Ex-judge who jailed kids for kickbacks convicted

Former Luzerne County, Pa. Judge Mark Ciavarella turns from reporters as he leaves the federal courthouse in Scranton Feb. 15, 2011, after testifying in his public corruption trial. Mark Moran,AP Photo/The Citizen's Voice

SCRANTON, Pa. - A former juvenile court judge was convicted Friday of racketeering in a case that accused him of sending youth offenders to for-profit detention centers in exchange for millions of dollars in illicit payments from the builder and owner of the lockups.

Luzerne County ex-Judge Mark Ciavarella, 61, left the bench in disgrace two years ago after prosecutors charged him with engineering one of the biggest courtroom frauds in U.S. history by using juvenile delinquents as pawns in a plot to get rich.

Federal prosecutors accused Ciavarella and a second judge, Michael Conahan, of taking more than $2 million in bribes from the builder of the PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care detention centers and extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the facilities' co-owner. Ciavarella insisted the payments were legal and denied that he incarcerated youths for money.

A federal jury in Scranton returned a mixed verdict, convicting Ciavarella of 12 counts, including racketeering and conspiracy, and acquitting him of 27 counts, including extortion. The guilty verdicts related to nearly $1 million that the builder paid to the judges.

Ciavarella was expressionless as the verdicts were being read.

Prosecutors alleged Ciavarella and Conahan plotted to shut down the dilapidated county-run juvenile detention center in 2002 and arrange for the construction of the PA Child Care facility outside Wilkes-Barre.

Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths to PA Child Care and later to its sister facility in western Pennsylvania while he was taking payments from Robert Mericle, a prominent builder and close friend of Ciavarella, and Robert Powell, a high-powered attorney who co-owned the youth lockups.

The judge, known for his harsh and autocratic courtroom demeanor, filled the beds of the private lockups with children as young as 10. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed thousands of juvenile convictions issued by Ciavarella, saying he ran his courtroom with "complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles," including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea.

His rough treatment of youths — whom he often had handcuffed and shackled — did not figure into his corruption trial, which focused on the payments from Mericle and Powell. But prosecutor Gordon Zubrod told jurors in his closing argument that Luzerne County's juveniles were indeed victimized by Ciavarella — that he had used them as "pawns in a scheme to enrich himself."

Ciavarella had leverage over Powell because Powell needed the judge to send youths to his heavily mortgaged detention centers, Zubrod said.

Taking the stand in his own defense, the former judge acknowledged to jurors that he failed to report the payments on his tax returns and hid them from the public, but he denied any plot to take kickbacks or extort money.

Ciavarella told jurors that he thought he was legally entitled to Mericle's money, calling it a "finder's fee" for introducing Mericle to Powell. He insisted he took no further steps to make sure that Mericle got the contract to build the detention centers, saying that Mericle was hired by Powell because he was the low bidder.

The former judge pointed to a 2008 conversation — secretly recorded by Powell while he was wearing a wire for the FBI — in which he told Powell and Conahan: "I had nothing to do with it, other than Rob Mericle coming to me and saying, `I want to do this for you.' He came to me. I didn't go to him. ... Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that it was illegal."

Ciavarella also denied to the jury that he extorted Powell, who had testified for the prosecution that he was forced to pay the judges nearly $600,000 after they agreed to send juvenile delinquents to his new lockup. The payments were disguised as rent on a Florida condominium owned by the judges' wives.

Ciavarella testified that it was Conahan who made the arrangements with Powell. He said Conahan told him that Powell had agreed to pay them $15,000 a month for 60 months to lease the waterfront Florida property. Prosecutors scoffed at that explanation, questioning why Powell — a successful trial lawyer and businessman — would be so foolish as to pay nearly $1 million in rent on a condo he could have purchased outright for less than $800,000.

The defense also said that Ciavarella had no idea that Powell separately was sending cash stuffed in boxes to Conahan. There was "a back-room deal going on between Mike Conahan and Bob Powell, and Mark Ciavarella had no idea what was occurring," defense attorney Al Flora told the jury.

After the verdicts were announced, prosecutors sought forfeiture of $997,600 that Mericle paid Ciavarella, and the jury was considering whether to order it.

"A criminal should not be able to keep his ill-gotten gains," Zubrod said. "If he has assets he has been hiding, we will find them."

Luzerne County paid Powell's company more than $30 million between 2003 and 2007 to house juveniles at PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care. The county could have built its own juvenile center for about $9 million.

Ciavarella and Conahan initially pleaded guilty in February 2009 to honest services fraud and tax evasion in a deal that called for a sentence of 87 months in prison. But their plea deals were rejected by Senior U.S. District Judge Edward M. Kosik, who ruled they had failed to accept responsibility for their actions.

A federal grand jury in Harrisburg subsequently indicted the judges on charges of racketeering, fraud, money laundering, bribery, extortion and tax offenses. Conahan pleaded guilty to a single racketeering charge last year and awaits sentencing.

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