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Portage Tow Truck Company Owner Pleads Guilty To Bribing Mayor James Snyder

CHICAGO (CBS/AP) -- A Portage tow truck company owner has pleaded guilty to paying $12,000 in bribes to Mayor James Snyder, who faces trial next week on corruption charges.

John Cortina, 79, pleaded guilty Friday to one count of federal program bribery. An indictment in November 2016 accused Cortina of giving Snyder two checks -- for $10,000 and $2,000 -- in exchange for the city granting a towing contract to his company, Kustom Auto Body, and another towing company owned by a person who was cooperating with a federal investigation of Snyder.

Cortina's guilty plea comes three days before jury selection is set to begin for Snyder's trial on corruption charges. In addition to allegedly accepting the $12,000 bribe for the towing contracts, Snyder also is accused of accepting $13,000 for other city contracts or projects from 2013 to 2014. He also faces a charge of obstructing tax laws for impeding the government's collection of personal taxes he owed and payroll taxes owed by his mortgage business, First Financial Trust Mortgage LLC.

james snyder
Portage Mayor James Snyder (Source: City of Portage)

According to published reports, Snyder has denied taking any bribes, and said the $12,000 he received from Cortina was a loan.

However, Cortina stated in a plea agreement that the payments were a bribe.

"At no time did Snyder and I discuss this $12,000 being a loan. The word "loan" with the initials "JS" written on the $10,000 check were not written by me. I directed the teller to type the word "donation" on the memo line of the check and that is what was written on the memo line when I handed it to Snyder," the plea agreement states.

On the same day Snyder and Cortina were charged in 2016, prosecutors also announced a separate indictment against then-Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, and several other public officials in northwest Indiana. Prosecutors alleged Buncich and his chief deputy, Timothy Downs, schemed to award towing contracts to CSA Towing in Lake Station, in exchange for more than $32,000 in bribes.

Buncich was convicted on five counts of wire fraud and one count of bribery in 2017, and later sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was removed as sheriff immediately after his conviction.

However, federal prosecutors agreed in December that Buncich should be re-sentenced, admitting there was insufficient evidence to convict him on three counts of wire fraud.

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