The Legal Intelligencer by Leo Strupczewski - July 2, 2009
PHILADELPHIA, PA - A pair of witnesses testified during a court hearing Wednesday that reputed northeastern Pennsylvania mob boss William "Billy" D'Elia had envelopes delivered to disgraced former Luzerne County President Judge Michael T. Conahan at the courthouse and that Conahan met with D'Elia and another admitted felon multiple times to discuss fixing cases. The hearing was ordered by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after a Wilkes-Barre newspaper argued that a defamation case handed down against the paper by Conahan's colleague, indicted former Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., should be vacated. Lawyers for the newspaper are arguing that Conahan helped fix the case on behalf of a friend of D'Elia's. In petitioning to reopen the case, the newspaper's lawyers cited the judges' guilty pleas in federal court to honest services fraud charges, as well as newspaper articles in The Legal and its sister publication, Pennsylvania Law Weekly , detailing suspicions of case fixing in Luzerne County and ties to criminal figures.The key witness for the newspaper Wednesday was admitted felon Robert Kulick. During several of their routine cocktail sessions, D'Elia would discuss with him a defamation case that was pending in the Luzerne County Common Pleas Court, Kulick testified. Coverage of the case, Joseph v. Scranton Times , was in the Wilkes-Barre papers at the time, Kulick said Wednesday, and D'Elia would get upset when Thomas Joseph, a businessman, would deny any relationship with D'Elia.
The morning session, which featured opening arguments and a lengthy process in which attorneys for the newspaper introduced roughly 100 exhibits, was followed by a string of witnesses put on the stand by attorneys for the newspaper to show Conahan's link to D'Elia and Kulick helped determine the outcome of the Joseph case. That string began with Benzi, a security guard in Luzerne County's main court building who testified that D'Elia's access to the courthouse was so good that the reputed mob boss could leave his car in the employee parking lot and walk in through a secured prisoner's entrance. Benzi further testified that she ran between 10 and 20 plain white or 8 1/2 x 11 inch manilla envelopes from D'Elia directly to Conahan's hands over nearly a three-year period. On three occasions, Benzi alleged she left the envelopes with Conahan's tipstaff, Nick Callen. But, the security guard said, she would never leave the unmarked envelopes with anyone else. And she never left them unattended. Instead, she would abandon her security post when D'Elia arrived in the employee parking lot, retrieve the letter and take it straight to Conahan's chambers. Sometimes, Benzi said, she would walk straight past Conahan's secretary. Upon receipt, Conahan never asked whom the envelopes were from. "He'd say, 'Thank you,'" Benzi said. Benzi said she did not know what was in the envelopes. She said she never looked, never asked and was never told. Conahan, along with D'Elia and Conahan's cousin, former Luzerne County Court Administrator William T. Sharkey Sr., invoked their Fifth Amendment rights, according to attorneys in the case, and did not show for the hearing Wednesday. D'Elia has been described in publications as the reputed head of a northeastern Pennsylvania crime family. The Associated Press reported D'Elia pleaded guilty in March 2008 to money-laundering conspiracy and witness tampering charges. Sources told The Legal back in January that D'Elia was cooperating with federal investigators in their probe into corruption at the Luzerne County Courthouse. On Wednesday, Kulick shed some light on how the man he once considered a friend operated.The two would meet Conahan on a regular basis at Perkins Family Restaurant in Wilkes-Barre to socialize and, on occasion, discuss their interests in certain cases. One man or the other would walk away from the table so his counterpart could meet with Conahan in private and, at least in Kulick's experiences, the outcomes would sometimes be favorable to his interests, he said. The men also met inside the Luzerne County Courthouse, Kulick said, and at parties.During a Christmas party at Kulick's home, a local businessman asked Kulick and D'Elia to talk with Conahan about a case the businessman had before the judge. "Days later," Kulick said, "Billy D'Elia told me he did." •