BY BORYS KRAWCZENIUK (STAFF WRITER)
Defense lawyers for Lackawanna County Commissioner A.J. Munchak and former Commissioner Robert C. Cordaro portrayed them as rescuers of a county government facing financial and physical ruin and guilty of nothing but good government as their federal corruption trial kicked off Monday.
A prosecutor saw the two men’s best work differently, arguing they deprived taxpayers of an honest day’s work and lined their own pockets.
So began what promises to be one of the most sensational trials in Lackawanna County’s 133-year history as prosecutors try to prove the 39-count indictment against Mr. Cordaro, 50, of Dunmore, and the 25-count indictment against Mr. Munchak, 64, of Scranton.
“I’m telling you that A.J. Munchak never pocketed a dime,” said attorney Christopher T. Powell, Mr. Munchak’s lawyer, in his opening statement to the nine-man, six-woman jury, including alternates.
Jerry Johnson, a former U.S. attorney serving as one of Mr. Cordaro’s lawyers, predicted the prosecution’s case would “crumble like a house of cards because it’s built on smoke and mirrors.”
“Bob Cordaro has pleaded not guilty to every count in the indictment because he is not guilty,” Mr. Johnson said.
Assistant U.S. attorney Lorna Graham outlined a case that featured the county’s former Republican majority commissioners, Mr. Cordaro and Mr. Munchak, having “absolute authority” to spend and borrow millions of dollars, but using the authority in “a money grab” that yielded them tens of thousands of dollars in “bribes and kickbacks.” They “shook down” business owners seeking county contracts and used their campaign committee as “a piggy bank,” she said.
“They acted together to do it,” Ms. Graham said.
Mr. Cordaro and Mr. Munchak are charged with honest-services mail fraud and mail fraud, conspiracy to commit honest-services mail fraud and mail fraud, conspiracy, theft or bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, conspiracy to commit extortion under color of right, extortion under color of right and racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, filing false tax returns and tax evasion.
Mr. Cordaro also is charged with money laundering, conspiracy to commit money laundering, engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity and conspiracy to defraud the United States.
There were tantalizing hints of what is to come, with a scheduled 36 government witnesses and an unknown number of defense witnesses, including Mr. Munchak, scheduled to testify.
Ms. Graham said Mr. Cordaro, a lawyer, spent far more in four years than he earned as a commissioner and a lawyer, spending $23,000 in cash for a new Chrysler and $56,000 in cash for a GMC Yukon. Mr. Munchak, she said, lost extensively at gambling.
She said Don Kalina, a partner at Highland Associates of Clarks Summit, an architectural design firm, twice handed Mr. Munchak $30,000 in cash and later gave Mr. Cordaro the same amount.
She said P.J. McLaine, the former vice president of now-defunct Acker Associates of Moscow, actually put a go-between for bribes, West Scranton funeral director Al Hughes, on Acker’s payroll to make $10,000-a-month payments to Mr. Cordaro. At tax time, he gave Mr. Hughes more money to pay taxes on the bribe money.
Mr. Powell, who said Mr. Munchak gambles and always reports his winnings on tax returns and required ethics statements, dropped his own hints.
He said Mr. Kalina kept the money he and two partners pooled for alleged bribes and gave it to his family or pocketed it to “hide his private affairs.”
He said the prosecution will be unable to produce a trail of where the alleged bribes and kickbacks were spent. “They can’t show you the money,” he said.
He said charges related to election campaign finance reports that lacked disclosure of some payments – which prosecutors portrayed as bribes – were the failures of a campaign accountant trusted to fill them out properly.
Mr. Johnson largely avoided referring to specifics of Mr. Cordaro’s defense, except to question what he painted as a liberal use of immunity from prosecution used by prosecutors to get witnesses to testify against Mr. Cordaro and Mr. Munchak.
“You’re going to have to decide whether the people who got immunity are telling the truth” or just what they think prosecutors want to hear, Mr. Johnson said.
Mostly, he concentrated on building up Mr. Cordaro as a father of five who grew up in a working-class family, became an Academic All-America in football in college, successful lawyer and businessman who entered politics and helped “rescue Lackawanna County.”
Mr. Johnson said Mr. Cordaro negotiated the deal that sold off the Montage Ski Resort, saving the county $1.5 million and producing a summertime water park; attracted the New York Yankees’ Triple-A minor league baseball team; and helped complete the extensive renovation of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport.
Mr. Powell said Mr. Munchak and Mr. Cordaro overcame a 20-year Democratic majority in the commissioners office to win election as the new majority, then found a county in real trouble. Bills left unpaid, audits unfinished, parks closed, a mismanaged prison run by the state, “a courthouse falling apart” and lacking proper handicapped access, ceilings dropping from water leaks so bad jurors had to cover their heads in hallways, a 911 center in a storefront and 20 tons of pigeon dung in the courthouse attic, he said.
“They had to act quickly” and had to spend millions of dollars, with Mr. Munchak overseeing the construction of the new 911 center and management of the county nursing home and Mr. Cordaro other entities.
“They trusted each other,” he said, but they were also different.
Mr. Munchak grew up in a neighborhood that flooded the year before his father died, but was taught to “help people,” donating almost 180 pints of blood during his life.
Borrowing the commissioner’s description of himself, Mr. Powell said Mr. Munchak was “just a big huggy bear.”
Ms. Graham had a darker view of both defendants, saying taxpayers had a right to honest services by the commissioners and got something quite different.
“At the end of the day, this case is about two commissioners … who used their positions to enrich themselves,” she said.
Contact the writer: bkrawczeniuk @timesshamrock.com