Disgraced former judge Michael T. Conahan pleads guilty to racketeering charge
Former Luzerne County President Judge Michael T. Conahan moved one step closer to a federal prison cell this morning with his guilty plea to a racketeering conspiracy charge in U.S. District Court in Scranton.
Conahan withdrew a previous guilty plea last summer after U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik judge rejected the 87-month jail term spelled out in his plea agreement. That agreement allowed him to back out if he was dissatisfied with his sentence.
His new agreement with prosecutors, signed in April, has no escape clause and Conahan will face up to 20 years when he is sentenced by Kosik, who accepted his guilty plea today.
The new agreement also lacks any indication of whether Conahan will testify against his co-defendant, former judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. or cooperate with federal investigators conducting an ongoing corruption probe that has ensnared 27 local government officials and contractors since January 2009.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and Conahan’s attorney, Philip Gelso, have declined comment on what cooperation, if any, he will offer government prosecutors.
Conahan, 58, and Ciavarella, 60, were charged in January 2009 with accepting $2.8 million from the builder and owner of a for-profit detention center that housed county juveniles.
Prosecutors say Conahan, as president judge, closed a county-owned center and signed a secret agreement to utilize the for-profit center while Ciavarella, as juvenile court judge, ensured a steady flow of detainees.
After the former judges withdrew their guilty pleas in August 2009, they were indicted by a federal grand jury on 48 counts that carry combined maximum sentences of hundreds of years in prison.
Conahan agreed to plead guilty to a single racketeering conspiracy count, but his plea hearing was delayed until today because of expected U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the constitutionality of one of the charges against the former judges, honest services fraud.
The Supreme Court ruled last month that the honest services fraud statute, aimed at government and corporate officials who defraud taxpayers and shareholders, is constitutional, but only in cases in which those officials receive bribes or kickbacks.
The prosecution and defense in the Conahan case have declined comment on how the court’s rulings might affect the former judge’s sentencing.
But Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey, who wrote the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act under which Conahan was charged, said the rulings will have no effect because the honest services fraud charges against Conahan are based on the payment of bribes.
“They fall within the definition of what the Supreme Court approved,” said Blakey, who drafted the RICO legislation while working as chief counsel to a U.S. Senate subcommittee in the 1970s.
RICO allows prosecutors to bundle crimes committed by members of a group and show a pattern of wrongdoing when presenting a case to a jury. In the case of the racketeering conspiracy charge against Conahan, those crimes include bribery, extortion and honest services fraud.
Conahan, a native of Hazleton, served 16 years as a magisterial district judge before his election to the county bench in 1993. He served as president judge from 2002 through 2006.
Conahan retired in January 2008, but was active as a senior judge presiding over a drug treatment court until January 2009, when the state Supreme Court relieved him of all judicial duties following his arrest. His plea agreement required him to surrender his license to practice law.
Disgraced former judge Mark Ciavarella faces 10+ years in prison after his conviction in a “kids for cash” scheme
Prosecutors say former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella used children as pawns, locking them up unjustly in a plot to get rich. Ciavarella is accused of taking nearly $1 million in kickbacks from owners of private detention centers in exchange for placing juvenile defendants at their facilities, often for minor crimes. Ciavarella claims that the payment he received from a developer of the PA Child Care facility was legal and denies that he ever incarcerated kids for money.
“Absolutely never took a dime to send a kid anywhere,” said Ciavarella.
Ciavarella, 61, was found guilty of 12 out of 39 charges on Friday, including racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy, in connection with the nearly $1 million payment from Robert Mericle, the developer of the PA Child Care center. He plans to appeal. Ciavarella was acquitted on charges of bribery and extortion in relation to additional payments from the center’s builder and owner.
Families complain of Ciavarella’s rapid-fire brand of justice and trials that lasted only minutes with even first-time offenders sent to detention centers.
