Judges admit kickbacks -- Pa. pair took $2.6M to lock up kids
By MICHAEL RUBINKAM, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Bergen Record, 02-13-2009, Friday
SCRANTON, Pa. Two Pennsylvania judges
charged with taking more than $2 million in kickbacks to send youth offenders to privately run detention centers pleaded guilty to fraud Thursday in one of the most stunning cases of judicial corruption on record.Prosecutors allege Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan
took $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in lockups run by PA Child Care LLC and a sister company, possibly tainting the convictions of thousands of juvenile offenders.
The judges pleaded guilty in federal court in Scranton to honest services fraud and tax fraud. Their plea agreements call for sentences of more than seven years in prison. They were permitted to remain free pending sentencing.
The jurists said little at Thursday's hearing, and declined to comment afterward.
Prosecutors described a scheme in which Conahan, the former president judge of Luzerne County, shut down the county-owned juvenile detention center in 2002 and signed an agreement with PA Child Care LLC to send youth offenders to its new facility outside Wilkes-Barre.
Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths to the detention center while he was taking payments, prosecutors said.
For years, youth advocacy groups complained that Ciavarella was overly harsh and ran roughshod over youngsters' constitutional rights. Ciavarella sent a quarter of his juvenile defendants to detention centers from 2002 to 2006, compared with a statewide rate of one in 10.
Among the offenders were teenagers who were locked up for months for stealing loose change from cars, writing a prank note and possessing drug paraphernalia. Many had never been in trouble before, and some were imprisoned even after probation officers recommended against it. Many of the children didn't have attorneys.Federal prosecutors revealed the longtime jurists were allegedly working equally hard behind the scenes on a far less noble endeavor - enriching themselves at the expense of the public and juveniles who appeared in Luzerne County Court. They did so in the form of kickbacks -- $2.6 million worth
that U.S. Attorney Martin Carlson said were paid to the judges by two unnamed people in exchange for favorable judicial rulings regarding the PA Child Care juvenile detention center in Pittston Township, and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care in Butler County." This is a sad event when individuals who took an oath violate that oath and violate the law," Carlson said at a Monday afternoon press conference at the federal courthouse where he announced charges of conspiring to defraud the IRS and devising a scheme to defraud taxpayers of their honest services had been filed against the jurists. Carlson said Ciavarella, 58, and Conahan, 56, have signed plea agreements that call for them to serve 87 months in prison and to pay a yet-to-be-determined amount of restitution. The judges have also agreed to resign from office within 10 days after the court accepts their pleas, and will immediately be disbarred from practicing law
. The U.S. Attorney's Office on Monday charged Ciavarella and Conahan with accepting more than $2.6 million in kickbacks from private individuals in exchange for judicial rulings that benefited the PA Child Care juvenile detention center. The judges have agreed to plead guilty to tax evasion and to devising a scheme to defraud the public of its honest services. The plea deal calls for Ciavarella and Conahan to each serve 87 months in prison and to resign from office within 10 days after they enter the plea in court. By seeking an interim suspension
, the JCB would ensure that neither Ciavarella nor Conahan would hear any cases pending their resignations. Luzerne County Judge Chester Muroski, who is serving as acting president judge, has already said they would not be assigned cases. Ciavarella and Conahan remain free pending the scheduling of their plea hearing. Their case was assigned Tuesday to Senior U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik.
SCRANTON -- Former Luzerne County Judge Ann H. Lokuta sat in the second row of the makeshift press briefing room at the federal courthouse Monday, smiling as she read through the 22-page criminal complaint against her former adversaries: Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan. Federal prosecutors charged Ciavarella and Conahan with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit tax fraud and accused them of collecting $2.6 million in payoffs to facilitate the development and operation of the Pennsylvania Child Care juvenile detention center in Pittston Township and a similar facility in Butler County. Under plea agreements, Ciavarella and Conahan must serve 87 months in federal prison and must resign their positions as judges within 10 days of their plea. According to prosecutors, Ciavarella and Conahan entered into a "placement guarantee agreement" to house juvenile offenders at the detention centers for an annual rental fee of $1.314 million without disclosing the payments they were receiving. "I think it's a sad day for the citizens of Luzerne County, and yet I find a certain vindication in this, because for years I've been asking for the (court) budget," Lokuta said
SCRANTON - Federal prosecutors have charged Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan with fraud and income tax conspiracy for allegedly collecting more than $2 million in payments to facilitate the development of a juvenile detention facility in Pittston Township. Ciavarella, whose resignation as president judge was revealed earlier today, and Conahan entered into an agreement to plead guilty, U.S. Attorney Martin C. Carlson said. Read the indictment
They have agreed to serve 87 months - more than seven years - in federal prison, will resign their positions as judges within 10 days of their plea and will consent to automatic disbarment from the practice of law. They also agreed to pay restitution in an amount to be determined by a federal judge. "When a judge violates (their) oath, when a judge violates this solemn vow, the judge violates the public's right to his honest services
," Carlson said.
