Judges Sentenced Kids for cash (Note: scroll down for update)
Jan. 28, 2009
The setting is Pennsylvania coal country, but it's a story right out of Dickens' grim 19th-century landscape: Two of Luzerne County's most senior judges on Monday were accused of sending children to jail in return for kickbacks.
The judges, Luzerne County President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., 58, and his predecessor, Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan, 56, will serve seven years in jail under a plea agreement.
They're alleged to have pocketed $2.6 million in payments from juvenile detention center operators.
When a federal judge reviews their plea, though, the question ought to be whether the punishment is adequate - along with the judges being bounced from the bench, disbarred, and losing their pensions.
If the allegations are true, Ciavarella and Conahan were involved in a disgraceful cabal far worse than one that merely lined their pockets.
First, the judges helped the detention centers land a county contract worth $58 million. Then their alleged scheme was to guarantee the operators a steady income by detaining juveniles, often on petty stuff.
Many of the kids were railroaded, according to allegations lodged with the state Supreme Court last year by the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, an advocacy group.
In asking the court to intervene in April, the law center cited hundreds of examples where teens accused of minor mischief were pressured to waive their right to lawyers, and then shipped to a detention center.
One teen was given a 90-day sentence for having parodied a school administrator online. Such unwarranted detentions left "both children and parents feeling bewildered, violated and traumatized," center lawyers said.
"Very few people would stand up" to the Luzerne judges, according to the law center's executive director, Robert G. Schwartz.
Fortunately, Juvenile Law Center was willing to do so, along with backing from state Attorney General Tom Corbett's office and the state Department of Public Welfare.
The blind justices on the state's high court, though, took a pass. Only last month, they offered no explanation in declining to take up the law center's request that the court step up.
Now, the state Supreme Court should revisit the issue, since the scope of corruption alleged at the Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre could further undermine confidence in the courts statewide.
Authorities need to redress running roughshod over juveniles' rights - a process also likely to bring damage suits. While the local district attorney pledges to "do our best to right the situation," this calls for an independent, outside review.
The two judges' downfall may have rooted out the worst perpetrators of this evil scheme, but the abuse of power alleged in Luzerne County is so startling that it should send shock waves for reform around the state court system.
Pennsylvania rocked by 'jailing kids for cash' scandal
By Stephanie Chen
February 23, 2009
(CNN) -- At a friend's sleepover more than a year ago, 14-year-old Phillip Swartley pocketed change from unlocked vehicles in the neighborhood to buy chips and soft drinks. The cops caught him.
There was no need for an attorney, said Phillip's mother, Amy Swartley, who thought at most, the judge would slap her son with a fine or community service.
But she was shocked to find her eighth-grader handcuffed and shackled in the courtroom and sentenced to a youth detention center. Then, he was shipped to a boarding school for troubled teens for nine months.
"Yes, my son made a mistake, but I didn't think he was going to be taken away from me," said Swartley, a 41-year-old single mother raising two boys in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
CNN does not usually identify minors accused of crimes. But Swartley and others agreed to be named to bring public attention to the issue.
As scandals from Wall Street to Washington roil the public trust, the justice system in Luzerne County, in the heart of Pennsylvania's struggling coal country, has also fallen prey to corruption. The county has been rocked by a kickback scandal involving two elected judges who essentially jailed kids for cash. Many of the children had appeared before judges without a lawyer.
The nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia said Phillip is one of at least 5,000 children over the past five years who appeared before former Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella.
Ciavarella pleaded guilty earlier this month to federal criminal charges of fraud and other tax charges, according to the U.S. attorney's office. Former Luzerne County Senior Judge Michael Conahan also pleaded guilty to the same charges. The two secretly received more than $2.6 million, prosecutors said.
The judges have been disbarred and have resigned from their elected positions. They agreed to serve 87 months in prison under their plea deals. Ciavarella and Conahan did not return calls, and their attorneys told CNN that they have no comment.
