The trial of Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., a former Pennsylvania judge who has been charged with honest services fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion in connection with receiving $2.6 million in kickbacks from a private juvenile jail facility, resumes today and is grabbing national attention as the case highlights the dangerous gap in the juvenile justice systems of many states - children appearing in court without lawyers.
In 2009, Ciavarella and Michael Conahan - two judges of the Court of Common Pleas in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania - pleaded guilty in a federal court in Scranton, admitting that they had accepted more than $2.6 million from PA Childcare and a sister company, Western PA Childcare, between 2003 and 2006 in return for giving hundreds of youths and teenagers long sentences and stricter punishments than they deserved and sending them to a detention center run by them. For instance, the 'crime' of one 17-year-old boy, who was sentenced to three months' detention, was being in the company of another minor caught shoplifting.
In the U.S., private juvenile detention centers receive money from the county government to defray the cost of incarceration. Hence, as more children were sentenced to the detention center, PA Childcare and Western PA Childcare received more money from the government.
However, later Ciavarella had denied that there was a 'quid pro quo' between his receipt of money and his sentencing of the juveniles, instead characterizing the money as a finder's fee.
On July 30, 2009, Judge Edwin M. Kosik of Federal District Court in Scranton, Pennsylvania, voided the plea agreement, citing the post-plea conduct of the defendants.
Later, a motion requesting reconsideration of the judge's rejection of the plea agreement was also denied and Ciavarella and Conahan withdrew their guilty pleas and agreed to stand on trial.
On Sept. 9, 2009, a federal grand jury in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania returned a 48 count indictment against the two judges including racketeering, fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery and federal tax violations.
Thousands of the judge's convictions were also overturned by Pennsylvania's Supreme Court.
Two current county court employees - Angela Sallemi, a court reporter, and Conahan's former tipstaff, Nicholas Callen, have also been linked to the case.
Last Tuesday, the trial began and Gordon Zubrod, an assistant United States attorney, told the court how Ciavarella had conspired with Robert J. Powell and Robert K. Mericle to enrich themselves at the cost of lives and futures of innocent children.
Zubrod said Ciavarella schemed with Conahan to shut down the county-run detention center and arrange for a private facility to be built and run by Powell and Mericle.
In 2000, Ciavarella approached Powell and Mericle about building a private alternative to a county-run detention center because he didn't like the old center, Zubrod said. Powell is a Luzerne County lawyer and property developer. Mericle is a locally prominent construction company owner and the builder of the PA Child Care detention center outside Wilkes-Barre. Powell had pleaded guilty to being an accessory to the 'kids for cash' conspiracy and Mericle, who was indicted for lying to a grand jury investigating the judges and other officials who were paid off, had pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony.
The judges were paid cash stuffed into FedEx boxes, prosecutors said. Some of the money were laundered and one of the judges bought a luxury condominium in Florida in 2004, the prosecutors said.
The prosecutors also said Ciavarella routinely trampled on youths' constitutional rights by not allowing them legal representation.
Instead of allowing the county to build its own facility for about $7 million, the judges agreed that the county should pay Powell's company $58 million over 20 years to lease PA Child Care. The lease, however, was eventually canceled as exorbitant.
They turned the Court of Common Pleas into a criminal enterprise, Zubrod said.
Powell also testified that Ciavarella had extorted more money even after it was clear that a federal investigation was under way.
He said last Wednesday 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.
Jurors also heard tape recordings of a 2008 meeting Powell had with the accused judges in which they discussed what they would say to federal agents investigating the payments.
At one point during the conversation, an unknown van pulled up across the street, and the judges - now concerned the room had been bugged - put their fingers to their lips and started whispering.
It's utter panic, Powell, who has lost his law license and faces more than five years in prison, had testified.
On Wednesday, Mericle also testified that he considered the payments made to Ciavarella a finder's fee as they had referred Powell to him when Powell needed a builder to construct a for-profit juvenile detention center.
He said Ciavarella was an old friend of his and was once the legal counsel to his construction firm. Every Christmas, Mericle testified, he gave the judge $5,000 tucked into a travel magazine. Mericle faces jail for at least a year on the charge of failing to report a felony.
On Thursday, Powell's law partner Jill Moran testified that she had delivered three FedEx boxes to Conahan and she wasn't aware of the contents. Conahan, who has pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering conspiracy, awaits sentencing.
However, Ciavarella's lawyer William Ruzzo has denied the charges, saying his client never tried to enrich himself.
Ciavarella, Ruzzo said, sought to build a private detention center because the county's only facility was in poor shape with leaky pipes, broken windows and rodents.
Ruzzo acknowledged that his client did take a finder's fee from Mericle but never accepted kickbacks or bribes from anyone.
He also denied that Ciavarella had tried to extort money from Powell.
If you are extorting somebody, do you go and pay over $100,000 for use of their toys? I think not, Ruzzo said, referring to the times when Ciavarella would go to Powell to borrow his private jet and yacht.
Ciavarella could face up to a life term in jail if convicted.
About the Kids for Cash scheme
Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan of the Court of Common Pleas in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania have been charged with conspiring with a lawyer/real estate developer and a builder that resulted in the closure of the county's juvenile detention center and receiving kickbacks of over $2.6 million from privately-owned for-profit detention center PA Childcare and a sister company, Western PA Childcare, between 2003 and 2006, for sending juveniles there.
The judges have also been charged with attempting to hide their income from the scheme by creating false records and routing payments through intermediaries. For instance, they laundered money through shell companies and disguised some of the cash as rental payments on Florida condominium owned by their wives.
They were removed from their duties by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after federal prosecutors filed charges against them on January 26, 2009.
The court has also appointed a judge to review all the cases involved.
According to the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit group, of approximately 5,000 juveniles who came before Ciavarella from 2003 and 2006, between 1,000 and 2,000 received excessively harsh detention sentences.
Not only Ciavarella often sentenced teenagers to detention centers for minor offenses that would have normally been classified as misdemeanors but also many of the juveniles who appeared before Ciavarella were falsely told by the probation service that their minor offense didn't entitle them legal representation though the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to legal representation in U.S. courts.
The group has sued the judges, PA Childcare and Western PA Childcare for financial compensation for their victims.