Former head of Ill. prisons sentenced to 2 years

CHICAGO – Fighting back tears and apologizing to his teenage daughters, the former head of the Illinois prison system was sentenced to two years in federal prison Wednesday for taking payoffs from lobbyists.

“What I did was absolutely wrong,” said Donald Snyder, who admitted pocketing $50,000 from lobbyists when he was director of the Illinois Department of Corrections.

He said he hoped his conviction on the charges would not bias employers against his daughters when they grow up and look for jobs. “I’m sorry, girls,” he said, turning to the bench where they were sitting.

As he tried to finish his statement, his face turned dark red, he grimaced and was unable to speak.

Judge James B. Zagel chastised Snyder, who pleaded guilty, volunteered to be a federal witness, secretly recorded corrupt conversations and testified at the trial of one of the lobbyists.

“I didn’t believe much of your testimony and I didn’t believe much of your testimony because of your claimed lack of memory,” Zagel told him.

He said Snyder diminished the stature of government officials by setting a terrible example and making people doubt their integrity.

“You hear over and over against that all government officials are corrupt,” said Zagel, a one-time Illinois law enforcement director.

Zagel brushed aside letters from Snyder’s neighbors in downstate Pittsfield, vouching for him as someone well liked in the community.

“You should have stayed in Pittsfield,” Zagel said.

Snyder admitted that he took $30,000 from Larry Sims, a lobbyist for two vendors. He said he pocketed up to $20,000 from two other lobbyists, former Cook County undersheriff John Robinson and Michael J. Mahoney.

Sims and Robinson have pleaded guilty. Mahoney was acquitted in a bench trial before Zagel who said he didn’t believe Snyder’s testimony.

The case drew the spotlight not only because of Snyder’s position but because Mahoney had lobbied the prison system while executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison reform organization.

At his trial, Mahoney admitted what he had done but argued that whatever the ethical lapses, he simply had not done anything illegal.

Zagel agreed, though he said the defense was “inherently unattractive.”

Springfield attorney Michael Metnick requested a 16-month sentence for Snyder. Federal prosecutors led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Levin sought to reward Snyder for cooperating by urging Zagel to impose 23 to 30 months, a fraction of the sentencing range under federal guidelines.

Besides sentencing Snyder to two years in prison, Zagel ordered him to forfeit $50,000, the amount of the payoffs he pocketed, and perform 300 hours of community service at a rate of 20 hours a week.

Metnick urged Zagel to consider the good job Snyder did in improving the state’s prison system, reducing the amount of gang violence.

But Levin said that much of Snyder’s tenure as corrections director apart from the payoffs his took was marked by “waste, mismanagement, cronyism and abuse of office.”

He ripped into “the lavish wining and dining he received at the expense of IDOC vendors.”