Bribery Case Touches SCOTUS In A Tender Spot


As a former mayor of Portage, Indiana, James Snyder will forever remain known for three things:

First, steering $1.1 million in city business to Great Lakes Peterbilt for the purchase of five garbage trucks in 2013.

Second, receiving a $13,000 “consulting fee” from Great Lakes Peterbilt in 2014.

Third, getting the Supreme Court to pretend the “consulting fee” wasn’t a bribe.

The extent of Snyder’s “consulting” appears to have been showing up at Great Lakes Peterbilt and telling its owners “I need money.” Dealership employees denied any “consulting” ever took place, nor could Snyder produce any contracts, invoices, or work product to back his “consulting” claim when federal investigators started sniffing around. The dealership’s controller testified that the money was a reward for “an inside track.” Snyder stood convicted of violating 18 U.S. Code §666 — “theft or bribery concerning programs receiving Federal funds.”

On June 26, the US Supreme Court reversed Snyder’s conviction.

In a bizarre majority opinion authored by associate justice Brett Kavanaugh, the court held that payment for “consulting” that never happened wasn’t a “bribe” in violation of §666, but a mere “gratuity” not covered by said statute.

Let’s have a look at that statute. It applies to:

“Whoever … being an agent of an organization, or of a State, local, or Indian tribal government, or any agency thereof …. corruptly solicits or demands for the benefit of any person, or accepts or agrees to accept, anything of value from any person, intending to be influenced or rewarded in connection with any business, transaction, or series of transactions of such organization, government, or agency involving any thing of value of $5,000 or more.”

Snyder secured $1.1 million in business for Great Lakes Peterbilt.

Then Snyder “solicited” a “reward” and tried to cover it up with false “consulting fee” claims.

Seems like an airtight case … but the majority opinion uses worries about the absence of a set of bright lines to distinguish “innocuous” or “obviously benign” gratuities from “criminal” gratuities  to justify overturning Snyder’s conviction.

Writing in dissent, associate justice Ketanji Brown Jackson notes that “§666 was not designed to apply to teachers accepting fruit baskets, soccer coaches getting gift cards, or newspaper delivery  guys who get a tip at Christmas. … We know this because, beyond requiring acceptance of a reward, §666 weaves together multiple other elements (that the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt), which collectively do the nuanced work of sifting illegal gratuities from inoffensive ones.”

Why the perverse majority ruling? Your guess is as good as mine, but my guess is:

After getting caught accepting millions of dollars worth of bribes … er, “gratuities” … and “forgetting” to disclose them, certain among the justices would like to get the most lenient possible precedents in place versus their own potential future comeuppance.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter:@thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.