In one reported case, Ciavarella sentenced a child to two years for joyriding in his mom’s car. In another, he sentenced a college-bound high school girl to three months in juvenile detention for creating a website that made fun of her assistant principal. Some of the kids he ordered locked up were as young as 10.
“The numbers of children going into placement in Luzerne County tended to be two to three times higher than in other counties,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
In October 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed 4,000 juvenile delinquency cases Ciavarella handled from Jan. 1, 2003 to May 31, 2008. The court said that it “cannot have any confidence that Ciavarella decided any Luzerne County juvenile case fairly and impartially while he labored under the specter of his self-interested dealings with the facilities,” and called Ciavarella’s actions a “travesty of juvenile justice.”
Mom Confronts Convicted Judge After Verdict
Though most of the affected youth have already served their time, many parents were outraged by Ciavarella’s sentence, including Sandy Fonzo, who could not contain her anger.
Fonzo’s son Edward Kenzakoski was sentenced by Ciavarella to juvenile detention in 2003 for possession of drug paraphernalia. Fonzo said her 17-year-old son had no prior record when he landed in Ciavarella’s courtroom. She claims Kenzakoski never recovered from the months he served behind bars and years later, at 23, he killed himself.
“Do you remember me? Do you remember me? Do you remember my son? He was an all-star wrestler and he’s gone,” Fonzo screamed to Ciavarella as he exited the courthouse Friday.
Ciavarella remains free until sentencing. Fonzo said she expected to see Ciavarella carted off in handcuffs as the former judge often did to juveniles he sentenced.
Ciavarella is expected to get a minimum prison sentence of 12 years behind bars, according to prosecutors. To Fonzo, that is not justice.
“You know what he told everybody in court? They need to be held accountable for their actions,” she yelled to Ciavarella Friday. “You need to be!!”
The case of alleged corruption first shocked Luzerne County residents in January 2009 when federal prosecutors announced that county judges Ciavarella and Conahan had plead guilty to tax evasion and honest services fraud. However, the plea deal and relatively light sentence were later rejected by a federal judge who ruled that Ciavarella had failed to accept responsibility for the crimes.
Wilkes-Barre residents exploded with anger when they heard that men they elected, and trusted to judge their children, had allegedly profited from their incarceration.
Conahan pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy on July 23, 2010. He faces up to 20 years, but has not yet been sentenced.
Teens Sentenced by Ciavarella Speak Out
Eric Stefanski had never been in trouble before he found himself in front of Ciavarella, who took office in 1996.
“I was 12 years old when I got locked up. I had no clue what to say when he asked me how do I plead,” Stefanski told “20/20” correspondent Jim Avila in a March 2009 report. “I was 12 years old. I didn’t know too much about the court system.”
Stefanski went joyriding with his mom’s car and ran over a barrier, smashing the undercarriage. No one was hurt, not even Stefanski, but in order to get his insurance to pay for the damage, his mom, Linda Donovan, had to file a police report. Donovan even thought an appearance before a judge would be good for her son and give him a little scare. She wasn’t prepared for what happened when Eric came before Ciavarella.
“He read me my charges and said, ‘How do you plead?’ And I didn’t know what to say, so I looked at my mom, and I guess she didn’t know I was looking, and I said, ‘Guilty,'” Stefanski recalled. “That’s when I turned around, I looked at my mom and she started crying.”
Stefanski was locked up for two years. He was not represented by an attorney, his mom said, because she didn’t think he needed one.
“His first offense, he’s so young, I just didn’t think that it was necessary,” Donovan said.
Juvenile justice exposed
It’s not supposed to be like this in juvenile court, where incarceration is considered the last resort, legal experts said. But Levick told ABC News she saw a disturbing trend inside Ciavarella’s courtroom.
Levick claimed the kids going into placement in Luzerne Country tended to be two to three times higher than other countries and the kids were being locked up for minor infractions. “A child who shoplifted a $4 bottle of nutmeg,” she said. “A child who was charged with conspiracy to shoplift because he was present when his friend was shoplifting. A child who put up a MySpace page, taunting her school administrator.
