By Sofia Ojeda
5:47 p.m. EDT, June 6, 2011
Two Lackawanna County commissioners used their jobs as a “money grab,” according to federal prosecutors in opening statements Monday as the corruption trial for Robert Cordaro and A.J. Munchak began.
It only took a few hours to pick a jury to hear the high-profile case, then came opening statements Monday afternoon.
Current Lackawanna County Commissioner Munchak and former commissioner Cordaro are on trial for extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars.
After the judge instructed the jury Monday afternoon, it was right to opening statements.
The U.S. prosecutor was up first, saying both men used their positions as Lackawanna County commissioners to shake down business owners, take kickbacks, and use campaign money as their own personal piggy banks.
Cordaro walked into federal court with his attorney and family members by his side.
Munchak walked in with his defense team.
Both men are accused of extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from different contractors that did business for the county.
They are both facing dozens of charges that include extortion, money laundering, racketeering and tax evasion.
During opening statements, the prosecution said between 2004 and 2008, both men ran Lackawanna County by themselves, by binding the county to contracts and projects worth millions of dollars.
The companies gave payments and benefits to both men to keep these contracts.
Prosecutors said Coradaro and Munchak also never reported any of these benefits.
“We will prove the men flat out took bribes, shook down businesses for money and did not report cash donations to their campaigns,” said prosecutors.
Defense attorney Chris Powell said when Munchak was elected in 2003, it was at a very rough time for the county. The courthouse was in bad shape, county parks were closed and bills were unpaid.
The defense said Munchak put everything into the county and never pocketed one dime. “Munchak is an honorable man. He wouldn’t extort money from anyone. He’s just one big huggy bear,” Powell said.
Defense attorney Jerry Johnson said Cordaro pleaded not guilty to every count in the indictment because he is not guilty.
“And now we finally have an opportunity to explain ourselves, to answer to these charges and to take on those people who have come up with these stories,” Cordaro said.
The prosecution’s case “will crumble like a house of cards because it’s built on smoke and mirrors,” Johnson added. He also pointed out that more than 10 prosecution witnesses have immunity.
He asked the jury to listen to them carefully, because they may have reason to tell the government what it wants to hear.
“We’re here today because the government has wrongly accused A.J. Munchak and we’re going to prove he is innocent,” Powell added.
Everyone is due back in court Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. with the prosecution calling its first witness.
A.J. Munchak is expected to take the stand at some point in the trial. There is no word if Cordaro will do the same.