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 re