Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Pa. judge gets 28 years in 'kids for cash' case

By MICHAEL RUBINKAM - Associated Press | Aug. 11, 2011

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) — A northeastern Pennsylvania judge was ordered
Thursday to spend nearly three decades in prison for his role in a massive
bribery scandal that prompted the state's high court to toss thousands of
juvenile convictions and left lasting scars on the children who appeared
in his courtroom and their hapless families.

Former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. was sentenced to 28 years
in federal prison for taking a $1 million bribe from the builder of a pair
of juvenile detention centers in a case that became known as "kids for

Ciavarella, who denied locking up youths for money, had no reaction as the
sentence was announced. From the gallery, which was crowded with family
members of some of the children he incarcerated, someone shouted "Woo

In the wake of the scandal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned
about 4,000 convictions issued by Ciavarella between 2003 and 2008, saying
he violated the constitutional rights of the juveniles, including the
right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea.

Ciavarella, 61, was tried and convicted of racketeering earlier this year.
His attorneys had asked for a "reasonable" sentence in court papers,
saying, in effect, that he'd already been punished enough.

"The media attention to this matter has exceeded coverage given to many
and almost all capital murders, and despite protestation, he will forever
be unjustly branded as the 'Kids for Cash' judge," their sentencing memo

Al Flora, Ciavarella's lawyer, called the sentence harsher than expected.
The ex-judge surrendered immediately but it was not immediately known
where he would serve his time. He plans to appeal both his conviction and

Ciavarella, in a 15-minute speech before the sentence was handed down,
apologized to his family, the Luzerne County bar and the community — and
to those juveniles who appeared before him in his court. He called himself
a hypocrite who failed to practice what he preached.

"I blame no one but myself for what happened," he said.

Then, in an extraordinary turnabout, Ciavarella attacked the government's
case as well as the conclusions of the state Supreme Court and the
Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, a state panel that
investigated the scandal. Both said Ciavarella engaged in wholesale rights
violations over a period of many years.

Ciavarella denied it.

"I did everything I was obligated to do protect these children's rights,"
he said.

He also criticized U.S. Assistant Attorney Gordon Zubrod for referring to
the case as "kids for cash," saying it sank his reputation. (Zubrod said
outside court that he doesn't remember ever calling it that.)

"He backdoored me, and I never saw it coming. Those three words made me
the personification of evil," Ciavarella said. "They made me toxic and
caused a public uproar the likes of which this community has never seen."

In court, Zubrod said Ciavarella had "verbally abused and cruelly mocked
children he sent away after violating their rights." He called the
ex-judge "vicious and mean-spirited" and asked U.S. District Judge Edwin
M. Kosik to punish Ciavarella's "profound evil" with a life sentence.

"The criminal justice system (in Luzerne County) is ruined and will not
recover in our lifetimes," Zubrod added.

Federal prosecutors accused Ciavarella and a second judge, Michael
Conahan, of taking more than $2 million in bribes from Robert Mericle, the
builder of the PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care detention centers,
and of extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from Robert Powell, the
facilities' co-owner.

Ciavarella, known for his harsh and autocratic courtroom demeanor,
pocketed the cash while filling the beds of the private lockups with
children as young as 10, many of them first-time offenders convicted of
petty theft and other minor crimes. Ciavarella often ordered youths he had
found delinquent to be immediately shackled, handcuffed and taken away
without giving them a chance to say goodbye to their families.

"Frankly, I don't think Ciavarella or Conahan themselves really personally
cared where the juveniles went, as long as they could use their power to
place the juveniles as leverage or control over Mericle and Powell," U.S.
Attorney Peter Smith said Thursday.

Speaking of Ciavarella, Smith added: "There's no true remorse and there's
a blind unwillingness to admit the overall seriousness of his conduct."

The jury returned a mixed verdict following a February trial, convicting
Ciavarella of 12 counts, including racketeering and conspiracy, and
acquitting him of 27 counts, including extortion. The guilty verdicts
related to a payment of $997,600 from Mericle.

Conahan pleaded guilty last year and awaits sentencing.

Sandy Fonzo, whose son committed suicide last year at the age of 23 after
bouncing in and out of Ciavarella's courtroom, said Thursday that justice
was done.

"This judge was wrong, what he did to my son, what he did to all of our
children, what he did to our families, and today proves that," said Fonzo,
who dramatically confronted Ciavarella on the courthouse steps earlier
this year.

Susan Mishanski also applauded the sentence. Ciavarella had ordered her
son to spend three months in a wilderness camp for scuffling with another

"They did not even tell him where they were taking him. It was like
someone kidnapped my son," she said. "It was awful."

Ciavarella and Conahan initially pleaded guilty in February 2009 to honest
services fraud and tax evasion in a deal that called for a sentence of
more than seven years in prison. But their plea deals were rejected by
Kosik, who ruled they had failed to accept responsibility for their

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