- Jury Finds One Judge Guilty While Another Jurist Pled Guilty
- A bigger picture emerged of a staggeringly casual culture of corruption
- Judges allowed to run shell corporations, secretly accept cash from wealthy friends
- Judges shared investments with lawyers who regularly appeared in their courtrooms
- Convicted Judge failed to fully inform juveniles of their right to counsel
- Judge had his Florida condominium rent paid in effort to disguise bribery and extortion
- Two Corrupt Judges paid $2.8 million from 2003-06.
A trial is a pursuit of truth, but no trial reveals the whole truth. Prosecutors in the trial of Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. chose to focus on a narrow band of evidence in the wider spectrum of the kids-for-cash case. They relied on financial documents and cooperating witnesses to convict the former Luzerne County Juvenile Court judge of racketeering, frustrating former defendants in his court who felt their stories went ignored. Ciavarella's co-conspirator, former Judge Michael T. Conahan, loomed over the trial like a manipulative ghost, but never appeared on the witness stand. At times, tantalizing threads poked through the uniform fabric of the government's case - suggestions of a long-rumored probe into case fixing, references to developer Robert K. Mericle's payments to other powerful politicians and hints that prosecutors could reveal more about the murky maneuvering behind the county's signing of a $58 million lease for the juvenile detention center that Mericle built. Prosecutors, in their single-minded determination to avoid further complicating an already complex case, never followed those threads.
But a bigger picture still emerged of a staggeringly casual culture of corruption at the Luzerne County Courthouse that allowed judges to run shell corporations, secretly accept cash from wealthy friends and share investments with lawyers who regularly appeared in their courtrooms. In media interviews following a verdict that will likely send Ciavarella to prison for a dozen or more years, jurors expressed little trust in the veracity of any of the principals in the case, including prosecution witnesses Mericle and detention center owner Robert J. Powell, who testified they paid Ciavarella and Conahan $2.8 million from 2003-06. The jury unequivocally rejected Powell's testimony that the judges relentlessly solicited kickbacks for sending juveniles to his centers, finding Ciavarella not guilty of all the extortion and bribery counts tied to Powell's payments. One juror noted the panel was left wanting more information about the role of Conahan, who seemed the main villain in the case.
According to defense and prosecution testimony, it was Conahan who closed a county-owned detention center and signed a secret agreement to send juveniles to Powell's for-profit jail. It was Conahan who made the arrangements for the wire transfers that led to Ciavarella's conviction for racketeering. It was Conahan who negotiated the rental fees Powell paid for a Florida condominium owned by the judges in what prosecutors alleged was an effort to disguise bribery and extortion. Prosecutors declined to say why they did not call Conahan, who has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and faces up to 20 years in prison. While Conahan's plea agreement does not require him to cooperate with the government, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Zubrod said in a pre-trial meeting in August that Conahan was willing to testify, if only to confirm the facts of the case he acknowledged during his plea hearing. Conahan's absence allowed Ciavarella and his defense team to place the onus for the most damaging allegations on Conahan and to claim he had a "backroom deal" with Powell that excluded Ciavarella. Conahan was heard in court, if only in the form of a secretly recorded July 2009 conversation in which he laid out for Powell and Ciavarella a possible defense against a looming criminal case being assembled by federal agents. It was the exact defense Ciavarella's lawyers employed in U.S. District Court over the past two weeks: The only payments Ciavarella received connected to the detention center came from Mericle and they were legal. Ciavarella knew Powell was paying rent on the Florida condo, but the terms were negotiated by Conahan. Ciavarella knew nothing of other cash payments from Powell to Conahan. As the prosecution case neared its close, it became clear that the most attention-grabbing aspect of the case - allegations that Ciavarella summarily detained undeserving juveniles to keep the beds at Powell's centers full - would not play a large role in the trial.
U.S. Attorney Peter J. Smith said the government did not need to introduce that evidence to make its case, which centered on financial transactions. The state court system has already dealt with Ciavarella's courtroom conduct, specifically his failure to fully inform juveniles of their right to counsel, by vacating all of his juvenile court rulings since 2005. Still, the prosecution decision evoked outrage from some former juvenile defendants and their parents, hundreds of whom are pursuing civil-rights claims against the former judge. "I don't understand why they're not looking at the transcripts of these children's so-called hearings," said one of those parents, Laurene Transue. "Why aren't they talking to the parents? Why aren't they saying, 'What happened in court? What happened when you tried to speak?' " "Why isn't that being told? Because, that's part of it," Transue said. "If former Judge Ciavarella conducted fair hearings for these juveniles, I can't imagine that a fraction of them that were sent away would have been sent away. Obviously there was some motive to sending these kids away to these facilities." The prosecution decision not to pursue that line of evidence kept the jury from being distracted, but it also closed off an avenue the defense could have pursued to attack the prosecution's case. Many of the juveniles who appeared before Ciavarella admitted to the charges against them. Many might have benefitted from the treatment he ordered. Furthermore, many of the former juvenile defendants suing Ciavarella were placed in centers other than the ones owned by Powell. Ciavarella, 60, has long maintained his judicial decisions were solely in the interest of the juveniles who appeared before him and society at large. A trial that focused on the highly problematic question of whether the juveniles sentenced by Ciavarella deserved their punishment and/or benefitted from it could have easily turned in Ciavarella's favor. In the end, the prosecution said it was highly satisfied with a verdict that found Ciavarella guilty of just 12 of 39 counts. The jury appeared to find Ciavarella guilty only of the payments that could be definitively tied to him without a reasonable doubt, Zubrod said. "It was not a conclusion that a bribery or extortion did not occur. They were bending over backwards to be fair to the defendant and to make sure they could trace the money before they nailed him," Zubrod said. "I think that's really what went on. It's not that he was innocent, but that the burden of proof had not been met." DJANOSKI@CITIZENSVOICE.COM