BY BORYS KRAWCZENIUK (STAFF WRITER)
Defense lawyers portrayed Lackawanna County Commissioner A.J. Munchak and former Commissioner Robert C. Cordaro as victims of an overaggressive “smoke and mirrors” prosecution, but federal prosecutors said the defense “smokescreen” excused a criminal enterprise that cheated taxpayers out of an honest performance.
The two sides wrapped up their cases Monday with closing statements as the two-week-old trial headed toward its conclusion: the determination of whether Mr. Munchak and Mr. Cordaro are guilty of the crimes in their federal indictment.
Senior U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo spent more than three hours instructing jurors on the fine points of applicable federal laws before sending them home. The judge is expected to give more instructions today before allowing the jury to deliberate the fate of Mr. Cordaro, 50, of Dunmore, and Mr. Munchak, 64, of Scranton.
In her closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lorna Graham reserved her harshest criticism for Mr. Cordaro, whom she called a “self-serving, arrogant and controlling” witness who regularly ignored the judge’s orders to answer the questions asked.
“Everybody’s lying but him,” Ms. Graham told the jury. “He’s trying to distract you from the truth. Don’t let him.”
But Mr. Cordaro’s defense attorney, William C. Costopoulos, said prosecutors were out to get Mr. Cordaro and allowed themselves to be “scammed by (witnesses) Al Hughes and Don Kalina,” whose deceptions forced prosecutors to file dozens of charges, “hoping something will stick.”
“That is a very bitter pill for the government to swallow,” Mr. Costopoulos said.
The closing statements summarized nine days of trial testimony featuring dozens of defense and prosecution witnesses and hundreds of government and defense documents.
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, 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.
In all, Mr. Cordaro faces 39 counts, Mr. Munchak, 25.
As in the defense opening, Mr. Costopoulos highlighted the accomplishments of the Munchak-Cordaro administration between 2004 and 2008: a new 911 center, the arrival of the New York Yankees Triple-A baseball team and renovations at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport and the courthouse, which jurors see daily when they leave for home.
“They did that,” he said.
He pointed to character witnesses who attested to Mr. Cordaro’s integrity, honesty and truthfulness and compared them to the prosecution’s “corrupt sources” who “cut deals” and supported a case overloaded with criminal charges.
“It’s one of the lowest forms of trial strategy to do that,” Mr. Costopoulos told the jury. “You don’t do that if you have a good case.”
One by one, he raised questions about witness testimony. He called Mr. Hughes – who testified to funneling $379,000 to Mr. Cordaro – “a degenerate gambler” and “a consummate scam artist.” He said Dan Marion, owner of Marion Maintenance, which won a courthouse cleaning contract, gave $1,000 to Charles A. “Chuckie” Costanzo, Mr. Cordaro’s boyhood friend, not to Mr. Cordaro. Jerry Ferrario gave $4,000 in cash contributions to Mr. Cordaro’s brother, Ron, not to Mr. Cordaro, he said.
Amid $2.5 million in campaign contributions to Mr. Cordaro’s and Mr. Munchak’s campaign, including $13,500 in cash, the prosecution is worried about money that was used “for tipping waitresses and bartenders,” he said.
He questioned the suddenness of certain testimony by defense witness Marc Boriosi, who said he trailed Mr. Cordaro into the men’s room at a fundraiser to give him $2,000 in cash.
“We’ve been on this case for over a year and we were wondering where that came from,” Mr. Costopoulos said.
But he and attorney Christopher T. Powell, Mr. Munchak’s defense lawyer, reserved most of their attention for Mr. Kalina and Mr. Hughes.
Mr. Kalina acknowledged extramarital affairs only after repeated questioning, used thousands of dollars to support his mistresses by paying their credit cards, rent and other expenses, vacationed with one mistress at his family’s Florida condominium and hid it all from his wife with a separate checking account, Mr. Costopoulos said.
Mr. Kalina and his Highland Associates partners, Kevin Smith and Dominic Provini, testified they pooled $10,000 each three times and Mr. Kalina gave two $30,000 payments to Mr. Munchak and one to Mr. Cordaro.
Mr. Costopoulos suggested Mr. Kalina kept the money.
“To maintain multiple mistresses … takes cash and lots of it,” Mr. Costopoulos said.