The agreement filed in federal court in Scranton Monday calls for sentences of up to seven years for Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., presiding judge in Luzerne County, and Judge Michael T. Conahan, also a Luzerne County juristy, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. They also agreed to be disbarred and to pay restitution and have already resigned from the bench. The Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia complained last year that young offenders in Luzerne County were being removed from their homes inappropriately. The state Supreme Court refused this month to hear the case although the state Department of Public Welfare submitted a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the center. Federal investigators said the two judges received a total of $2.6 million, which they did not report or pay taxes on. "They sold their oath of offices to the highest bidders," said Deron Roberts, agent in charge of the Scranton FBI office. In a statement released through his attorney Tuesday, Ciavarella denied performing any services in return for payment
. Ciavarella agreed in May to step down from juvenile court. All the youths he sentenced to detention have since had their cases reviewed by his successor, Judge David Lupas, as provided by state law. About 30 of the juveniles remain in detention, but fewer than five of them are lodged in a PA Child Care facility, Luzerne County District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll said Tuesday. "Those who have already gone through the system, who are no longer in the system and who are no longer in placement, obviously we can't give them back the time they spent there. Many of them probably should have been in placement," she said. Levick said the Juvenile Law Center will likely renew its request to the state Supreme Court to nullify hundreds of decisions made by Ciavarella, who presided over Luzerne County's juvenile court for 12 years. The high court declined earlier this month to take up the center's case, but that was before the criminal charges against Ciavarella and Conahan. The government complaint cites payments to the judges by a "Participant 1," described as a Luzerne County attorney who owned the detention centers, and "Participant 2," described as the contractor who built them. PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care were co-owned by Butler Township attorney Robert J. Powell until last June, when he sold his interest to Gregory Zappala, the son of former state Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala
. In an audit, the DPW found that PA Child Care earned an excessive profit and that the county could have built three detention centers for the cost of what it paid to PA Child Care. Now, the Juvenile Law Center is considering reprising its petition to the state Supreme Court, which declined to hear it this month. It may also consider a civil action. "You have, arguably, a rogue judge acting outside the requirements and obligations of his office, making decisions influenced by financial remuneration on the backs of children," Levick said. "That's something the Supreme Court ought to want to fix." The Juvenile Law Center was joined in its 2008 case by the DPW. In a brief, the welfare department said the rate at which juveniles were unrepresented by attorneys in Luzerne County was 10 times the state average and "so dramatic as to require inference of a systematic deprivation
of the constitutional rights of accused juveniles by the Luzerne County Court."
Court documents filed Monday allege that Judge Mark Ciavarella met with a Luzerne County attorney in June 2002 about building the center. September 2001: PA Child Care proceeds with development plans, though county commissioners say they will continue using the existing county-owned juvenile detention center on River Street in Wilkes-Barre. WILKES-BARRE, LUZERNE COUNTY- The attorney for embattled Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella disputed claims by federal authorities the judge made money off a scheme to imprison juveniles in select detention centers. Al Flora on Tuesday told Eyewitness News Ciavarella
"specifically denies that he sent any child to any juvenile facility because of money that he received from any person." The U.S. Attorney's Office mapped out its case against Ciavarella and Luzerne County Senior Judge Michael Conahan on Monday, dropping a bomb of accusations
that rattled the county's legal system from the highest ranks on downward.
Federal investigators including the FBI, U.S. Attorney and the IRS gathered Monday at the Federal courthouse in Scranton to announce charges of fraud and conspiracy
against Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella (left) and Michael Conahan (right). It all had to do with their involvement
with a privately-owned juvenile detention center in Luzerne County.
U.S. District Court Judge Edwin Kosik has been named to handle the fraud charges filed against Luzerne County judges Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. Conahan and Ciavarella have signed plea agreements that would result in prison terms of 87 months for allegedly taking $2.6 million in kickbacks for helping a private juvenile detention center earn millions from county contracts. They are free pending their arraignment. The judges, Luzerne County President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., 58, and his predecessor, Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan, 56, will serve seven years in jail under a plea agreement. They're alleged to have pocketed $2.6 million in payments from juvenile detention center operators. When a federal judge reviews their plea, though, the question ought to be whether the punishment is adequate - along with the judges being bounced from the bench, disbarred, and losing their pensions. If the allegations are true, Ciavarella and Conahan were involved in a disgraceful cabal
far worse than one that merely lined their pockets.
