By Joe McDonald (Staff Writer)
The official veil of secrecy cloaking the identities of eight companies at the heart of the public corruption case against former Commissioner Robert C. Cordaro and Commissioner A.J. Munchak was lifted Monday as the long-awaited trial got under way in a federal courtroom.
Lorna Graham, the assistant U.S. attorney who is the lead prosecutor on the case, quickly read off the company names in an overview of the alleged schemes the two former majority commissioners ran in a “money grab” that involved bribes paid by some companies that wanted work, and others that were “shaken down.”
Without giving a number, Ms. Graham told the jury immunity had been granted to some witnesses, who will “not be prosecuted, provided they tell the truth.” Jerry Johnson, a former prosecutor from Pittsburgh who is co-counsel in the defense of Mr. Cordaro, told the jury to be skeptical of the witnesses who received immunity, claiming they “will say anything to save themselves.”
“Ask yourselves if prosecutors gave away the farm,” Mr. Johnson said, leaning on the rail of the jury box. He suggested those witnesses told the government “what they think they (prosecutors) wanted to hear.”
“There are some serious issues in this case when these people testify,” Mr. Johnson said.
Prosecutors have lined up 36 witnesses, and Mr. Johnson said more than 10 of them have immunity. The names of the 36 witnesses and those with immunity were not revealed by the prosecution Monday.
“This is not going to be a picnic for her,” Mr. Johnson said, referring to Ms. Graham.
The names of many of the key players in the prosecution’s case were revealed not by Ms. Graham but by Christopher T. Powell, the lead lawyer representing Mr. Munchak, during the jury-selection process earlier in the day.
Mr. Powell asked the potential jurors if they knew Michael Pasonick, a principal of a Wilkes-Barre engineering firm that is identified as “Company #1” in the indictment against Mr. Cordaro and Mr. Munchak. Mr. Pasonick allegedly gave $5,000 to Mr. Cordaro in connection with contracts at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport.
Continuing down the list, Mr. Powell asked members of the jury pool if they knew Ken Acker and P.J. McLaine, whose company, Acker Associates, is referred to as “Company #2” in the indictment. Mr. Cordaro allegedly received more than $360,000 from Mr. McLaine through an intermediary identified as Al Hughes, a West Scranton funeral director.
Mr. Powell also asked if any of the prospective jurors knew Mr. Hughes – the man prosecutors said passed $10,000 a month to Mr. Cordaro.
Ms. Graham told the jury that Acker Associates, which had 30 percent of its business tied up in county contracts, had supported the Democrats, not Mr. Cordaro and Mr. Munchak, the Republican candidates, in the 2003 elections. Losing those county contracts would have left Acker “devastated,” Ms. Graham said.
There were three occasions when Mr. Hughes wrote a check to Mr. Cordaro for the monthly payments. Ms. Graham said Mr. Cordaro deposited them into his real estate account, which she said is the basis of the three money laundering counts against Mr. Cordaro.
Mr. Powell asked the jury the same question about three principals of Highland Associates, a Clarks Summit architectural firm: Don Kalina, Dominic Provini and Kevin Smith. Mr. Munchak allegedly received two $30,000 payments from Mr. Kalina, and Mr. Cordaro allegedly received $30,000.
Ms. Graham told the jury the payments were made because “they were afraid.”
Mr. Powell, in a foreshadowing of the defense’s case, said Mr. Kalina received two paychecks, “one he shared with his family, and another paycheck he had for other affairs, some of which are called girlfriends.”
Mr. Powell also asked the jury pool if anyone knew Don Marion, the owner of Marion Maintenance, the company prosecutors claim paid $1,000 in exchange for an $8,000 contract to clean the courthouse. And, if potential jurors knew Al Magnotta, a principal of CECO Associates, an engineering firm in Scranton, who made a $500 political contribution that Mr. Cordaro did not report, and Joseph Ferrario, a principal of Henningan Ferrario Insurance, involving $4,000 Mr. Cordaro received.
Mr. Powell did not mention Alicon, the environmental cleanup company that Ms. Graham said “used” Charles “Chuckie” Costanzo to deliver $20,000 to Mr. Cordaro. Alicon is the company that received a no-bid contract to remove tons of pigeon dung from the Lackawanna County Courthouse.
Senior U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo issued a court order Friday to have Mr. Costanzo moved from the Schuylkill federal prison in Minersville to the federal courthouse in Scranton “sometime” on Friday for the Cordaro/Munchak trial.
Mr. Costanzo is serving a federal prison sentence for stealing $650,000 from the county’s worker’s compensation fund, a post he was appointed to by Mr. Cordaro.
Testimony resumes this morning.
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