01.24.2012

Sentence ‘enhancements’ argued

Attorneys for ex-Lackawanna County commissioners bring legal issues to judge.
By Terrie Morgan-Besecker tmorgan@timesleader.com Law & Order Reporter

WILKES-BARRE — A federal judge will rule by Monday on several legal issues that could significantly influence the length of the potential prison sentences faced by former Lackawanna County commissioners Robert Cordaro and A.J. Munch.

Ex-Lackawanna County commissioner Robert Cordaro arrives at the federal building in Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday. Christopher Powell, attorney for ex-Lackawanna County commissioner A.J. Munchak said the sentencing guideline range for Munchak and Cordaro would be ‘substantially reduced’ if a judge rejects all the government’s arguments.

Federal prosecutors and attorneys for Cordaro and Munchak appeared before U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo Tuesday to debate whether the men are subject to several sentencing “enhancements” sought by prosecutors.

Cordaro and Munchak are scheduled to be sentenced Monday for their conviction in June on charges related to the extortion of tens of thousands of dollars from companies that conducted business with the county.

Sentences in federal court are largely controlled by federal guidelines, which assign a defendant extra “points” based on various factors, including the seriousness of the offense and their role.

In the Cordaro/Munchak case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office argues the men are subject to lengthier sentences based on several issues, including evidence they accepted more than one bribe and that they lied on the stand during their trials.

Prosecutors also are seeking to hold the men responsible for a $1.15 million loss the county’s COLTS bus transportation system incurred after it had to cancel a contract that had been improperly awarded to Highland Associates, an engineering firm that admitted paying a combined total of $90,000 to the ex-commissioners.

Munchak’s attorney, Christopher Powell, said the guideline range for Munchak and Cordaro would be “substantially reduced” if Caputo rejects all the government’s arguments. He declined to specify how many years are at stake, however, because that information is part of a pre-sentence investigation report, which is confidential.

The COLTS loss is a key issue because the sentence the men face is largely dependent upon the amount of money involved in their crimes. The more money involved, the stiffer the sentence.

COLTS was forced to scrap a contract awarded to Highland Associates to design an intermodal transportation center after the federal government determined the contract had not been properly bid out. That left COLTS on the hook for $1.15 million it had already paid Highland, which it could not recoup.

Powell and Cordaro’s attorney, Peter Goldberger, argued there was no evidence that the former commissioners had any direct involvement in the awarding of the intermodal contract to Highland Associates, therefore they should not be held responsible for the loss.

The attorneys noted Don Kalina of Highland Associates testified at their trial that the $90,000 was paid out of fear the commissioners would withhold payment on other projects for which Highland was owed money. Kalina never said the money was connected to the award of the intermodal contract.

Munchak and Cordaro also dispute the government’s position that they committed perjury at their trials when they each denied taking money from Kalina.

Attorneys for the men said the fact the jury believed Kalina over Munchak and Cordaro is not, by itself, sufficient evidence to prove they committed perjury. The government must prove a defendant had specific knowledge and intent to lie, and it had failed to do so in this case, they argued.

Munchak also is disputing whether the payments made by Highland constitute more than one bribe. Kalina made a total of three payments, but Munchak maintains it should be counted as only one bribe because all payments were based on a single issue – the fear of not being paid for other projects.

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