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Two Pa. judges sued in kickback scheme

Victims seeking damages after guilty pleas

By Michael Rubinkam
Associated Press / February 14, 2009
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ALLENTOWN, Pa. - A lawsuit has been filed against two Pennsylvania judges accused of taking more than $2 million in kickbacks to send youth offenders to privately run detention centers.

The civil suit names Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan and 14 other defendants. It was filed in federal court late Thursday on behalf of hundreds of children and their families who were alleged victims of the corruption.

"At the hands of two grossly corrupt judges and several conspirators, hundreds of Pennsylvania children, their families, and loved ones, were victimized and their civil rights violated," the plaintiffs' attorney, Michael Cefalo, said yesterday.

Prosecutors alleged that Ciavarella and Conahan took $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in centers run by PA Child Care LLC and a sister company, possibly tainting the convictions of thousands of juvenile offenders.

In a plea agreement to settle the criminal charges against them, the judges pleaded guilty to fraud in federal court in Scranton on Thursday. The plea agreements call for sentences of more than seven years in prison. Both judges have been removed from the bench by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The suit asks for at least $150,000 on each of three counts, the minimum required to avoid mandatory arbitration, but the plaintiffs are likely to argue for a much higher amount.

An attorney for Conahan said he hadn't seen the suit and declined to comment. Ciavarella's lawyer didn't immediately return a phone message.

The lead plaintiff is Florence Wallace, whose 14-year-old daughter, Bernadine, was charged with making terror threats after getting into an argument on MySpace. The lawsuit said the teenager was not advised of her right to an attorney and was pressured to plead guilty.

As a result of the judges' corruption, parents were forced to pay for the "wrongful incarceration" of their children, the suit said. Some parents had their wages garnisheed and benefits seized.

The plaintiffs also are suing two individuals who allegedly paid the kickbacks: attorney Robert Powell, who co-owned PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care until June; and Robert Mericle, whose construction company built the detention centers.

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