Corrupt Pennsylvania Judges Withdraw Guilty Pleas


Last week Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, the former Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, judges who admitted taking millions of dollars in kickbacks from the operator of two juvenile detention centers, withdrew their guilty pleas after a federal judge rejected their agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office. Under that deal, which called for sentences of about seven years each, Ciavarella and Conahan pleaded guilty to tax evasion and honest services fraud (which federal law defines as a "scheme or artifice to deprive another [in this case, taxpayers] of the intangible right of honest services"). But they never admitted the most outrageous aspects of their scheme, which seems to be why U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik rejected the plea agreement.

As chief judge of Luzerne County, Conahan arranged for PA Child Care to be the county's exclusive supplier of juvenile detention services, while Ciavarella, as the county's juvenile court judge, kept the company's jails full. Meanwhile, according to their plea agreement, they received $2.6 million from the company and hid the money from the IRS. Yet they did not acknowledge the obvious quid pro quo. The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reports that Conahan refused to "discuss the motivation for his conduct with federal probation officials," who deemed his post-plea behavior "scandalous." Ciavarella, who had a reputation for dealing harshly and peremptorily with juvenile defendants and for denying them their right to counsel, nevertheless has insisted that the money from PA Child Care did not influence the sentences he imposed. (The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has expunged the records of some 6,500 defendants who appeared before Ciavarella between 2003 and 2008.) In rejecting their plea deal, Kosik cited Conahan and Ciavarella's failure to accept responsibility for their crimes.

The good news, for those who thought the seven-year prison terms were too light, is that Conahan and Ciavarella could end up with longer sentences. Assuming they do not reach a new plea agreement that meets with Kosik's approval, federal prosecutors are sure to pile on the charges in any indictment they issue. The most obvious additional charge is bribery, but other possibilities include mail fraud, money laundering, and racketeering. The bad news is that proving these charges will be a complicated, time-consuming, and uncertain process, during which two judges who grossly perverted justice for profit presumably will remain free and continue to draw their pensions.

Previous Reason coverage of this case here. The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which was instrumental in exposing Ciavarella's mistreatment of juvenile defendants, has more here. The U.S. Attorney's Office has a website devoted to "Luzerne County Corruption Prosecutions" here.