Ciavarella, 58, along with Conahan, 56, corruptly and fraudulently "created the potential for an increased number of juvenile offenders to be sent to juvenile detention facilities," federal court documents alleged. Children would be placed in private detention centers, under contract with the court, to increase the head count. In exchange, the two judges would receive kickbacks.
The Juvenile Law Center said it plans to file a class-action lawsuit this week representing what they say are victims of corruption. Juvenile Law Center attorneys cite a few examples of harsh penalties Judge Ciavarella meted out for relatively petty offenses:
Ciavarvella sent 15-year-old Hillary Transue to a wilderness camp for mocking an assistant principal on a MySpace page.
He whisked 13-year-old Shane Bly, who was accused of trespassing in a vacant building, from his parents and confined him in a boot camp for two weekends.
He sentenced Kurt Kruger, 17, to detention and five months of boot camp for helping a friend steal DVDs from Wal-Mart.
Several other lawsuits on behalf of the juveniles who have appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom have emerged.
The private juvenile detention centers, owned by Mid Atlantic Youth Services Corp., are still operating and are not a target of the federal investigation, according court documents. The company cooperated in the investigation, the documents said.
A spokesman from the company denied that its current owner, Gregory Zappala, knew about the kickbacks.
Ciavarella assured the community that he could provide justice. Elected to the bench in 1996, he once ran for judge on the promise that he would punish "people who break the law," according to local reports.
The corruption began in 2002, when Conahan shut down the state juvenile detention center and used money from the Luzerne County budget to fund a multimillion-dollar lease for the private facilities. Despite some raised eyebrows from the community, county commissioners approved the deal.
The federal government began investigating in 2006.
"It's been a dark cloud hanging over the county for a very, very long time," said Luzerne County Commissioner Maryanne C. Petrilla, whose office approved the judges' budgets during the corruption. "I'm looking forward to the ship turning around now and us moving in the right direction."
The kickback scandal highlights a major problem in the juvenile justice system in Luzerne County and across the country, attorneys say. They say hundreds of children who appeared before Ciavarella didn't have lawyers.
"Kids think very much in the present, and they have limited abilities to understand long-term consequences," said Robin Dahlberg, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York who specializes in juvenile issues.
Dahlberg's recent study in Ohio revealed that some of the counties had as many as 90 percent of children going through the court system without a lawyer.
"This Pennsylvania case is a sad reminder of why kids need an attorney," she said.
A 1967 Supreme Court ruling says children have a right to counsel. However, many states allow children and their parents to appear without an attorney by completing a waiver.
Pennsylvania is among about half of thestates in the country that allow waivers to be signed for juveniles to appear before a judge without an attorney, legal experts say.
In Luzerne County, teens who waived counsel were at greater risk of being sent to placement center than those with representation.
About 50 percent of the children who waived counsel before Ciavarella were sent to some kind of placement, the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center reports. In comparison, the Juvenile Court Judges' Commission in Pennsylvania found that 8.4 percent of juveniles across the state wind up in placement.
"When you have this many kids waiving counsel, then that's way out of line," said Marsha Levick, an attorney at the Juvenile Law Center. "There was no record [Ciavarella] was assuring the child and parent about the consequences of not having representation."
Minors charged with nonviolent crimes were often given harsher sentences than what probation officers recommended, court documents say. Other investigators say the trials lasted a few minutes at most.
All four of the teens cited in this story say they appeared before Ciavarella without lawyers.
"I was sort of shocked and taken aback," Hillary Transue, the MySpace offender who is now 17, said of her experience in Ciavarella's courtroom in April 2007. "I didn't really understand what was going on."
The Juvenile Law Center says it first red-flagged Ciavarella in 1999 after discovering that a 13-year-old boy was detained without being read his rights and had appeared in court without a lawyer. When the case became public, Ciavarella promised the public that every minor in his courtroom would have a lawyer.
