Developer: Ex-Pa. Judges Extorted $590K In Scheme

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) - As the developer and co-owner of a juvenile detention facility called PA Child Care, Robert Powell owed a debt of gratitude to a pair of northeastern Pennsylvania judges who helped get him in business.

But the judges didn't want Powell to say thank you. They wanted his cash.

Powell says he fell victim to an extortion scheme by former Luzerne County Judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella, telling jurors at Ciavarella's federal racketeering trial Wednesday that he was forced to pay them nearly $600,000 after they agreed to send the county's juvenile delinquents to his new private lockup outside Wilkes-Barre.

In a scandal known as "kids for cash," prosecutors allege that Ciavarella extorted Powell and took more than $2 million in illegal kickbacks from the builder of PA Child Care and its sister facility in western Pennsylvania. Conahan already has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and awaits sentencing.

Powell said the judges summoned him to the courthouse in 2003, several months after the opening of PA Child Care, and demanded to be paid. Ciavarella told Powell he knew the detention center was doing well financially, "and it was now time to get him and Mike Conahan money," Powell said.

Powell, who knew the judges had already received a hefty kickback from Robert Mericle, the builder of the facility, said he replied, "Are you telling me you guys blew through a million bucks already?"

He said the judges laughed.

"I know what's going on up there," Ciavarella said, according to Powell. "I want a part of it."

Having personally guaranteed a $12 million mortgage for PA Child Care, Powell said he felt he had no choice but to pay. Powell either disguised the payments as rent on the judges' Florida condominium, or as boat slip fees for docking his yacht at the condo complex.

"It was nonsense," he said. "It was done in order to hide the real nature of the payment. It had nothing to do with rent."

Powell has pleaded guilty to concealing a felony and being an accessory after the fact. Under a plea agreement, he agreed to give up his ownership stake in the 56-foot yacht, named "Reel Justice," as well as a corporate jet. He faces up to 5 1/2 years in prison.

Prosecutors allege the judges shut down the dilapidated county-run juvenile detention center in 2002 and arranged for the construction of PA Child Care. Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, stocked the private jail with young offenders whose crimes were often minor. Many of the teens had never been in trouble before, and some were locked up even after probation officers recommended against it.

The state Supreme Court threw out thousands of juvenile convictions issued by Ciavarella, saying he disregarded the constitutional rights of the defendants. He has denied any link between the payments he received and the youths he sent to the facility.

Mericle, the builder, testified earlier Wednesday that he paid $2.1 million to Ciavarella for referring him to Powell, but that he viewed the payments as "finder's fees," which are common practice in the commercial real estate business.

Mericle, the owner of a commercial construction company with more than 200 employees, testified that he visited Ciavarella in his courthouse office and said he wouldn't have had the opportunity to build PA Child Care without the judge.

He said it's standard to pay referral fees to individuals who put deals together. Mericle decided on a $1 million referral fee for PA Child Care.

"If anybody deserves it, it's you," Mericle told Ciavarella, a close friend.

"I agree," Ciavarella said, according to Mericle's account.

Mericle said he paid another $1 million after building Western PA Child Care for Powell. Under cross-examination, Mericle said he did not consider the money he paid to Ciavarella to be a kickback or bribe. Prosecutors say Ciavarella split the money with Conahan.

By the fall of 2007, Ciavarella was aware that federal law enforcement authorities were looking into the payments. But even then he questioned Mericle about the status of the latest referral fee he was to supposed to receive - $150,000 for a 24-bed expansion of Western PA Child Care.

Mericle testified that he went to see Ciavarella in his chambers one day and found him behind his desk with the lights dimmed. Ciavarella put his fingers to his lips to hush him, presumably believing his office to be bugged, and wrote a message on a slip of paper. "Wired? Yes No Circle One," the note said, meaning he wanted to know whether the finder's fee had been deposited into his bank account. Mericle circled no.

Ciavarella then motioned for Mericle to go into a courtroom, where the pair sat at a table and Ciavarella told him that a grand jury was investigating. He told Mericle that he could go to jail if authorities found out he had directed the referral fees to be funneled to him through Powell.

Mericle testified that he believed Ciavarella wanted him to alter documents to make it look as if the payments had been made directly to the judge - not to Powell - in order to give the appearance of legitimacy.

"Rob, I'm not asking you to lie or perjure yourself," Ciavarella said, according to Mericle. "I'm asking you to go back to your office and look at those records and recognize I could go to jail."

A few days later, Mericle was about to leave his office to return to Ciavarella's chambers when the builder was visited by IRS and FBI agents.

Mericle initially lied to law enforcement officials and to a grand jury. He has pleaded guilty to concealing evidence that Ciavarella committed tax fraud, and faces up to three years in prison.

Mericle said he initially lied to protect his friend. Ciavarella was Mericle's attorney until 1996, when he became a judge, and Mericle said he viewed Ciavarella as an older brother.

As Mericle's construction company grew and prospered, he lavished gifts on the judge. He said he gave $5,000 cash to Ciavarella each Christmas.

"I did not want to be the person to lay Mark out," he said.