The Associated Press by MICHAEL RUBINKAM and MARYCLAIRE DALE - February 11, 2009
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – For years, the juvenile court system in Wilkes-Barre operated like a conveyor belt: Youngsters were brought before judges without a lawyer, given hearings that lasted only a minute or two, and then sent off to juvenile prison for months for minor offenses.
The explanation, prosecutors say, was corruption on the bench. In one of the most shocking cases of courtroom graft on record, two Pennsylvania judges have been charged with taking millions of dollars in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers. "I've never encountered, and I don't think that we will in our lifetimes, a case where literally thousands of kids' lives were just tossed aside in order for a couple of judges to make some money," said Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which is representing hundreds of youths sentenced in Wilkes-Barre.
The criminal charges confirmed the advocacy groups' worst suspicions and have called into question all the sentences he pronounced. Hillary Transue did not have an attorney, nor was she told of her right to one, when she appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom in 2007 for building a MySpace page that lampooned her assistant principal. Her mother, Laurene Transue, worked for 16 years in the child services department of another county and said she was certain Hillary would get a slap on the wrist. Instead, Ciavarella sentenced her to three months; she got out after a month, with help from a lawyer. "I felt so disgraced for a while, like, what do people think of me now?" said Hillary, now 17 and a high school senior who plans to become an English teacher. Laurene Transue said Ciavarella "was playing God. And not only was he doing that, he was getting money for it. He was betraying the trust put in him to do what is best for children." Kurt Kruger, now 22, had never been in trouble with the law until the day police accused him of acting as a lookout while his friend shoplifted less than $200 worth of DVDs from Wal-Mart. He said he didn't know his friend was going to steal anything Kruger pleaded guilty before Ciavarella and spent three days in a company-run juvenile detention center, plus four months at a youth wilderness camp run by a different operator. "Never in a million years did I think that I would actually get sent away. I was completely destroyed," said Kruger, who later dropped out of school. He said he wants to get his record expunged, earn his high school equivalency diploma and go to college. "I got a raw deal, and yeah, it's not fair," he said, "but now it's 100 times bigger than me."
Update: Ciavarella, Conahan plead guilty to Luzerne County corruption charges
Luzerne County Judges Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan pleaded guilty this afternoon to corruption charges. They face 87 months in prison, according to their plea agreements.
Courthouse Corruption - Pleas won't bring quick trip to prison
1:33 p.m. - Attorneys are reviewing evidence during the plea hearing for suspended Luzerne County Judges Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan. Their guilty plea agreement on two corruption charges each has not yet been finalized. Federal marshals opened a second courtroom in the William J. Nealon Federal building to accommodate the over-capacity crowd in Courtroom 1. About two dozen people are watching the proceedings on large projector screens in Courtroom 2 and a throng of cameramen, photographers and reporters from local, state and national media await the conclusion of the proceedings on the sidewalk outside the building.
12:35 p.m. - Former Luzerne County Judge Ann H. Lokuta arrived at the federal courthouse in Scranton just before noon. "This is my true day in court. I've been waiting for this day for many years," she said. "This is real justice." Suspended Luzerne County Judges Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan testified in her trial before the state Judicial Conduct Board that ended with Lokuta being removed from the county bench in December for being rude to witnesses, court staff and attorneys, and often being late or absent for court proceedings during her 17-year career. Lokuta requested more time to file documents with the State Supreme Court in her appeal of the ruling after the plea agreements for Ciavarella and Conahan were announced. Susan Mishanski came to court today with a sign for the accused judges.
"Kev's free, Ciavarella and Conahan not!" it said, a reference to the marked twist in the fates of her son, Kevin Williamson, who spent 57 days at a juvenile detention camp after appearing in Ciavarella's court, and the judges who could spend more than 7 years in prison. Ciavarella and Conahan are accused of taking $2.6 million in kickbacks to facilitate the development of a juvenile detention center in Pittston Township and a similar facility in Butler County. "He owes a whole lot of people a whole lot of apologies," Mishanski, of Hanover Township, said. Williamson, 18, is a senior at Hanover Area High School. The hearing has also drawn spectators without ties to the two judges. Robin Guerrero, of Swoyersville said she's been planning her trip to Scranton for a week to witness the plea hearing, even though she doesn't have any ties to the case. "I think it's horrible" Guerrero said. "The money they took is horrible. The corruption is horrible. What they did to the kids is horrible."
11:35 a.m. - Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Zubrod arrived at the federal courthouse in Scranton around 11 a.m. He is the lead prosecutor in the federal corruption case against Luzerne County Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan. Under a plea agreement, the two judges would serve 87 months in prison on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit tax fraud. A federal judge will hold a plea agreement hearing at 1 p.m.
10:52 a.m. - Luzerne County judges Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan made a quick entrance into the William J. Nealon Federal Building in Scranton when they arrived for their preliminary hearing Thursday morning. The judges and the lawyers pulled up to the courthouse steps at about 9:45 a.m. for their plea hearing, scheduled for 1 p.m. The plea agreements signed by Ciavarella and Conahan carry 87 months in prison for the corruption charges.