Judges must verbally explain the consequences of appearing in court without counsel to minors and parents, lawyers say. Juvenile Law Center officials say Ciavarella neglected to do so in many cases.
Yet in the past five years, attorneys, law enforcement officials and other judges did not report Ciavarella's behavior to the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania, says Joseph A. Massa Jr., chief counsel at the board.
Privatizing detention facilities is a growing in popularity among governments because the companies say they offer lower rates than the state.
Pennsylvania has the second highest number of private facilities after Florida, accounting for about 11 percent of the private facilities in the United States, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Critics say private prisons lack transparency because they don't go through the same inspections and audits as a state facility, and this may have allowed payoffs to go so long without being noticed.
"Once somebody is going to make more money by holding more kids, there is a pretty good predictable profit motive," said criminal justice consultant Judith Greene, who heads a nonprofit group called Justice Strategies. "It's predictable that companies are going to tolerate certain behaviors they shouldn't."
An audit draft obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer showed that Luzerne County was spending more than $1.2 million in expenses that weren't allowed under state regulations. The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, the agency overseeing the audits, says the audit drafts are not final.
The audits also allege that two people paid the judges. Attorneys for former Mid-Atlantic owner Robert Powell say that their client is one of those people but that he was pressured by the judges to make payments. The attorneys say Powell never offered to pay the judges, never sought to influence any juvenile case and is now cooperating with the investigation. Zappala and Powell were partners until Zappala bought out Powell in 2008.
Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim of Berks County is reviewing the cases for minors who appeared before Ciavarella. Court officials say some children may have their records expunged or be granted new hearings.
The Philadelphia Bar Association has expressed outrage, assuring the public that the rest of the judges on the state's bench are "composed of highly qualified, honorable and honest people, who take their responsibilities to the public very seriously."
But some of the children -- many who, like Phillip Swartley, are now young adults -- have become jaded and believe that their cases were tainted in Ciavarella's courtroom.
After being sent to boarding school, Phillip, now 15, became withdrawn and depressed, his mother says.
"What do these kids see of the legal system and of authority figures?" Amy Swartley asked. "These kids see people who abuse their power. Now, we have a whole county and generation of children who have lost trust in the system."
Ex-judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. guilty in 'cash for kids' case
By Craig R. McCoy
February 19, 2011
SCRANTON - A federal jury Friday found former Luzerne County Court Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. guilty of racketeering in one of the nation's worst judicial scandals, a crime in which prosecutors said the former judge used children "as pawns to enrich himself."
In convicting Ciavarella of racketeering, the jury agreed with prosecutors that he and another corrupt judge had taken an illegal payment of nearly $1 million from a juvenile detention center's builder and then hidden the money.
The panel of six men and six women also found Ciavarella guilty of "honest services mail fraud" and of being a tax cheat for failing to list that money and more on his annual public financial-disclosure forms and on four years of tax returns. In addition, they found him guilty of
conspiring to launder money.
The jurors acquitted Ciavarella of extortion and bribery in connection with $1.9 million that prosecutors said the judges extracted from the builder and owner of two juvenile-detention centers, including lurid allegations that Ciavarella shared in FedEx boxes stuffed with tens of
thousands of dollars in cash.
Convicted on 12 of the 39 counts he faced, Ciavarella faces a minimum sentence of 13 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.
Ciavarella was expressionless when the jury read its verdict. Pale and almost meek during his trial, though known as "Mr. Zero Tolerance" when he presided over Juvenile Court, he was released to await sentencing.
As he left the courtroom, Ciavarella said the verdict was something of a vindication. He "never took a dime to send a kid anywhere," he asserted.
One of his defense lawyers, Al Flora Jr., also claimed a kind of victory.
"There was never a bribe. This was not a 'cash for kids' scandal," Flora said, quoting the phrase that has come to epitomize the case since Ciavarella and Luzerne County's former president judge, Michael T. Conahan, were indicted two years ago.
