The trial of Mark Ciavarella, a former Pennsylvania judge who has been charged with racketeering, fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery and federal tax violations, drew to a close on Friday with the jury returning a guilty verdict.
Ciavarella was found guilty, Friday, of 12 of 39 counts of corruption filed against him, including racketeering and fraud charges.
The jury at the federal courthouse in Scranton returned to U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Edwin M. Kosik’s courtroom with the finding that Ciavarella was guilty of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, honest services mail fraud, money laundering conspiracy and a host of tax fraud charges. The former judge was, however, cleared of extortion, bribery and honest services wire fraud charges.
The former judge faces a maximum sentence of 157 years in prison.
Ciavarella and Michael Conahan - two judges of the Court of Common Pleas in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania - were accused of receiving kickbacks from Robert K. Mericle, the builder and co-owner of two juvenile detention facilities in return for closing down the county's juvenile detention center and sending teenage offenders to the private-run, for-profit facilities, sometimes for minor offenses. Ciavarella, who allegedly received $2.8 million, has also been accused of preventing the teenage offenders from appearing in his court without lawyers. Legal representation is a constitutional right in the U.S.
The kids for cash scheme prompted the state Supreme Court to throw out thousands of convictions.
They have also been charged with trying to extort money from Robert J. Powell, a Luzerne County lawyer and property developer. The detention centers in the eye of the storm are PA Childcare and Western PA Childcare.
During trial, Powell testified that Ciavarella had extorted more money even after it was clear that a federal investigation was under way.
He testified that Ciavarella and Conahan had summoned him to the courthouse in 2003 and demanded to be paid an additional $40,000 even as a grand jury probe was underway that would ultimately result in a racketeering indictment.
Powell's law partner Jill Moran testified that she had delivered three FedEx boxes to Conahan and she wasn't aware of the contents. The prosecutors had accused the judges of being paid cash stuffed into FedEx boxes. Conahan, who has pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering conspiracy, awaits sentencing.
However, the defense lawyers say Ciavarella took legal finder's fees from Mericle and though he committed tax fraud by not declaring his fees to the IRS, he never attempted to extort money from Powell.
Ciavarella's lawyer, Albert Flora, told reporters on Friday after the trial that the not guilty verdict on the bribery charge showed that the jury obviously did not believe Robert Powell's testimony and they obviously didn't believe Jill Moran's testimony.
However, prosecuting attorney Gordon Zubrod said the verdict did not mean that bribery did not occur. The jury, he said, likely had difficulty tracing where the money, which was paid by Mericle to Ciavarella, went after it was deposited and therefore felt the burden of proof had not been met.
Nonetheless, the jury has ruled Ciavarella must forfeit $997,600 he got from Mericle.
Meanwhile, Assistant US Attorney William Houser has asked Judge Kosik to order that Ciavarella be detained until sentencing as he poses a flight risk.
He's a 61-year-old man facing the rest, or most of the rest, of his life in prison, Houser told Kosik, adding that Ciavarella has affluent and influential friends who can help him flee from the country.
However, defense attorney William Ruzzo said Ciavarella will appeal the verdict and fleeing from the country is the last thing on his mind. He'll be around to see what the appellate courts have to say, Ruzzo said.
After hearing both sides, Kosik released Ciavarella on a $1 million unsecured bond on the condition that he be placed in the custody of his pregnant daughter.