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Prosecutor: Ex-judge Took Kickbacks, Extorted Cash

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) - A former northeastern Pennsylvania judge accepted kickbacks and extorted money in a $2.8 million scheme to enrich himself by locking up juvenile offenders in privately run detention facilities, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday as the former judge's trial began.

Lawyers gave opening statements in the case of one-time Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella, who has denied authorities' allegations of a kids-for-cash bribery plot.

U.S. Attorney Gordon Zubrod accused Ciavarella of accepting kickbacks from the builder of the PA Child Care detention center. Zubrod also alleged that the judge extorted cash from the center's co-owner, Robert Powell, and threatened to send juvenile delinquents elsewhere if he didn't get the money.

"He has used his judicial office to enrich himself in direct violation of his duty and oath as judge," Zubrod said.

Defense attorney William Ruzzo denied the extortion claim, saying Ciavarella had no leverage over Powell.

He also noted that Powell, who later recorded his conversations for authorities, failed to obtain any incriminating statements by Ciavarella.

"The guy wore a wire and couldn't get an admission. He couldn't get the smoking gun," Ruzzo said.

The defense also maintained that Ciavarella accepted not a kickback from the builder but a finder's fee, which Ruzzo called a common practice in real estate circles.

Ruzzo said Ciavarella didn't know he was not allowed to take that money under ethics guidelines. But Ruzzo said the jury must decide whether Ciavarella's actions were illegal, not unethical.

"There's no question he should have used better judgment on the bench," Ruzzo said.

Investigators say Ciavarella routinely sent juvenile offenders to a pair of privately run lockups as part of an arrangement involving Powell and another judge.

The state Supreme Court threw out thousands of juvenile cases presided over by Ciavarella, saying he disregarded the constitutional rights of the defendants.

Former county President Judge Michael Conahan pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering conspiracy and awaits sentencing.