SCRANTON - Two top Luzerne County Court judges took kickbacks
to place juvenile offenders in detention centers, even ordering some to be locked up against the recommendations of probation officers, federal authorities said yesterday. President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Judge Michael T. Conahan agreed to a plea deal that would send them to prison for seven years, according to an agreement filed in federal court Monday.
Ciavarella and Conahan reached written plea agreements
with prosecutors. Under the terms of the deal, they will plead guilty and serve 87 months in federal prison. They will resign their positions as judges within 10 days of their plea and will consent to automatic disbarment. In the final years of his tenure, Ciavarella, 58, slouched from his people-first posture on which he campaigned and evolved into the defiant chief of the "good old boys" he derided before his election. Last April, an advocacy group accused Ciavarella of violating the due process rights of hundreds of juvenile defendants by forcing them through proceedings without properly apprising them of their right to an attorney. The state Supreme Court declined to intervene in the cases, despite Ciavarella's admission that he was "wrong" to skip directly to sentencing and his decision to abdicate his juvenile court duties. Last May, an attorney in a legal malpractice case accused Ciavarella of an "obvious display of favoritism" toward the plaintiffs and their attorney, the former owner of the Pittston Township juvenile detention center, Robert Powell.
"Now the shoe is on the other foot," Mishanski said. "They're not going to be able to wreck any more lives." Ciavarella, who served as the county's juvenile judge from 1996 until May, when he stepped down, has repeatedly insisted that decisions he made in Williamson's case and others were done solely for the best interest of the children. "I'm not some despot who sits up here and says 'You're going away.' I'm not here to punish these kids. I'm truly here to try to help," he said in an article published on May 11. Mishanski and others had questioned his motives. "I figured in time it would all come out," she said. Levick said it's not clear what impact the charges against Ciavarella and Conahan might have on juvenile cases that have already gone through the system. The state Supreme Court this month declined the center's request to reopen the cases in question. She said the center is now considering whether it should refile the case with the Supreme Court, or seek recourse in some other court proceeding. The plea agreement signed by Ciavarella and Conahan calls for them to serve 87 months in prison. The judges must appear at a hearing, which has not yet been set, to officially enter their pleas. When the judges are sentenced, Mishanski said she hopes to be in the federal courtroom in Scranton "to look at their faces." "I want to be there when they sentence them and haul them off, just for the sense of satisfaction," Mishanski said. She suggested punishment should include a week at Camp Adams, a treatment center where her son and hundreds of other youth were sent, so that they can "get a taste of their own medicine
People knew what was going on." The state Court of Judicial Discipline voted 6-1 on Dec. 9 to remove Lokuta from the bench and prohibit her from again holding a judicial office. Lokuta is appealing the ruling to the state Supreme Court and said she will include details of the federal prosecutors' allegations against Ciavarella and Conahan, who testified against Lokuta during the hearing phase of her misconduct case. Lokuta argued Conahan, the president judge from 2002 through 2006, helped orchestrate the charges against her and claimed Conahan lied when he testified he was unaware of any individuals within the Court of Common Pleas who were "particularly aligned together for any reason." "Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella were the legal puppet masters over all of the staff in the Luzerne County court system, and if anyone dared to step up and ask them questions, they stepped on them like little ants," Lokuta said. Details of the case were not available Tuesday, but the alleged business partner was identified by Philadelphia attorney Jeffrey McCarron as Powell, according to Saidman. Powell's name has surfaced as a connection to Ciavarella before, most recently in Lokuta's objections to the Judicial Conduct Board's findings that she violated a number of judicial standards. In her filing, Lokuta wrote that Powell, Ciavarella, Conahan and Luzerne County Prothonotary Jill Moran had business and financial interests in a pair of enterprises. All four testified against Lokuta at her hearing. Lokuta has since appealed her sanctions to the state Supreme Court. She said Tuesday that the charges against Ciavarella and Conahan support her contention that her prosecution was motivated by her cooperation with federal authorities in their investigation. "Judge Lokuta has been cooperating with the federal authorities for quite some time," said her attorney, Ron Santora. "When it became apparent that the wagons were circling around her in the JCB case, it quickly became clear the motivations behind it."