Mr. Powell called Mr. Kalina “a cagey, cagey devil” and said he “lied to his wife for 10 years, â¦ lied to his fellow Highland partners” and at first “lied to the FBI at least one time.”
He questioned Mr. Kalina’s account of Mr. Munchak calling for cash.
“‘Hey, hello, Don Kalina.’ ‘This is A.J. Munchak, I need cash.’ Come on,” Mr. Powell said.
If that happened, why did the prosecution, which produced many other records, not produce records of calls between the commissioner or his office to Mr. Kalina and a credit card receipt for the lunch Mr. Kalina bought before giving Mr. Munchak the first payment? Mr. Powell asked.
“They didn’t show you because it didn’t happen,” he said.
He ticked off a long list of witnesses who testified they had little or no interaction with Mr. Munchak and never gave him any bribes and never said they were extorted.
He asked jurors to compare Mr. Kalina to Mr. Munchak’s 45 years of marriage and years of community service.
“Compare that to a man who cheats, who vacations with his girlfriend in the family condo in Florida,” Mr. Powell said.
Mr. Hughes testified he took $10,000 a month for three years from officials of the now-defunct Acker Associates civil engineering firm and gave it to Mr. Cordaro, but Mr. Costopoulos pointed out the prosecution never provided a specific time and date for each payment.
He pointed out Mr. Hughes had monthly loan payments that totaled $10,000 and often gambled in $10,000 increments.
“$10,000 was Al Hughes’ signature number,” he said.
Mr. Hughes also borrowed $200,000 from Acker co-owner P.J. McLaine and ended up owing Mr. McLaine $35,000 after payments stopped in 2007, when Mr. Cordaro lost the election, Mr. Costopoulos said.
He said $10,000 checks made out to Mr. Cordaro by Mr. Hughes were payoffs for lost bets, for legal fees and to obtain cash for Mr. Hughes.
He argued Mr. Hughes’ testimony that Mr. Cordaro once claimed a payment from Highland was too small and gave it to Mr. Munchak was “perjury” because Mr. Hughes never made that statement to the FBI.
He contended prosecutors never looked deeply into Mr. Hughes’ gambling and told defense lawyers to “look in the box” for copies of checks Mr. Hughes wrote to casinos and his tax returns. The box referred to a box of records obtained by the prosecution.
“They still haven’t produced them,” Mr. Costopoulos said. “They’re in the box.”
‘Shame on them’
He also argued Mr. Cordaro had hoarded $353,000 in cash since 1986 as a lawyer and businessman. Combined with his regular income, that was more than enough to spend $701,000 in cash between 2004 and 2007. Because of fears of the Great Depression and books he read recommending a cash-based lifestyle, Mr. Cordaro had no savings account, no certificates of deposit, no boats, no condominiums and no jewelry.
“The watch he was wearing in this courtroom was $100,” Mr. Costopoulos said.
He accused the prosecution of offering immunity to witnesses, then coaching their testimony in pretrial sessions.
“They aren’t getting prosecuted,” Mr. Costopoulos said. “They’re walking, all of them.”
Mr. Powell defended Mr. Munchak’s acceptance of $500 in cash from car dealer John Grow, who wanted a seat on the county stadium authority board. He called the idea that the contribution and eventual appointment were connected “cockypoo” and chastised prosecutors for embracing the connection.
“They can’t do it,” he said. “That’s unfortunate, and shame on them for doing it.”
He said Mr. Munchak’s use of $2,500 for tips at the fundraiser was necessary.
“You cannot go into a restaurant and write a check (for tips),” he said. “You have to have cash â¦ A.J. Munchak did not pocket a dime.”
But Ms. Graham reminded jurors of an envelope full of $30,000 in cash they got to hold and examine.
“How many people can say they ever did that in their whole lives?” she asked. “Not many, but in the world these two guys lived in, it happens every day.”
Mr. Powell had tried to show $30,000 would not fit in an envelope, but Ms. Graham likened the money to the infamous glove in the O.J. Simpson trial.
“If it don’t fit, you must acquit. Well, the cash fits here, so you must not acquit,” she said.
Ms. Graham scoffed at Mr. Munchak’s testimony that he was ignorant of the law in failing to report cash campaign contributions and used a $2,500 cash contribution to tip waitresses, bartenders, meat carvers and others at a 2007 campaign fundraiser.
