor James Snyder and other city officials owe their ratepayers an apology for putting the cart before the public discussion horse while attempting to pay his legal bills following an FBI probe of Snyder’s practices.

At issue are checks cut from the funds of the Portage Utility Service Board, of which Snyder is chairman, to pay for Snyder’s legal fees in the long-running federal probe.

On Sept. 26, Snyder directed the board’s secretary/treasurer to cut two checks totaling more than $93,000 to two law firms that represented him during the probe.

The mayor did so even though the payments weren’t discussed, much less voted upon in a public forum, by the Portage Utility Service Board.

In fact, the board didn’t vote to approve those payments until Oct. 12 — after the law firms already had returned the money, having determined they were improperly paid by a public utility rather than their actual client, Snyder.

Snyder seeking to have the board cover his legal expenses isn’t what’s wrong in this situation.

State law allows for a government body to cover such expenses if an official involved in a possible criminal probe isn’t indicted by a grand jury or if “the acts investigated by the grand jury were within the scope of official duties of the officer or employee.”

In short, if there’s proof the federal probe uncovered no wrongdoing by Snyder, his fees should be covered by the utility board under state law.

However, the public deserved an appropriate procedure to be followed before those checks were cut.

A discussion and vote in a public meeting should have occurred first, and that didn’t happen.

Snyder, and any public official, should realize the sacred confidence they must keep with voters regarding fiscal propriety. Northwest Indiana has seen too many cases of abuse over the years, and we’re frankly sick of flippant handling of public money.

Factor into that history that Snyder’s checks were cut because of a federal probe into his activities, and it’s not hard to see why a public discussion and board vote should have occurred prior to release of these payments.

Snyder is now doing the right thing.

He’s asking for the board to consider reimbursing him for legal expenses following a future public discussion and vote.

It’s unfortunate a course correction was necessary.

Portage mayor's request for attorney fees remains up in the air
Joyce Russell, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2222
NWI Times
PORTAGE — The Portage Utility Service Board did not decide whether to reimburse its chairman for his legal fees in regard to a long federal investigation.

The members never even discussed the matter during their monthly meeting Wednesday.

The board did approve claims that included two checks to Mayor James Snyder’s attorneys totaling over $93,000. However, that money has been returned to the utility.

Snyder, who chairs the utility board, didn’t answer many questions.

He said he intends to submit claims to get reimbursed for the legal fees, but wants board vice chairman Mark Oprisko to return and have a discussion before he submits any claims.

Oprisko, who is out of town, objected to the claims, saying earlier this week he wanted time to conduct research before approving anything. He wanted the issue tabled until he returned.

Last month Snyder submitted claims to pay the firms of Winston and Strawn of Chicago and Dogan and Dogan of Portage totaling just over $93,000. The checks were cut and distributed to the law firms before they were approved by the board. The firms said they could not accept the checks because they were from the utility and the utility is not their client. The money was returned to the utility this week.

State law allows Snyder to seek reimbursement of the legal fees “if the grand jury fails to indict the officer or employee and the acts investigated by the grand jury were within the scope of official duties of the officer or employee.”

Asked Wednesday if that means he has been cleared of any potential charges during the nearly three-year investigation, Snyder said he couldn’t comment.

“I can’t answer that either. We have several legal people looking at it,” Snyder said. “We are going to get through it and do the right thing.”

Snyder did say he approached the utility because the investigation started with a trip he took to Austria using the utility’s credit cards. The investigation expanded, however, with FBI agents delivering several subpoenas for various financial records, including the purchase of garbage trucks. The FBI interviewed dozens of city employees.

“As a board member, I don’t know enough about it,” said James Hazzard, adding he only learned of the situation Monday when he picked up the claims docket and saw the two claims to the two attorneys.

“I want to know the exact statute and how it reads,” Hazzard said, before making any decision.

Member Marci Kunstek said she trusts the board’s attorney “to walk us through the decision,” adding she would have no problem reimbursing Snyder’s legal fees if that was the recommendation.

Portage mayor asking city to pay his attorney fees
Joyce Russell, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2222  
NWI Times

PORTAGE — Mayor James Snyder has submitted two claims to the city’s Utility Services Board to pay more than $93,000 in attorney fees in defense of a 2-year-old federal investigation.

The request for reimbursement for the legal fees also could indicate that the investigation by the FBI is over.

Snyder has been under investigation by the FBI for more than two years. Agents have subpoenaed hundreds of records from city hall, the utility services department and the city’s street department as well as interviewed dozens of city employees.

In September 2014, agents visited the street department requesting information on the purchase of automated garbage trucks in 2012.

In July of that year, the agency visited the city’s Utility Services Department and requested documents about Snyder’s travel expenses for a city economic development trip to Europe.

FBI agents also requested copies of his campaign finance records and reports, and last year they requested meeting minutes from Portage FOP Lodge 145.

The Times received the latest information Monday after filing a Freedom of Information Act request on Oct. 3, asking for copies of checks written by the Utility Services Board between Sept. 20 and Sept. 30. Included in that information were checks made payable to the Chicago law firm of Winston and Strawn for $87,389 and to Portage law firm Dogan & Dogan for $6,118.

The checks, dated Sept. 26 were made out to the law firms and sent directly to their bank for automatic deposit, according to a statement from the city.

According to the statement, the law firms cannot take the checks directly from the utility department because the department is not their client, and will return the money. When the money is returned, the department will issue payment directly to Snyder. The statement said the payments were for “legal invoices pertaining to the Federal Investigation of James Snyder that started in his role as chairman of the Utility Service Board.”