Gentzel said there is "a laundry list of crimes" for which conviction would lead to a loss of pension. It includes theft by deception, theft by failure to make required disposition of funds received, and obstructing administration of law or other governmental function. Conahan and Ciavarella are charged with honest services wire fraud and conspiracy to defraud the United States - both felonies, according to prosecuting U.S. Attorney Martin Carlson. The constitutional provision calls for a judge to lose his pension if he is suspended, removed or barred from holding judicial office for conviction of a felony or misconduct in office or conduct that prejudices the administration of justice or that brings the judicial office into disrepute. Former Luzerne County Judge Ann Lokuta believes Conahan and Ciavarella should lose their pensions. "If I've been stripped of my pension, the individuals who are brought up on charges should be stripped of their pensions as well," Lokuta said. The state Court of Judicial Discipline last year found Lokuta had violated the canons of judicial conduct - including bringing the judicial office into disrepute - through her behavior on the bench. Conahan and Ciavarella both testified against Lokuta at her misconduct hearing. The disciplinary court voted on Dec. 9 to remove Lokuta and bar her from ever holding another judicial office. She appealed the decision on Jan. 7. Lokuta said there is case law that might allow Conahan and Ciavarella, if convicted, to save their pensions if they were to resign before being convicted. Court papers filed by the Juvenile Law Center suggest the number of juveniles who appeared in Luzerne County court without counsel was significantly greater than the statewide average. A third embattled former judge claimed the federal charges were a vindication of her claims that she was being persecuted for speaking out about rampant corruption. Former Judge Ann H. Lokuta, who was removed from office late last year, said she had cooperated with the FBI in its investigation. Lokuta said she presented evidence of the judges' improper business dealings in her own defense before the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline, but it was disregarded. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania released a 22-page criminal information Monday detailing the charges against Ciavarella and Conahan, who are in their second terms as common pleas judges. Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. ascended to the Luzerne County judiciary a decade-and-a-half ago with a pledge to "return to a time when values had importance." "It's time for people who break the law to realize they'll be punished," Ciavarella said as he announced his candidacy for a seat on the Court of Common Pleas in August 1994 -- a position he agreed to resign after reaching a plea agreement Monday with federal prosecutors. Ciavarella, a private-practice attorney and municipal solicitor at the time, told voters he wanted to be the "citizens' judge." He portrayed himself as a man of the people -- a hard-line populist who operated outside the network of "good old boys" who ran the county government and the courts. "I believe I have the foresight and understanding of how the judicial system should operate and a commitment to making sure our criminal justice system punishes those who violate our rights and lets criminals understand that we law-abiding citizens have rights, too," Ciavarella said in May 1995, days before the primary. Ciavarella agreed to resign after his indictment on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit tax fraud -- the first development in a two-year federal investigation into the judge's personal business dealings and the influence they had on his operation of the courts. Luzerne County judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan will appear in federal court in Scranton on Feb. 6 to finalize their plea agreements with federal prosecutors, U.S. Attorney Martin Carlson said this morning.
"From the very first day, it was clear there was something going on here," Mr. Van Reeth, of Wright Twp., said Tuesday. U.S. Attorney Martin C. Carlson charged Judge Ciavarella, the former president judge, and Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan on Monday with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit tax fraud, and accused them of collecting $2.6 million in payoffs to facilitate the development and operation of juvenile detention centers in Pittston Twp. and Butler County. Under plea agreements, Judges Ciavarella and Conahan must serve 87 months in federal prison and must resign their positions as judges within 10 days of their plea. Ciavarella and Conahan have agreed to plead guilty to fraud and conspiracy to commit tax fraud, serve 87 months in prison and resign from the bench and bar for allegedly taking $2.6 million in kickbacks in connection with a Pittston Township detention center that housed county juveniles. Ciavarella's attorney has stressed that the plea agreements are "conditional" and that his client's plea will depend on what evidence prosecutor's present at next week's hearing. Carlson said the defendants will have the right to withrdraw their pleas. "The United States will be prepared to proceed in whatever way we need to protect the public interest," he said.
Federal prosecutors accused Ciavarella and Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan of collecting $2.6 million in payoffs to facilitate the development and operation of the Pennsylvania Child Care juvenile detention center in Pittston Township and a similar facility in Butler County. Federal prosecutors accused Ciavarella and Conahan of collecting $2.6 million in payoffs to facilitate the development and operation of the Pennsylvania Child Care juvenile detention center in Pittston Township and a similar facility in Butler County. "They sold their oaths of office to the highest bidders," Deron Roberts, an agent in the FBI office in Scranton, said.
