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Pa. judge convicted in kickback case

$2 million paid to send juveniles to for-profit prisons

By Michael Rubinkam
Associated Press / February 19, 2011

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SCRANTON, Pa. — A former juvenile court judge was convicted yesterday of racketeering in a case that accused him of sending youth offenders to for-profit detention centers in exchange for millions of dollars in illicit payments from the builder and owner of the lockups.

Mark Ciavarella, 61, former Luzerne County judge, left the bench in disgrace two years ago after prosecutors charged him with engineering one of the biggest courtroom frauds in US history by using juvenile delinquents as pawns in a plot to get rich.

Federal prosecutors accused Ciavarella and a second judge, Michael Conahan, of taking more than $2 million in bribes from the builder of the PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care detention centers and extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the facilities’ co-owner. Ciavarella insisted that the payments were legal and denied that he incarcerated youths for money.

A federal jury in Scranton returned a mixed verdict, convicting Ciavarella of 12 counts, including racketeering and conspiracy, and acquitting him of 27 counts, including extortion.

The guilty verdicts related to nearly $1 million that the builder paid to the judges.

Ciavarella was expressionless as the verdicts were being read.

Prosecutors alleged that Ciavarella and Conahan plotted to shut down the dilapidated county-run juvenile detention center in 2002 and arrange for the construction of the PA Child Care facility outside Wilkes-Barre.

Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths to PA Child Care and later to its sister facility in western Pennsylvania while he was taking payments from Robert Mericle, a prominent builder and close friend of Ciavarella, and Robert Powell, a high-powered attorney who co-owned the youth lockups.

The judge, known for his harsh and autocratic courtroom demeanor, sent children as young as 10 to of the private lockups. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed thousands of juvenile convictions issued by Ciavarella, saying he ran his courtroom with “complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles,’’ including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea.

His rough treatment of youths — whom he often had handcuffed and shackled — did not figure into his corruption trial, which focused on the payments from Mericle and Powell.

But prosecutor Gordon Zubrod told jurors in his closing argument that Luzerne County’s juveniles were indeed victimized by Ciavarella — that he had used them as “pawns in a scheme to enrich himself.’’

Ciavarella had leverage over Powell because Powell needed the judge to send youths to his heavily mortgaged detention centers, Zubrod said.

Taking the stand in his own defense, the former judge acknowledged to jurors that he failed to report the payments on his tax returns and hid them from the public, but he denied any plot to take kickbacks or extort money.

Ciavarella told jurors that he thought he was legally entitled to Mericle’s money, calling it a “finder’s fee’’ for introducing Mericle to Powell. He insisted he took no further steps to make sure that Mericle got the contract to build the detention centers, saying that Mericle was hired by Powell because he was the low bidder.

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