U.S. Attorney Peter Smith, the top federal prosecutor in the region, rejected the defense view. "I find it interesting that a man just convicted of racketeering would consider this a victory," Smith said. "I'd like to know what he'd consider a defeat."
Lourdes Rosado, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which played a key role in bringing the scandal to light, also dismissed the defense claims.
"We are immensely gratified to see this day come and see that justice has been done," Rosado said.
As Ciavarella departed, a woman confronted him outside the courthouse, yelling that a jail sentence he imposed was to blame for her son's suicide last year.
"I'd like him to go to hell and rot there forever," said Sandy Fonzo.
Ciavarella, 60, now stands convicted of conspiring with Conahan, 58, in a scheme related to the construction of two juvenile-detention centers in the region. Conahan pleaded guilty last year and awaits sentencing.
The judges' prosecution has been a key chapter in a mushrooming investigation targeting public officials in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
In all, federal prosecutors have brought charges against nearly 30 officials, including a third county judge, numerous court officials, a state senator, school board members, and county officials. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court made public an opinion revealing that former State Sen. Robert Mellow (D., Lackawanna) is being investigated for "federal-program theft, extortion, fraud, and money-laundering."
To a limited extent, the jury's verdict affirmed Ciavaralla's legal strategy.
When he took the stand in his own defense on Tuesday, he readily admitted he had cheated on his taxes and mailed incomplete financial-disclosure forms to the state.
But he and his lawyers vigorously challenged the allegations that he had taken bribes.
He said he did not reveal those payments on the forms not because he thought they were illegal, but because he feared disclosure would upset the public.
In particular, the defense team attacked the government's key witness, one-time detention center owner Robert Powell, saying he was no extortion victim but a powerful political operative.
But lead prosecutor Gordon A.D. Zubrod ripped into Ciavarella's main defense: that the money he collected was legitimate "finder's fees," paid him for putting the facility's owner in touch with the builder.
"Mark Ciavarella is a judge and a lawyer," Zubrod told jurors. "He knows he's receiving an illegal kickback." As the jury sorted through the 39-count indictment, it seemed - in the end - to split the difference.
It convicted the judge in connection with the first payment in the scheme: $997,600 in 2003.
The jury also found him guilty of conspiracy to launder money in connection with that payment.
According to testimony, much of the money was sent on this circuitous route: It was wired from the center's builder, Rob Mericle. Then, it proceeded to Powell, to a lawyer associate of Powell's, to Conahan's beverage company, and, finally, into Ciavarella's bank account.
But the jury acquitted him with regard to later payments in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
The judges' scheme began unfolding about 10 years ago.
The pair cut off sending delinquent children to a county-owned facility, saying it was in terrible condition. This created a business opportunity for Powell, a wealthy tort lawyer and developer, who hired Mericle to construct a new facility - and secretly began paying millions to
Ciavarella sentenced youngsters to incarceration at a rate far higher than elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
After the scandal broke, the state Supreme Court agreed to wipe out the criminal records of up to 4,000 youngsters who appeared before Ciavarella.
As the government's top witness, Powell testified that the two judges were "relentless" in their demands for money.
He and Mericle have also pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the scheme.
When Ciavarella took the stand in his own defense on Tuesday, he insisted he had viewed the payments as legal rewards for hooking up Mericle and Powell.
In his closing argument, defense lawyer Flora urged the jury to ignore the circuitous path taken by the money.
"If that money was not a kickback," Flora told jurors, "how that money was transferred doesn't mean a thing, because it was legal money."
Ciavarella and Conahan initially agreed to plead guilty in 2009 to honest-services fraud and tax evasion in a deal that called for each to receive a sentence of seven years in prison.
But their initial plea deals were rejected by U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik, who grew disgusted that the two judges seemed to be minimizing their crimes. It will now be up to Kosik to sentence the two former judges.