The complaint alleges Conahan and Ciavarella, who resigned as president judge on Friday, accepted $2.6 million in kickbacks from private individuals in exchange for rulings that benefited the PA Child Care juvenile detention center in Pittston Township. "If the conduct alleged by the U.S. Attorney's office and apparently acknowledged by the two judges is true, any objective person can only describe their conduct as reprehensible and despicable," Olszewski said. "It's absolutely shocking. Dombroski praised U.S. Attorney Martin C. Carlson and other investigators on Monday for uncovering a scheme showing county Court of Common Pleas Judges Mike Conahan and Mark Ciavarella received $2.6 million in payments in connection with the Pittston Township center and a Western Pennsylvania center also owned by PA Child Care.
The PA Child Care Juvenile Detention Center near Pittston has been controversial since it opened in 2003 but the charges involving kickbacks from the center for judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan put the facility and the county's juvenile court system in the spotlight more than ever.
If you and I knew that Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan Owed the Luzerne County juvenile detention center. Then who in the Court House knew? They are also guilty. Next Time you VOTE, you need to remember this and remove them all. Hardrox wrote on Jan 26, 2009 2:47 PM: " Common theme to all these comments - aside from the travesty of this individual situation. These probes need to go deeper and further, we all believe so and the taxpayers of this County deserve it. Then we would be able to see the truth come out.The prosecutor would be able to ask questions in open court and delve deeper into what is actualy going on. These two deserve a lot more than 87 months, it's not only that they gained financialy, but they also placed a large financial burden on the Taxpayers of Luzerne County. They also affected the lives of those juveniles who perhaps didn't belong in the Juvy Center, where they were placed even though they were recommended not to be sentenced. They also projected a SHAME on the good people of Luzerne County who elected them to office and were expecting them to represent them and uphold the Principles of Justice. Jeff wrote on Jan 27, 2009 10:02 AM: " And these two testified against Lokuta for her misconduct charges? Lokuta should be reinstated to her position of judge. She may have been out of control as far as her conduct, but SHE'S HONEST. I'm sure she's lerarned something after her removal. I'm glad she played a part in bringing Ciavarella and Conahan to justice, although I don't think 7.5 years is long enough time for the CRIMES these two committed. They should do the fullest extent of time, NO PAROL. A black eye for Luzerne County some have said? It's more like one hell of a beating to the taxpayers. How many kids lives were ruined by Ciavarella's greed? Hope these families sue and win.
The plaintiffs won a $3.4 million judgment. Earlier this month, county officials accused Ciavarella, the president judge since January 2007, of nepotism and cronyism after he filed a lawsuit to block nearly $5 million in cuts to the judicial budget. "He's trying to maintain his fiefdom," county Commissioner Stephen A. Urban said on Jan. 7, after the county's attorneys assailed Ciavarella in an 11-page rebuttal to his lawsuit. "The untouchables, they are," Urban said of Ciavarella and the court staff. "That's not fair, that's not right and the number of people he has are not needed." The beginnings of Ciavarella's political life -- and the development of his political and judicial support system -- resonate in the black and white photographs and written accounts of the Aug. 21, 1994, ceremony at which he announced his intention to replace Judge Gifford S. Cappellini, who was mandated by state law to retire at age 70. "For someone who has never sought public office, (Ciavarella) hardly seemed like a novice as he announced his candidacy for an upcoming judgeship in Luzerne County Court," The Citizens' Voice reported.
ALLENTOWN, Pa. - A youth advocacy group said Tuesday it is contemplating a federal class-action lawsuit against a judge accused of taking millions of dollars in exchange for placing juvenile offenders into privately owned detention facilities. The judge, meanwhile, has denied the allegation that he got kickbacks for sending youths to detention, possibly calling into question his plan to plead guilty to two federal fraud charges. The Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group, has several youth clients who say they were deprived of their rights when they came before Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella. "It's very difficult to sue judges for violations of rights of any sort, but we have a unique situation here, where we have a judge who appears to have acted outside the scope of his judicial responsibilities," Marsha Levick, the center's legal director, said Tuesday. The state Supreme Court refused to intervene in the case, but Marsha Levick, the legal director of the Juvenile Law Center, said the allegations against Judge Ciavarella have led the organization to contemplate a federal class-action lawsuit against the judge. "It's very difficult to sue judges for violations of rights of any sort, but we have a unique situation here, where we have a judge who appears to have acted outside the scope of his judicial responsibilities," Ms. Levick said Tuesday. Attorney Barry H. Dyller of Wilkes-Barre said Tuesday he also is considering filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of families of juveniles sentenced by Judge Ciavarella. "It's pretty clear that if a judge had a financial interest in placing juveniles in a certain facility, that would constitute a due process violation," Mr. Dyller said. Federal prosecutors said Judge Ciavarella ordered juveniles sent to the detention facilities he had financial ties to even in cases in which juvenile probation officers did not recommend detention. "It's a terrible, terrible tragedy for the families that were affected. It's terrible for our system where people believe, rightly or wrongly, that they didn't get a fair shake," Mr. Dyller said. "Sometimes people can accept a bad result if they think it was fair. It's almost impossible to accept a bad result when they know it was not fair." The Associated Press contributed to this report. Legal Director of the center Marsha Levick, said the group, which was already reviewing appeal options, might file a petition with the state Supreme Court to reconsider the decision, given Ciavarella's connections with the juvenile detention center. "It's not clear where this leaves us," she said. "I think today's news certainly in a way affirms what we ourselves had alleged, first and foremost, that (Ciavarella) was not in fact acting in the best interest of children, which is what he was elected to do. That is what his responsibility was as judge, and that is certainly not what he was doing." County District Attorney Jacqueline Musto Carroll said her office would review cases, but that she wasn't aware of any potential conflicts in cases caused by Conahan's or Ciavarella's departures. "If in anyway we felt that something was not done properly, we would take any steps that we needed to correct them, because we want to see justice served," she said.
