'Never in My Wildest Dreams Did I Consider That Money to Be a Kickback'


Mark Ciavarella, the corrupt Pennsylvania judge who is the subject of my column today, prided himself on taking a tough, no-nonsense approach to juvenile offenders, refusing to accept excuses or consider mitigating factors. It is therefore bitterly amusing to read his testimony during his federal trial, when he twisted himself into knots while trying to explain away the $2.9 million in kickbacks that he and another Luzerne County judge, Michael Conahan, received from two private detention centers they helped establish and kept in business. Ciavarella said $2.1 million of that was a "finder's fee" that the contractor who built the juvenile jails, Robert Mericle, volunteered to pay him after he introduced Mericle to Robert Powell, co-owner of the company that ran the jails:

"I never considered the money Rob Mericle paid to me was illegal," Ciavarella testified. "Never in my wildest dreams did I consider that money to be a kickback."…

Ciavarella said the Mericle payments were "like a manna from Heaven"—a reward for connecting his old friend to Powell and the juvenile detention facility project.

"At some point he tells me he wants to help me. He wants to pay for my kids' college tuition. He wants to pay me a finder's fee," Ciavarella testified, recalling a meeting with the developer in his chambers in 2002. "I asked him, 'Can you do that? Is it legal?'"

Bear in mind this guy was a judge, and he claims he relied on legal advice from a building contractor. And even though Mericle supposedly convinced him it was perfectly legal to take the money, Ciavarella admitted that he hid the payoff from the IRS and the public because he knew "it wouldn't look good":

"Did I want the general public to know that I had taken a finder's fee from the builder of what would become the juvenile detention center used by Luzerne County?" Ciavarella asked, his head cocked toward the jury. "No, I didn't want that to be known."

Ciavarella said he therefore tried to conceal Mericle's money, falsely identifying it as rental income. At the same time, he insisted that the money he and Conahan received from Powell, which prosecutors said totaled nearly $800,000, really was rental income, which Powell supposedly paid them for use of a Florida condominium owned by their wives:

"Powell said, 'You buy [the condo] and I'll rent it from you, for whatever your expenses are,'" Ciavarella said.

Ciavarella…said he learned Powell had signed a rental agreement with Conahan that called for him to pay $15,000 a month for five years—a total of $900,000. He and Conahan planned to keep the condo a few years, then sell it and pocket any equity, he said.

But [Assistant U.S. Attorney William] Houser pointed out problems with that story.

First, public records show Conahan and his wife did not purchase the condo until Feb. 13, 2004. But Powell began making "rental payments" to the judges in January that year—a total of $70,000.

"Powell was paying rent on a condo Michael and Barbara Conahan did not own?" Houser asked.

"It appears that way," Ciavarella replied.

Even more perplexing, Houser said, is at that time, the condo was only a shell. It had a floor, but no walls, and was not furnished.

"What's your understanding about that?" Houser asked.

"I didn't know it was a shell. I thought it was a condo that could be used," he replied.

And why, Houser asked, would Powell agree to pay $900,000 to rent a condo—for which Conahan paid $785,000—when he could just as easily buy his own?

Ciavarella said he believed Powell wanted to rent, instead of buy, because he was having marital problems and did not want to have to split the condo with his wife if they divorced.

"How does it help Bob Powell to give you a condo and lose the whole $900,000, even if he was having marital problems?" Houser asked.

You get the idea. The amazing thing is that Ciavarella blew a plea agreement that would have sent him to prison for seven years because (according to the judge) he was insufficiently contrite. Now he faces at least 13 years because he gambled on selling this line of bullshit to a jury.