Two waitresses say men had frequent breakfast meetings at Perkins in W-B Township.
The Times Leader by Terrie Morgan-Besecker - July 2, 2009
ALLENTOWN, PA – To the two waitresses at Perkins Restaurant and Bakery, they were just two regular customers who ordered ham-and-cheese omelets and sat at a back table. The women had no idea that one of the men, Michael Conahan, was a Luzerne County judge, or that the other, Billy D’Elia, was the reputed head of the Bufalino crime family, they testified Wednesday. It was one of many secrets that Conahan and D’Elia kept during their frequent breakfast meetings at the Wilkes-Barre Township eatery, say attorneys for The Scranton Times LP, parent company of The Citizens’ Voice newspaper. The waitresses, Gillian Davies and Becky Joseph, were among five witnesses the newspaper called Wednesday at a hearing that will determine whether a $3.5 million defamation verdict awarded to Thomas Joseph against The Citizens’ Voice should be overturned. Becky and Thomas Joseph are not related.
The state Supreme Court ordered the hearing, which is being heard in Lehigh County Court by specially appointed Judge William Platt, after attorneys for the newspaper said they uncovered evidence that Conahan had improperly steered the case to former Judge Mark Ciavarella. Davies’ and Joseph’s testimony was important because it corroborated claims of area businessman Robert Kulick, who alleges Conahan and D’Elia met regularly at the restaurant to discuss “fixing” numerous cases in county court, including the Joseph case. Conahan and D’Elia would usually meet around 6 a.m., sometimes as frequently as three times a week, the waitresses testified. Both usually ordered a ham-and-cheese omelet. The women said they did not know who the men were until their photos appeared in the news – D’Elia after his arrest in 2006 on charges of witness tampering and conspiracy to commit money laundering, Conahan after he and Ciavarella were charged in January with accepting kickbacks in exchange for judicial rulings. The newspaper’s attorneys had hoped to call Conahan, D’Elia and former county court administrator William Sharkey as witnesses, but each invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination.
That left Kulick as the newspaper’s key witness. He spent two hours on the stand, detailing his relationship with Conahan and D’Elia. Kulick, 60, of Bear Creek Township, said he and D’Elia knew each other for most of their lives. D’Elia was also good friends with Conahan and Joseph, he said. Kulick said D’Elia so trusted him that D’Elia told him of a conversation he had with Conahan about the Joseph case. Conahan had assured D’Elia that there would be a “positive outcome” for Joseph in his trial, Kulick said. “Billy would actually laugh about the case because, according to him, he knew Tom Joseph was going to win,” Kulick testified. Joseph’s attorney, George Croner, hammered at Kulick’s credibility. Kulick is awaiting sentencing in federal court on firearms charges. He acknowledged that he believed his testimony on behalf of The Citizens’ Voice would earn him a lighter sentence. It was particularly telling, Croner said, that Kulick, who said he had been speaking with federal authorities since March 2007, never once mentioned the Joseph case to agents. He came forward only after Conahan and Ciavarella were charged in January in connection with the kickback scheme. Under intense questioning by Croner, Kulick said his attorneys approached him with the idea of offering his testimony to The Scranton Times in support of their motion for a new hearing. “They didn’t want you to say everything was OK with the Joseph case. They wanted you to give them dirt, didn’t they?” Croner asked. Kulick insisted the timing was “coincidental.” “I’m in this to be truthful. I’m not in this for The Scranton Times,” he said.
The newspaper’s attorney, W. Thomas McGough, stressed that Kulick’s testimony was only part of the evidence. McGough told Platt he and other attorneys had been suspicious of how the case was assigned to Ciavarella from the very start. They repeatedly made inquiries, but had no solid proof of any irregularity until they searched a court database and learned there was a handwritten note next to the Joseph case that said the case was assigned to Ciavarella at the direction of Conahan. They had been told the case was randomly assigned to Ciavarella. Croner agreed the case assignment did not follow normal procedure, but he blamed the issue on the newspaper’s attorneys who had sought the recusal of two other judges who had been assigned to pre-trial matters. Croner said the county had only three judges hearing civil matters at the time, so that left few choices to hear the case. Ciavarella was the logical choice because he had ruled on several pre-trial matters and was knowledgeable about the case. “Was it out of the ordinary? I say absolutely it was out of the ordinary because the defendants made it that way,” Croner said. Testimony is expected to conclude today. Platt will then have 30 days to make a recommendation to the state Supreme Court regarding whether a new trial should be granted. firstname.lastname@example.org