The judges also helped the detention centers secure a county contract worth $58 million. The charges also accuse the men of obstructing efforts by the IRS to collect taxes by disguising them as other types of payments and filing false financial-disclosure statements with the state court system. "This is a dark day in our history," said Luzerne County District Attorney Jacqueline Musto Carroll, who assisted with the investigation. She said her office would look into whether any children were improperly detained. "At the same time, it's an opportunity for those here who are good to go forward and rebuild our name and reputation. There are too many good people in county government, so to paint everyone with a broad brush and put everyone in the same category as these two judges would not be fair," she said. A state court agreed. "Even if they come in and tell me that they don't want a lawyer, they're going to have one," Ciavarella told the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader in 2001. For years afterward, Ciavarella repeatedly violated the rights of hundreds of children by shipping them to a juvenile center without telling them they had the right to an attorney, according to a petition to the state Supreme Court filed by the Juvenile Law Center. Ciavarella and another judge said they would plead guilty to charges that they hid $2.6 million in secret payments from one of the centers' owners and a construction contractor. The Supreme Court denied the request in a one-line per curiam order Jan. 8. "We were particularly dismayed that a case that raised such profound constitutional issues as the court's wholesale disregard for the constitutional rights of children did not warrant an explanation from the Supreme Court," Levick said. She said the law center is exploring how the criminal charges against Ciavarella and Conahan might improve the case for a Supreme Court review of the juvenile committals. Levick said the law center was aware of the FBI's investigation and crossed paths with the agency, "in a very superficial way," several months ago but Levick said she was not aware of the nature of the allegations against Ciavarella and Conahan. "We had no idea at the time, and we didn't really have any indication that someone in a position such as Judge Ciavarella would use them as tools to line his own pockets," she said. "I think it's hard to fathom how a juvenile court judge could use children in this way."
The group's petition says data from Luzerne County in 2005 and 2006 shows half of all juveniles who appear in county court do so without a lawyer. That number is about 10 times the statewide average of 5.9 percent. Of those who appeared in court without an attorney and were adjudicated delinquent, about 60 percent were removed from their homes. "These children were very quickly adjudicated and quickly put into placement," said Levick, the law center's legal director. While the law center's petition covers only those cases from October 2005 and onward, the charges against Ciavarella indicate there may be many hundreds more juveniles who were deprived of their constitutional rights, Levick said. The Juvenile Law Center was joined in its petition by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare and the attorney general's office. Attorneys for those agencies declined to comment on the case.
The Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group, complained last year to the state Supreme Court about the treatment of children in Luzerne County juvenile court, asking for the nullification of decisions in hundreds of cases. Juveniles were often denied their constitutional right to lawyers and were disproportionately sentenced to ill-advised, out-of-home placements, the group said. "We feel that it's a great day for the young people and the youth of this area to see the system really does work, the system really isn't rigged against them," said Jack Van Reeth, whose daughter was ordered detained in 2007 by Ciavarella. "It's just wonderful to see that the scheme of jailing for dollars has come to an end." Jessica Van Reeth, then 16, was sent to a juvenile wilderness camp for three months after admitting that she had possessed a cigarette lighter and pipe in school. She told The Associated Press last year that the items were found in a purse she agreed to hold for a friend. The family, expecting probation, waived her right to a lawyer, unaware of the potential consequences. Jack Van Reeth said Monday his daughter is "extremely happy. She said that this is better than Christmas." Associated Press Writers Maryclaire Dale in Coatesville, JoAnn Loviglio and Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia, and Martha Raffaele in Harrisburg contributed to this report.
Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. said he'd never do it again. In 2000, the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia accused the Luzerne County Juvenile Court judge of detaining a 13-year-old boy without informing him of his constitutional right to an attorney. Yeager won the Republican nomination and Ciavarella edged Giovannini by 378 votes (18,759 to 18,381) for the Democratic nod. Ciavarella outspent Yeager in the general election by a margin of greater than 4-to-1 -- $200,000 for Ciavarella, including a $55,000 personal loan to his campaign committee; $45,000 for Yeager. He won the general election by more than 5,600 votes. Ciavarella took office on Jan. 2, 1996 -- the day his parents, Mark Sr., a decorated World War II veteran, and Mary Cunningham Ciavarella, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. As a judge, Ciavarella handled high-profile assignments and the bulk of the juvenile court caseload -- the realm of the judiciary that precipitated his downfall. "It's probably the only court where you can make a difference in a child's life," Ciavarella said in 2005, a week before Luzerne County residents voted 59.5 percent to 40.5 percent to retain him. "You have the ability to put them in a treatment program that helps them get from the lowest point in their early lives to a place where they feel good about themselves." Ciavarella presided over his first murder case in 1997, the bench trial of Richard Clark, who was accused of murdering a supervisor at a Pittston Township trucking company. Ciavarella found Clark guilty, but spared him from the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison. The plea agreements call for sentences of more than seven years in federal prison. Ciavarella's attorney said Tuesday that his client does not concede all the accusations in the government's criminal complaint and that he will not go through with his guilty plea if the allegations remain at the time of sentencing. "If they come into a plea hearing and they simply read off the information in its present form, Judge Ciavarella will not admit to all of those things. What would happen at that point is his plea agreement would be off the table," the attorney, Al Flora, said in an interview. Later Tuesday, Flora said in a statement that Ciavarella "specifically denies that he sent any child to any juvenile facility because of money that he allegedly received from any person." Flora also contended the government's case largely boiled down to Ciavarella's failure to disclose the income he received from PA Child Care and its sister company on annual financial disclosure forms required by the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts. January 2002: County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Michael Conahan allegedly signs a secret "placement guarantee agreement" between the court and PA Child Care to house juvenile offenders at the Pittston Township facility. This agreement says the court would pay PA Child Care $1.3 million in annual rent and says the court's obligation to make these payments is "absolute and unconditional." The complaint said Conahan, while serving as president judge, signed a "placement guarantee agreement" between the court and center owner PA Child Care. The agreement outlined in the court document said the court would pay PA Child Care $1.314 million a year in rent and that these payments "shall be absolute and unconditional." It's not clear if the intended use of the facility was for treatment or pre-adjudication detention, but there's a problem either way, Urban said.
The two individuals who allegedly paid the judges were not named in court documents. Information in the documents indicates they are Robert J. Powell, a Butler Township attorney who was co-owner of Pennsylvania Child Care until June, and Robert S. Mericle, owner and president of Mericle Construction Inc. It's unclear if those individuals, called "Participant No. 1" and "Participant No. 2" in the documents, will be charged. Carlson said the charges against the judges were "the first developments in an ongoing investigation" that began about two years ago, but he declined to comment on additional arrests or say if Ciavarella and Conahan would cooperate in the investigation. Their plea agreements do not address such cooperation. Ciavarella, 58, and Conahan, 56, who was president judge from 2002 through 2006 and is now a senior judge, were not in their chambers Monday and could not be reached for comment. They remain free until their arraignment, which has yet to be scheduled.
Ciavarella and Conahan, who were instrumental in closing a county-owned center in 2003 and directing business to the private Pennsylvania Child Care LLC center in Pittston Township, accepted payments from one of the center's owners and the contractor who built the center, according to U.S. Attorney Martin C. Carlson, who announced the charges. The judges falsified business records and financial disclosure forms filed with the state Supreme Court and made rulings that benefited the center without disclosing their financial interests, prosecutors allege. "I think for everyone who serves in our justice system, everyone who serves in our courts, everyone who serves the public, that this is a sad event when individuals who took an oath violate that oath and violate the law," Carlson said. Federal criminal records indicate Ciavarella and Conahan have financial links to a former owner of the juvenile detention center Pennsylvania Child Care LLC, which raked in millions in county contracts. Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court denied the Juvenile Law Center's petition for emergency relief against the county.