Neither of the checks issued on Sept. 26 were approved by the Utility Services Board. Board attorney Katrina Spence and city Director of Administration Joe Calhoun said that was a mistake, but did not say who was responsible for sending the checks without board approval. They said the checks should not have been mailed to the law firms until the expenses had been reviewed by the Utility Services Board.

The Utility Services Board will meet Wednesday afternoon with Snyder’s claims on its agenda.

Wants second opinion
One member is not so sure he’s going to approve the claims.

Mark Oprisko, board member and City Council president, will be out of town for Wednesday’s meeting and will ask the board to table action on the claims until he returns and has a chance to do some research.

Oprisko said he wants to know how much of the investigation has to do with Snyder’s personal business.

“I want to see the bills. I want to get a second opinion. I want to try and contact the federal prosecutor and find out where the investigation is,” he said.

The board already approved payments to local attorney Kevin Milner for legal fees for Assistant Street Department Superintendent Randy Reeder and for Snyder’s administrative assistant Amanda Lakie. In January, the board approved claims of $4,125 for Lakie and $7,375 for Reeder. In September, a second claim for Reeder for $8,375 was approved.

Neither Spence nor Calhoun anticipate additional requests for reimbursements will be made to the department.

Only official duties covered
Spence said the reimbursement is legal under Indiana law. The code, 36-1-17-3(b), states that an officer or employee of a unit or municipal corporation may apply for reimbursement “if the grand jury fails to indict the officer or employee and the acts investigated by the grand jury were within the scope of official duties of the officer or employee.” In an email from Spence to Snyder on Sept. 26, Spence tells Snyder that he can present the bills to the utility department “since the Grand Jury specifically investigated your actions as the Chair of the USB ...”

Susan Gordon, of the Indiana State Board of Accounts, said while the law does allow for the reimbursement, it must be proven the fees covered only the part of the investigation pertaining to his professional duties. Gordon said it is likely to toss up a “red flag” when the department’s financial statements are audited by the state.

Gordon said paying a claim without board approval is not allowable unless specifically addressed by a city ordinance. Portage Ordinance 2-109 addresses bills that can be paid without board approval. Attorney fees are not included on the list.

Spence and Calhoun said they didn’t know if all of the legal fees cover the investigation of Snyder in his official capacity, or if it would cover any investigation into his personal business, a local mortgage company.

Spence said that is something the board will have to discuss.

The request for reimbursement may mean the end of the more than two-year investigation; the funds can only be paid “if the grand jury fails to indict,” according to the law.

“That is what we have been led to believe,” said Spence.

Snyder did not immediately return telephone, text or email messages.

Snyder submits $93K bill for legal fees to Portage
Michael Gonzalez
Anyone or any business that pays user fees for sewer or stormwater sewer service in Portage may also be on the hook for paying legal bills related to a federal investigation of Mayor James Snyder.

The seven-member Portage Utility Services Board, whose majority is made of mayoral appointees, is expected to consider reimbursing Snyder's $87,389.75 in legal expenses from Chicago law firm Winston and Strawn and $6,118.75 in expenses from Portage-based law firm Dogan and Dogan, as part of its claims, or bills that have been paid. Snyder serves as the board's chairman.

Boards often pile up bills in their claims sections and vote them up or down as part of consent agendas. Individual items rarely come up for discussion or a separate vote.

City Council President Mark Oprisko, who is the vice chair of the utilities board, said he encourages the board to table a vote on the reimbursement until members can get more information on Snyder's request.

"It's awful hard to get two bills that total more than $90,000 without having all the facts," said Oprisko, who is out of town and will not attend Wednesday's meeting. "I want to see what the bills were, dates, hours and I want to go a step further.

"Was there anything found that the mayor did that was illegal as far as the utility end or the city end? (Snyder) keeps saying there's nothing there, but I'd sure like to see some proof of that before the board cuts a check for more than $90,000."

Snyder could not be reached for comment Monday.

The board also will consider paying $8,375 in legal expenses for Randy Reeder, assistant superintendent of the streets department, and Amanda Lakie, the mayor's secretary, though the amount of her legal expenses were not in the claims list.

Director of Administration Joe Calhoun said both employees were called before grand juries for the investigation.

According to Calhoun, federal officials began looking into a trip Snyder took to Austria after an invitation from Fronius, an Austrian-based manufacturer of solar panel technology, whose U.S. headquarters is in Portage.

The company did not pay for the trip, Calhoun said.

Snyder used his utility board-issued credit card to take the trip and later asked political supporters who contributed to a political action committee to reimburse the utility board for expenses related to the trip.

"It was kind of an economic development-type trip that many government officials often take about implementing new things and bringing new jobs to the city," Calhoun said.

Calhoun said the trip caught the attention of federal investigators.

In 2013, federal officials began an investigation related to the Austria trip, Calhoun said, but that could not be verified by federal officials Monday, a federal holiday.

Snyder hired the law firms when the investigation began, Calhoun said.

The utilities board issued a statement Monday indicating state law allows the board and other governmental entities to pay for legal expenses of board officers related to work done for the board.

Because Snyder went to Austria to represent the utilities board, the board can pay for his legal expenses related to the investigation, Calhoun said.

Calhoun also said Snyder has been paying his legal bills for the three years of the investigation, and he had reason to believe the investigation concluded without an indictment.

"(Snyder) wanted to make sure he went through the process and waited until (the investigation) had reached this level of conclusion," Calhoun said. "Obviously, at this point, (Snyder) feels there's a level of conclusion, and thats why he submitted the bills at this point."

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