BY DAVID SINGLETON (STAFF WRITER)
His turn on the witness stand took Commissioner Mike Washo back to the two years and seven months he spent playing second fiddle to Robert C. Cordaro and A.J. Munchak in the Lackawanna County commissioners office – with one key difference.
When Mr. Washo spoke up this time, his former majority colleagues could not shut him down.
After hours upon hours of numbing testimony about the intricacies of state ethics law requirements and campaign finance reporting, Mr. Washo’s 47-minute appearance on the stand finally brought a little drama to the William J. Nealon Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse.
Here was Mr. Munchak, now minority commissioner to the majority Mr. Washo and Corey D. O’Brien, looking around in exaggerated bewilderment as Mr. Washo talked about the physical layout of the commissioners offices on the sixth floor of the county Administration Building.
There was Mr. Cordaro, the former majority commissioner who became Mr. Washo’s chief nemesis when he occupied the minority seat, raising his arms as if to say, “What the … ?” as Mr. Washo testified about hiring practices under the Cordaro-Munchak administration, and adamantly shaking his head as Mr. Washo offered his definition of professional services.
And then there were the sometimes rapid-fire objections made by attorneys William C. Costopolous, who represents Mr. Cordaro, and Christopher T. Powell, who represents Mr. Munchak, to Mr. Washo’s testimony.
“He’s not even answering the question,” Mr. Costopolous complained to Senior U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo at one point. “He’s giving political rhetoric.”
‘Just a minor guy’
But observers also had to come away with the impression Mr. Washo was grateful to at last have the opportunity to unburden – in a public forum and under oath – about some of the things that seriously bugged him during those two years-plus he spent as minority commissioner:
– Under direct examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Lorna Graham, Mr. Washo left no doubt about his view of the county government hierarchy. “I think that Mr. Cordaro was running the county during this time,” he said.
– Discussing the atmosphere in the commissioners’ office when he was appointed to replace minority Commissioner Randy Castellani in 2005, Mr. Washo told the jury he had never encountered “a more confrontational work environment in my life.”
– Mr. Washo said he realized the power the commissioners had until he became one, adding, “The power is not matched by accountability.” That drew a sharp objection from Mr. Costopolous and led Judge Caputo to summon the attorneys to the bench for a sidebar.
– He talked about his objections to the way Mr. Cordaro and Mr. Munchak undertook a long list of projects, from the sale of the Montage Mountain ski resort to the rehabilitation of Courthouse Square to the awarding of a no-bid janitorial contract. About the latter, he said, “I thought it was something that should be bid. It was not a professional service.”
As he left the courthouse, Mr. Washo declined to speak specifically about the public corruption allegations against Mr. Cordaro and Mr. Munchak, saying there are still “days and days of testimony” to come and the jurors hearing the case are going to have to decide their fate.
“The fact of the matter is I had a responsibility to be here, and I discharged that responsibility,” he said. “I think it stands there for now. … My testimony was just my testimony. It’s what I knew. I’m just a minor guy in all this.”
Mr. Cordaro was emphatic about his view of Mr. Washo’s time on the stand when he stepped out of the courthouse a few minutes later.
“If there is any doubt there is a political component to this prosecution, it was erased by the nonsensical testimony that you heard today,” Mr. Cordaro said.
Mr. Munchak would not comment, but Mr. Powell said of Mr. Washo, “He’s a fine gentleman. He just has a political agenda he has to stick by.”
‘Hang in there’
Even the prosecution acknowledged that portions of Tuesday’s testimony before Mr. Washo’s appearance were, to put it mildly, less than engrossing.
“We only have one more year to go, so hang in there,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Brandler optimistically announced as county director of elections Marion Medalis waded through a seemingly never-ending series of Friends of Munchak and Cordaro campaign finance reports that flashed onto screens in the courtroom.
Yes, one year to go, but what Mr. Brandler did not say was that an almost equal number of individual candidate reports filed by Mr. Cordaro and Mr. Munchak were to follow.
Despite the dry testimony, the jurors seemed attentive, craning their necks to examine the documents as they came onto the screens in the jury box.
It was all too much for at least one courtroom spectator. As Thomas P. Durkin, the county’s chief financial officer who served as treasurer of the Friends of Munchak and Cordaro committee, took the stand early Tuesday afternoon, one man dosed at the back of the courtroom, letting loose at least one audible snore.
The afternoon session was delayed when Mr. Cordaro was late in returning from lunch.
With the jury seated and Judge Caputo on the bench, Mr. Costopolous had to ask the judge to hold up the proceedings until his client appeared. The former commissioner arrived about two minutes later.
“My apologies,” he told Judge Caputo.
Mr. Costopolous, who has a reputation for sartorial splendor, continued to live up to it Tuesday. He appeared in court in a slate blue suit, cream-colored vest, white shirt, blue tie and – yes – black cowboy boots.
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