Monday, February 16, 2009

PA: 2 Pa. judges sued in $2.6M kickback scheme

Updated 02/14/2009 12:46:17 AM EST

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) - Two lawsuits have 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 suits name Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan as well as the individuals who allegedly paid the kickbacks and other defendants. They were filed in federal court late Thursday and Friday 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," plaintiffs' attorney Michael Cefalo said in a statement Friday.

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

The judges pleaded guilty to fraud in federal court in Scranton on Thursday. Their plea agreements call for sentences of more than seven years in prison.

For years, youth advocacy groups complained that Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, was overly harsh and trampled on kids' constitutional rights. Ciavarella sent a quarter of his juvenile defendants to detention centers from 2002 to 2006, compared with a statewide rate of one in 10.

"Ciavarella, in the most cynical fashion, assured that there would be ample juveniles adjudicated delinquent and placed in PA Child Care," one of the suits said. "As juvenile judge, he ignored law, ignored the constitution, and ignored basic human decency. He provided quick 'justice,' adjudicated children delinquent and ripped them from their parents in record time and in astonishing numbers."

The suits ask for monetary damages.

An attorney for Conahan declined to comment. Ciavarella's lawyer didn't immediately return a phone message.

The lead plaintiff in one lawsuit is Florence Wallace, whose 14-year-old daughter Bernadine was charged with terroristic 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. She was taken from Ciavarella's courtroom in shackles and spent time in PA Child Care and at a youth wilderness camp.

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 garnished, public assistance benefits taken and social security benefits seized.

In addition to the judges, plaintiffs in both suits are suing two individuals who allegedly paid the kickbacks: attorney Robert Powell, who co-owned PA Child Care LLC and Western PA Child Care LLC until last June; and Robert Mericle, who owns one of the largest commercial construction firms in northeastern Pennsylvania and built the detention centers.

Through an attorney, Powell has said he was the victim of extortion. A spokesman for Mericle has denied making payments "to influence a decision to secure a contract to build any PA Child Care facility."

Mericle's company was also named as a defendant.

Through a spokesman, PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, which are also named as defendants, declined to comment. The detention centers' current owner, Gregory Zappala - another defendant - has said through an attorney that he had no knowledge of the payoffs.

U.S. Attorney Martin Carlson has notified lawyers for PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care that the facilities are not being targeted in the ongoing corruption probe and do not face indictment.

Both lawsuits seek class-action status in the case.

Both judges have been removed from the bench by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. On Friday, the high court, which had suspended Ciavarella with pay, terminated his pay and benefits. He had been making about $157,000 a year.

Conahan, who was semi-retired but still heard cases as a senior judge, has been stripped of his certification and may no longer receive per-diem pay.

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