SCRANTON The two judges who led the Luzerne County Court for the last seven years took $2.67 million in payoffs for helping a private juvenile detention center reap millions from county contracts, with one of the judges going so far as to sentence children to detention over the objections of juvenile probation officers to benefit the center, federal prosecutors alleged Monday. Federal prosecutors say that President Judge Mark Ciavarella and Judge Michael Conahan participated in a $2.6 million scheme to defraud taxpayers by taking kickbacks related to the construction of juvenile detention facilities in Luzerne County and elsewhere. Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. denied Tuesday that he sent juveniles to a detention center in order to receive payments from a center owner and contractor, one day after federal authorities revealed Ciavarella and another judge were charged with receiving $2.6 million in kickbacks.
"Shaking hands and handing out buttons, the candidate watched as a crowd of around 300 filled the room at the Ramada Hotel, Public Square, Wilkes-Barre, Sunday afternoon." Ciavarella's earliest supporters included his friend Lori Umphred; developer Rob Mericle; former law partner Donald Rogers; and Joseph O'Hara, the basketball coach at St. Mary's High School. After his election, Ciavarella hired Umphred as his secretary, O'Hara as his tipstaff and Rogers as one of his two law clerks. According to federal prosecutors, Mericle's company, Mericle Construction Inc., transferred at least $1.15 million to a firm co-owned by Ciavarella and Conahan between September 2004 and February 2006 in exchange for their facilitation of the development and use of juvenile detention centers in Pittston Township and Butler County. Ciavarella announced his candidacy about a mile from where he grew up in the East End of Wilkes-Barre; a block from the campus of his alma mater, King's College; and four blocks from the Luzerne County Courthouse.
"What we're announcing today are the first developments in an ongoing investigation," Carlson said. "It has been said, in order for evil to triumph, it takes good people to remain silent." Carlson implored others with knowledge of the judges' dealings to speak with the F.B.I. Ciavarella, 58, and Conahan, 56, were charged in a two-count criminal information with conspiring to impede the Internal Revenue Service in the collection of federal income taxes (conspiracy to defraud the United States) and devising a scheme to defraud the citizens of Luzerne County and of Pennsylvania of the right to their honest services (honest services wire fraud). According to prosecutors, Ciavarella and Conahan concealed their receipt of more than $2.6 million between January 2003 and April 2007. Though many people were aware of the ongoing investigation for the past two years, the reality of federal indictments against Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan hit many Hazleton area residents late Monday afternoon. At the Laurel Mall, Howard Sugarman was aware of the investigation but his own health-related concerns prevented him from catching the latest news regarding the charges against Conahan and Ciavarella earlier in the day. "I like Michael, I've known him a long time. I know his entire family, although it seems like Mike may have made a mistake here," Sugarman said after learning the judges were charged with fraud and income tax conspiracy. Even within the vast panoply of corruption that mars so much of governance in Pennsylvania, the conduct charged to disgraced Luzerne County Judges Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan is breathtaking. As spelled out in a federal indictment announced Monday in Scranton, the judges have provided an actual answer to the seemingly rhetorical question: How low can they go? According to Martin C. Carlson, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, both judges have "indicated their intention" to enter guilty pleas to fraud and income tax conspiracy charges, and to serve 87 months each in federal prison. Given the alleged perversion of justice described by their indictment, the judges will be getting off easy if that is their fate. The complicated scheme described in the indictment can be summarized as this: The judges allegedly sent children to prison in order to enrich themselves.
Monday's revelations began with an 11:30 a.m. press conference at the courthouse by Luzerne County Judge Chester B. Muroski, who announced that Ciavarella had resigned as president judge, but not from the bench and that the judges would soon meet to elect a successor. At a 1:30 p.m. press conference in Scranton, Carlson, accompanied by federal agents and prosecutors and Luzerne County District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll, announced the charges against the judges and their plea agreements. Al Flora represents Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella (shiv-ah-REL'-lah). He told a Wilkes-Barre newspaper, The Citizens' Voice, that the plea agreements require the defendants to accept the facts to be presented by prosecutors at a plea hearing. He says the hearing hasn't been scheduled yet. The plea agreements for Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella (shiv-ah-REL'-lah) and Senior Judge Michael Conahan (CON'-ah-han) call for sentences of more than seven years in prison. Both judges have agreed to step down from the bench.
The conference is expected to outline charges against Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella and Senior Michael Conahan. For background on the investigation from the Times Leader archives, please read the related headlines listed on this page. Stay with timesleader.com throughout the day for developments on this story.