BY BORYS KRAWCZENIUK, STAFF WRITER)
A federal jury found Lackawanna County Commissioner A.J. Munchak and former Commissioner Robert C. Cordaro guilty of taking and extorting bribes Tuesday, ending perhaps the most sensational corruption trial in county history and capping a tumultuous era in its politics.
In doing so, the jury believed Mr. Munchak’s and Mr. Cordaro’s chief accusers, engineering firm co-owner Don Kalina and West Scranton funeral director Al Hughes, who testified to paying tens of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.
Mr. Munchak announced he would resign as commissioner today. Both men plan to appeal.
Mr. Cordaro said he was “surprised and disappointed.”
“I’m innocent,” Mr. Munchak said.
But U.S. Attorney Peter J. Smith, whose three-person prosecution team secured the verdicts, said he hoped they would send a message that government corruption will not be tolerated.
“The jury verdict showed that a public office is not similar to an ATM machine to generate secret cash payments or an entitlement to pay for pleasure trips or a license to steal, hide or simply misrepresent relationships that conflict with a public official’s duties,” Mr. Smith said.
The jury returned the verdicts after deliberating less than 6½ hours.
As Senior U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo began reading the outcomes, starting with Mr. Cordaro’s charges, the first 12 – all mail fraud related – were not guilty, raising the defense’s hopes. But that was followed by 10 consecutive guilty verdicts.
Mr. Cordaro stood stoically through all of it. As his guilty verdicts piled up, Mr. Munchak stood and propped himself up with both arms on his chair and shook his head incredulously.
Attorney Christopher T. Powell, Mr. Munchak’s lawyer, asked the judge to poll jurors for the guilty counts against his client, which meant each had to answer affirmatively if guilty was his or her verdict for each count.
“Yes,” each said eight times.
In all, the jury found Mr. Cordaro guilty of 18 of the 33 counts against him, including some of the most serious, extortion, racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right, and not guilty of 15 others, including honest services mail fraud and mail fraud.
He faces up to 229 years in jail and $4.5 million in fines.
The jury found Mr. Munchak guilty of eight of the 21 counts against him, including extortion, and not guilty of 13 counts, including an extortion count and honest services mail fraud and mail fraud.
He faces up to 93 years in jail and $2 million in fines.
Judge Caputo ordered pre-sentencing reports completed by Aug. 15 and scheduled sentencing for Sept. 28 at 10 a.m.
Mr. Smith said the verdicts were a “very sad day for Lackawanna County,” but also a ray of hope that the “public airing of the abuses of power” in the 12-day trial could “bring about a better day” for county residents.
“We can all hope that public officials at all levels and those who seek to do public business with them will heed the outcome of this case,” he said.
He thanked jurors for “a fair and just verdict” and his prosecution team, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lorna Graham, the lead prosecutor, and fellow Assistant U.S. Attorneys William Houser and Bruce Brandler.
“The way through this investigation and trial was difficult and filled with many twists and turns, including some smoke and mirrors created mostly by the defendants to mask and conceal their actions and to confuse or throw off the investigation, the prosecution, the public and the jury as to the truth of their corrupt course of conduct as public officials,” Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Cordaro, whose brash style often served him well as he rose in local politics, offered a “wow” as he spoke outside the courthouse after jurors declared him guilty of corruption.
“I’m really very surprised and disappointed with the verdict,” Mr. Cordaro said. “I think that we presented more than reasonable doubt in each and every instance. I guess it goes with the old saying, ‘You lay down with dogs, you get fleas.’ I certainly didn’t think it made you a dog. They believed Don Kalina and Al Hughes over A.J. and I, and I’m really shocked by that fact without any evidence to support their statements.”
Mr. Cordaro said he could not understand how jurors believed Mr. Kalina and Mr. Hughes, but said “life will continue.”
“I said it at the beginning,” he said. “There’s so many people in this life that are going through worse things than I’m going through right now. I just feel so badly that I brought my family and friends into this depth and it’s really awful for them. It’s much worse for them than it is for me and I feel sorry for them and my heart goes out to my family.”
He thanked his lawyers, attorneys William C. Costopoulos and Jerry Johnson, for putting on “a great case” and supporters, including many who attended the trial, for all their “friendship, prayers, well-wishes.” “It has been incredible,” he said. “It’s really allowed me to keep my faith in people and so forth.”
He also thanked Mr. Munchak.
“A.J. stood by me like a man, and he stood up to these charges like a man and I’m very proud of him for that,” Mr. Cordaro said. “I will say that the only thing I’m proud of in this whole process is that I didn’t use anyone else to escape my difficulties, to escape this process, to escape these charges and I’m proud for that.”
As he often has, Mr. Munchak spoke more briefly than his partner in the majority county commissioner’s office from 2004 to 2008. He said the verdict surprised him.
“I never took a dime from that Mr. Kalina, never took a dime,” he said. “Disappointed. I believe in the jury system, obviously. I just can’t believe that they believed him over me. The government never proved ‘show me the money.’ They did a financial colonoscopy on me and they couldn’t find that money. I don’t understand.”
Mr. Costopoulos called his client “a stand-up guy” who “was not going to cooperate … and not going to roll over on anybody.”
“It was beneath him and there’s a lot to be said (for) that,” Mr. Costopoulos said. “The verdict was split. We’re not going out to celebrate, but it was a split verdict and I believe that the jury gave it their best effort.”
Mr. Costopoulos said the appeal would be a “long (and) exhausting, difficult process.”
