Standing beneath an antique chandelier with his right hand raised, Jermyn Mayor Bruce Smallacombe swore yesterday to uphold the public trust and serve the people of Lackawanna County as an honest and dedicated county commissioner.
Good luck with that.
Smallacombe takes over as the newest Republican minority commissioner in the wake of the recent public corruption conviction in federal court of Smallacombe’s predecessor, A.J. Munchak.
Even if the former county road and bridge manager (who Munchak and Bob Cordaro, who went on trial with Munchak and also felt the wrath of a jury of his peers, hired the same month they took office) stays honest, Smallacombe’s already a public liability.
Mike Washo and Corey O’Brien, the current majority commissioners, both Democrats of some small measure, fired Smallacombe when they took over. Smallacombe joined almost a dozen former county workers in filing a federal lawsuit charging that they were political pawns hung out to dry in a blatant partisan attack.
The plaintiffs want the county to pay for their trouble.
And Smallacombe swears that he’s not suing the taxpayers, just the two mugs who dumped him.
When I ran into him in a supermarket where he was working after the ax fell he seemed resigned to his fate. But a federal lawsuit often is the great equalizer. And this one stands to make waves in good ways as well as bad. Society needs the evidence gleaned from federal lawsuits. This one might even be considered a civil rights lawsuit.
Smallacombe is no Rosa Parks but even I’m confused as to when public service termination can be pulled like a deer rifle from the rack of a pick-up and pointed at the official Pennsylvania state animal – in this case, not the white-tail but the usually white male political insider.
Can a new Democrat fire an old Republican? Can a Republican fire a Democrat because the Democrat wants his or her own loyal team and everybody knows that Republicans and Democrats ultimately are loyal only to themselves?
What are the rules, you honor?
In the hard coal fields of Lackawanna there are no rules.
You do as you please unless and until you get arrested. Then, even after conviction, you scream that the political fix was in and that the government was out to get you – even if you were the government.
That’s exactly what Cordaro during his trial. Twice he blamed U.S. District Judge William Nealon, a fixture of a senior federal judge whose name actually adorns the same courthouse where jurors found Munchak and Cordaro guilty, claiming Nealon set him up as part of a political vendetta.
That’s the word the defense used - vendetta. Mafia movie maker Martin Scorsese couldn’t ask for more.
But the fuse on the political bomb fizzled and Munchak and Cordaro are headed to jail.
Winner across the board Smallacombe is now headed to work and to court. He can now pick up a fat paycheck paid for by Lackawanna County taxpayers, full health benefits and, if successful in his federal lawsuit, yet another fat check paid for by the very county taxpayers who are already paying him to uphold the public trust.
Smallacombe argues that he’s not suing the taxpayers, although his claim is tough to swallow since the county, as well as the two Democrat county commissioners, is named as a plaintiff in his suit. The big winner here is Smallacombe who is rolling in the dough.
As minority commissioner, he’s highly unlikely to accomplish much – unless he offers to go undercover as a paid FBI confidential informant, known as a CI in the business. As such a county crime consultant, Smallacombe can be wired to the teeth wherever he goes. He can political arguments in public or in private, ask for bribes from every elected and appointed political official he encounters and demand finders fees from millionaire vendors who want to do and keep county business.
Smallacombe and his FBI handlers can see who steps into the trap and who doesn’t. A good old-fashioned sting is always good for local democracy.
And when the next wave of indictments comes down, Smallacombe can say, “I spied for the FBI,” and run for a higher office on a position of true public service – helping to end corruption without even getting arrested.