Mr. Munchak signed inaccurate campaign finance reports and did not report the cash contributions, she said.
“It wasn’t a lie, it’s just wrong,” she said sarcastically of the way Mr. Munchak described what happened.
Actually, it was a crime, and Mr. Munchak knew it, she said.
“This man’s an accountant,” Ms. Graham reminded jurors.
Ms. Graham pointed to Mr. Cordaro’s claims that he cashed most of his commissioner paychecks and that helped him come up with cash.
Evidence showed, according to a chart she used, that almost three quarters of his commissioner paychecks were deposited.
Later, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce D. Brandler had an opportunity to rebut the defense closing and called the case “a classic pay-to-play scheme.”
Point by point, he tried to take apart the defense, breaking its arguments into the “silly,” “the not supported by evidence” and “the outrageous.”
He accused defense lawyers of “character assassination” and a “desperate and pathetic act” in attacking Mr. Kalina, whose 10-year affair ended in 2002, two years before Mr. Munchak and Mr. Cordaro even became the majority in the commissioners office.
That was one of the “silly” arguments, he said.
Federal witnesses were not told or threatened to testify the way prosecutors wanted, but were “prepared” as any good lawyer would do, he said. Only seven received actual immunity and have less incentive to lie than Mr. Munchak and Mr. Cordaro, who are already on trial, he said.
Any lying immunized witness could face prosecution, he said as he urged the jury not to let the defendants escape justice just because immunized witnesses might have.
“They are more culpable than the bribe-givers. They’re the bribe-takers,” he said.
He said Mr. Hughes testified to no longer gambling after 2004, which was before the Acker and Highland bribes were paid, Mr. Brandler said.
“Another smokescreen,” he said.
Mr. Brandler said the prosecution did not produce phone records because they show nothing about the nature of conversations.
He then focused on “the six smoking guns,” the $10,000 payments from Mr. Hughes to Mr. Cordaro in the form of checks.
Mr. Brandler said one check supposedly for legal fees to help refinance a $60,000 loan for Mr. Hughes ended up in Mr. Cordaro’s real estate account.
Separate checks from Mr. Hughes for $6,500 and $3,500 were cashed on the same day at different banks by Mr. Cordaro, even though Mr. Cordaro said the money was actually for Mr. Hughes, who supposedly was having trouble getting checks cashed at his bank, Mr. Brandler said. He suggested Mr. Cordaro was trying to avoid the automatic bank reporting of the transaction to the Internal Revenue Service, which tracks payments of $10,000 or more.
Another check to pay off a fall college football game bet was paid the following spring, Mr. Brandler said.
Still another alleged bet by Mr. Hughes, against the sale of the Montage Ski Resort, means Mr. Hughes took part in “a sucker’s bet” because Mr. Cordaro controlled whether the sale happened.
“The thing doesn’t even make sense,” he said.
‘It has to stop’
He questioned Mr. Cordaro’s alleged hoarding of $353,000 in cash in the last 25 years, saying “you don’t get rich quick keeping large amounts of money in cash.”
“False in one (statement), false in all,” he said in a remark he used repeatedly to question Mr. Cordaro’s truthfulness.
Mr. Brandler pointed to 1998 and 1999 applications for bank loans when Mr. Cordaro told the banks he had no cash, another in 2002 when he said he had $25,000. On a 2004 loan application, Mr. Cordaro reported having $135,000 in cash.
“That’s kind of interesting” because it was the end of Mr. Cordaro’s first year in office, Mr. Brandler said.
He pointed to a summary that showed Mr. Cordaro’s use of cash more than quintupled from 2004 to 2005 and doubled again in 2006 when the bribes were being paid. He questioned why Mr. Cordaro borrowed $200,000 in 2003 and 2007 to finance his election campaigns instead of just using his “cash hoard.”
Cash is “the way criminals deal because they know it’s very difficult to determine the source of cash,” Mr. Brandler said.
Noting one witness who used the phrase “just politics as usual,” Mr. Brandler likened that explanation to children who did something wrong using the excuse that everyone does it.
“But that excuse doesn’t even work with your kids,” he said. “It has to stop.”
Contact the writer: bkrawczeniuk @timesshamrock.com