“But for those of you that know Bob Cordaro, he’s going to go the distance and it’s not over until it’s over,” he said. “When the government levels (33) charges at you, it’s the equivalent of (33) guns. Any one of them can kill you.”
In a brief telephone interview Tuesday night, Mr. Hughes said, “I’m glad for that” when told the jury believed him and not Mr. Cordaro.
Efforts to reach Mr. Kalina, who has an unlisted telephone number, were unsuccessful.
In the end, the jury deliberated and found Mr. Cordaro and Mr. Munchak guilty of charges that hinged heavily on the testimony of Mr. Kalina and Mr. Hughes.
Mr. Kalina and his two longtime co-owners of Highland Associates architecture and engineering firm in Clarks Summit, Kevin Smith and Dominic Provini, testified they each pooled $10,000 in cash three times in 2005, and had Mr. Kalina give two envelopes full of $30,000 in $100 bills to Mr. Munchak.
Mr. Kalina testified each payoff started with a phone call from Mr. Munchak, a relative by marriage.
“He said, ‘We know you talked to P.J. McLaine, and we need some cash,” Mr. Kalina said of the first call. “I said, ‘Well, I can’t respond to that, I have to talk to my partners.'”
Mr. Kalina, Mr. Smith and Mr. Provini, who testified under immunity, said they debated other options, including saying no or telling law enforcement officials, but decided it would be better to pay rather than risk millions of dollars in county contracts that could force them to lay off employees.
On cross-examination, each man admitted earning $1.2 million in bonuses the same year, which the defense implied for their real motivation for their roles in the case. The defense tried to portray Mr. Kalina as a philanderer who took the money from his partners to keep mistresses living lavish lifestyles.
Mr. Powell asked Mr. Munchak directly if he ever took money from Mr. Kalina.
“Absolutely not,” Mr. Munchak testified.
But prosecutors brought out that Mr. Kalina’s 10-year affair with a Highland employee ended two years before Mr. Munchak and Mr. Cordaro became majority commissioners and started awarding major contracts to Highland.
Mr. Hughes testified he acted as a go-between, taking $10,000 a month from Mr. McLaine and E. Kenneth Acker, co-owners of Acker Associates, a now-defunct Moscow civil engineering firm, and giving that much in cash to Mr. Kalina between January 2005 and January 2008. The total was $365,000.
Mr. Cordaro initially demanded $15,000 a month, Mr. Hughes said, but he felt embarrassed to ask Mr. McLaine, a friend and source of loans, for that much and reduced the amount to $10,000, which Mr. Cordaro accepted.
Mr. Cordaro and his defense team tried to portray Mr. Hughes as a degenerate gambler who gambled away the money he took from Acker and never gave it to Mr. Cordaro.
But the former commissioner struggled in his testimony to explain six checks – four for $10,000 each and one each for $6,500 and $3,500 – written from Mr. Hughes’ bank account and deposited or cashed by Mr. Cordaro.
Mr. Cordaro said one was for legal fees, three others were to pay off bets Mr. Hughes lost – one on a football game, which required a second check because the first bounced, and another on the sale of the county ski resort. The other two, for the smaller amounts, Mr. Cordaro said, were because Mr. Hughes needed cash immediately and could not cash the checks at his own bank for some reason.
But prosecutors brought out that the ski resort check was paid months after the sale, the smaller checks were cashed at different banks and the ostensible legal fee was for work on a $60,000 loan refinancing.
Only one other man who allegedly handed out cash, construction company owner Louis R. Costanzo, was even mentioned in the verdict slip seen by jurors.
The jury found Mr. Munchak not guilty of that count, which centered on his receipt of $2,500 in cash as a campaign contribution from Mr. Costanzo in September 2007.
None of the other men who testified to giving cash to either Mr. Cordaro, one of his associates or Mr. Munchak – Thomas Cummings, John Grow, Joseph Ferrario, Dan Marion, Marc Boriosi, Michael J. Pasonick, Robert Conway, Al Magnotta or their companies – were mentioned in the verdict slips.
The jury found Mr. Cordaro guilty of: single counts of racketeering; racketeering conspiracy; conspiracy to commit theft or bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds; conspiracy to commit money laundering; conspiracy to defraud the United States; conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right; and two counts each of bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, extortion under color of official right and income tax evasion; and three counts each of money laundering and subscribing and filing a materially false tax return.
The jury found Mr. Cordaro not guilty of: 12 counts of honest services mail fraud and mail fraud; two counts of engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity; and a single count of conspiracy to commit honest services mail fraud.
Mr. Munchak was found guilty of: single counts of conspiracy to commit theft or bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds; conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right; subscribing and filing a materially false tax return; and income tax evasion; and two counts each of bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds and extortion under color of official right.
The jury found Mr. Munchak not guilty of: eight counts of honest services mail fraud and mail fraud; one count each of bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds; extortion under color of official right; racketeering; racketeering conspiracy; and conspiracy to commit honest services mail fraud.
For Mr. Cordaro and Mr. Munchak, the verdicts pockmarked political careers that saw them join to topple a 20-year Democratic majority led by Commissioner Joseph Corcoran, who lost to them in the 2003 election for commissioner.
During their trial, they frequently highlighted their accomplishments, including the renovation of the county courthouse, the construction of a new 911 radio tower, the sale of the county ski resort and the attraction of the New York Yankees Triple-A baseball team.
The jury decided the trial wasn’t about their accomplishments, but their failure to fulfill the promise they made to honor the public trust.
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