“I think what we have here in Luzerne County is probably the most egregious abuse of power in the history of the American legal system,” Levick said.
Levick turned her findings over to the FBI, and the outcome rocked the Pennsylvania justice system.
Ciavarella and Conahan allegedly devised a plot to use their positions as judges to pad their pockets. They shut down the old county-run juvenile detention center by first refusing to send kids there and, then, by cutting off funds, choking it out of existence.
They then allegedly replaced the facility with a cash cow — a privately owned lockup built by the judges’ cronies — and forged a deal for the county to pay $58 million for a 10-year period for its use. At the time, Conahan was serving as president judge of the Luzerne County Common Pleas Court, a position that allowed him to control the county-court budget. Ciavarella was the Luzerne County juvenile court judge.
In the judges’ original plea deal, they admitted that they took more than $2.6 million in payoffs from the private youth detention center between 2003 and 2006.
Prosecutors said the judges attempted to hide their income from the scheme by creating false records and routing payments through intermediaries. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court removed them from their duties after federal prosecutors filed charges Jan. 26, 2009.
III. Cases dismissed
A northeastern Pennsylvania prosecutor has dropped efforts to retry as many as 46 youths who appeared before two judges found guilty in a corruption scandal, bringing an end to a legal saga that involved an estimated 5,000 tainted juvenile convictions.
The agreement between defense lawyers and Luzerne County District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll means that none of the thousands of youths who appeared before disgraced former Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. between 2003 and 2008 will face retrial, and all will have their juvenile records wiped clean.
“It’s in the interest of fairness and justice that these cases be reversed, too,” Carroll said in court Monday, exactly one year after Ciavarella and another judge were charged with accepting millions in kickbacks to place juvenile offenders in for-profit detention centers.
Anthony Brennan, who spent more than a year in detention after being accused of breaking into an abandoned building when he was 15, said he was gratified by the decision.
“It’s a sense of relief,” said Brennan, now 18, of Hazleton. “I can get on with my life now.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has said that Ciavarella ran a kangaroo court in which he systemically denied youths their constitutional rights, including the right to counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea.
Bribes were paid to judges
After being found delinquent, the youths were often shackled and taken to private jails whose owner was allegedly paying bribes to the judge. Federal prosecutors have said that Ciavarella and another former Luzerne County judge, Michael Conahan, took a total of $2.8 million in payoffs.
The high court in October threw out thousands of juvenile convictions issued by Ciavarella, but gave prosecutors the option of seeking to retry more than 100 youths who remained under court supervision and who met certain other conditions.
Carroll originally planned to retry 46 of those juveniles, including offenders convicted of serious crimes like sexual assault, aggravated assault and arson. But she said a subsequent review determined that all but five of the youths were in fact ineligible for retrial under the Supreme Court guidelines because they had either appeared before Ciavarella without a lawyer or had spent time in one of the for-profit detention centers.
The five youths who could have been retried had been convicted of minor offenses, she said.
“I felt it wasn’t in the best interest of justice to have those five cases go forward when nearly 5,000 cases were vacated,” Carroll said.
Youth offenders who still need treatment will continue to get it under arrangements that have been made with social service agencies, she said.
Berks County Senior Judge Arthur Grim, appointed last February to review cases handled by Ciavarella, ordered that the 46 cases be dismissed. They were the last convictions awaiting his review.
Ciavarella and Conahan pleaded guilty in February to honest services fraud and tax evasion in a deal with prosecutors that called for a sentence of 87 months in prison, below federal guidelines. The deal was rejected in August by Senior U.S. District Judge Edward M. Kosik, who said the two hadn’t fully accepted responsibility for the crimes, and the ex-judges switched their pleas to not guilty.
A federal grand jury then returned a 48-count racketeering indictment against the judges, who await trial.
Meanwhile, hundreds of individuals ranging from their teens to their early 20s have sued the judges in federal civil court.