Sentencing

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

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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.

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  1. 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.

    Psychic lease defense?

    1. They had to rent it to find out what was in it.

      1. lol-you mean it was a Pelosi special?

  2. Cue “Heroic Mulatto” death pron in 3…2…1…

    1. In a sane and just world, not only would Mark Ciavarella die from slow cutting, but Michael Conahan would also be paraded naked and humilated in other ways in front of his victims, before being placed in a brazen bull. As he slowly roasted to death, his victims would play flutes, bang timbriles, and dance to accompany Conahan’s tortured screams.

      1. Did you play Amnesia recently or something. *shivers*

      2. I didn’t know what a Brazen Bull was, so I Googled it. It’s a hollow bronze bull into which a condemned person was placed, at which point a fire was set underneath. Anyway, This is an excerpt of the sales pitch from its inventor, Perillos, to Phalaris, the local tyrant:

        “[his screams] will come to you through the pipes as the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings”.

        Phalaris found this offensive, so he ordered the new invention to be tested on Perillos himself.

  3. I wanna know how I can be a judge and earn $3 million and be a sub-moron.

    1. Easy, just become a judge.

      1. Nice reading comprehension there, Lou.

        1. I believe his point was the $3 million and sub-moron easily come along with simply being a judge.

          I think what a lot of people don’t realize is how simple-minded a lot of lower-court judges really are. I know a bunch of judges – there are two in my neighborhood, one of whom is right around the corner from me. He, in particular, is an idiot. He’s in the lowest type of court in Virginia (general district court) and never will rise any higher than that. The only reason he’s there and continues to remain is because of his daddy’s legacy.

  4. “I asked him, ‘Can you do that? Is it legal?'”

    So I’m pretty sure that explicitly undercuts his argument that “never in his wildest dreams” did he consider that it could be illegal.

    1. Well, a building contractor told him it was cool.

  5. What a scumbag.

  6. This guy should be publicly keel-hauled for the scope and audacity of this whole affair.

    Not sure if it would be a great deterrent for other corrupt prosecutors/judges, but it sure would be fun viewing for the parents who had their kids ripped out of their arms and tossed into the juvi-clink for not even breaking the law… Who the hell sits on the Judicial Conduct Board there – Larry, Moe and Curly?

  7. Reason is generally pretty good at seeing through incentive problems, but this seems to be a perfect example of where privatization can fail, and big time. Private prisons just create too many opportunities for fraud of this type, not to mention institutional Onanism of the kind practiced by the California prison guard union.

    1. What?! A “public” judge got kickbacks. The same thing basically happens in California where “public” guards unions promote “tough on crime” DA’s and judges. This was just the worst egrariousness.

      1. Well, yes, exactly. The point is you have an outside entity (here, the private prison operator, in CA, the prison guards’ union) benefiting from the corrupt operation of the legal system (the War On Some Drugs, sending kids to the “right” prison farm). Private prisons set up intrinsic conflicts of interest that are just bad for society.

        1. The union problem can be fixed by the WI method, or more likely, the KY method, where state employees have no power to collectively bargain.

        2. I have to agree.

          Introducing the opportunity to profit into the prison system creates a slaveholding lobby. Even in the absence of naked corruption of this kind, it’s a bad idea.

          There’s no way to get around the fact that the guards union has a built-in incentive to act as a slaveholder lobby. Using private prisons compounds that problem by adding corporations to the lobby.

          The more people who benefit from the incarceration of any particular individual, the more likely it is that something of this kind will occur.

          1. Introducing the opportunity to profit into the prison system creates a slaveholding lobby.

            As opposed to the union lobby.

            The problem isn’t public versus private, the problem is the American fetish with throwing more people into prison than necessary. There’s your corrupted supply process right there.

          2. There’s no way to get around the fact that the guards union has a built-in incentive to act as a slaveholder lobby. Using private prisons compounds that problem by adding corporations to the lobby.

            That is hard to argue with. Prisons, like cops and environmental regulations, are a necessary evil. Many libertarians forget the necessary part while supporters of all government, all the time, forget the evil inherent in the system.

            Ya gotta have ’em and if you give a damn about freedom (I’m fer it) and corruption (I’m agin’ it) ya gotta keep ’em on a very short leash (preferably one attached to a shock collar).

            Prisons belong in the public sector because it’s a shorter leash. There will still be abuses and rent seeking (Sheriff Joe anyone?) but that kind of authority over other people should not be privatized (Blackwater anyone?)

            1. “That is hard to argue with. Prisons, like cops and environmental regulations, are a necessary evil.”

              Not really. A person that placed too much faith in the court system could support a combination of corporal punishment (for deterrence and rehabilitation) and capital punishment (for those crimes where a person is simply too dangerous to be set loose in society)

              I’m not saying it makes a lot of sense to place that kind of trust in government, but neither does it make a lot of sense to assume that someone spending 5 years in jail has paid back any sort of “debt” to their victims, or that they’re any less of a threat to others. The best you can say about prison is that it lets us partially reverse our fuckups if we find out about them.

              1. For much of our country’s history, coporal and capial punishment was pretty much it. The idea of imprisoning someone for a long time, as punishment for a crime, isn’t much more than 100 years old. Before then, minor offenses were dealt with by corporal punishment or public humiliation (stocks, pillories, etc). Serious offenses were punished by execution. The only function of jails was to hold someone while waiting for trial (which didn’t take too long).

        3. So, by your logic, it was the private enterprise here that caused the whole mess?

          I say, if you want to stop this type of corruption, all the judge had to do was turn the business owner over to the DA for prosecution wen he offered the kickback in the first place. Wouldn’t that send the signal to privale prison owners that corruption doesn’t pay? Of course, it’s easier to blame the business for the actions of a public official.

          Also, who’s to say this wasn’t a shakedown by the judge to begin with? “Give me $X and you get the contract. Don’t give me $X and it goes elsewhere.” Sure seems plausible to me.

          1. I would say that all public enterprises are ultimately susceptible to corruption.

            But that the type of corruption varies.

            Usually, the way to be corrupt in connection with the prison system is to corrupt the supply process. You get prison officials to pay for 1000 blankets and deliver 900. You get prison officials to pay for fresh produce and deliver spoiled produce. That sort of thing.

            Here, we have a situation where a private entity would directly receive a cash payment every time a prisoner was directed to their facility. That seems much, much more likely to directly corrupt the workings of the criminal justice system than the standard style of prison corruption that existed in a public prison context.

            1. Wow, a public official is caught exploiting children for profit and taking bribes (basically the epitome of corruption) and here we are blaming the private sector. typical. Maybe the problem is that we have too much “public” and not enough “private” offciers. People are intelligent enough to be wary of private businesses and question them, but have a penchant for assuming that public “servants” are just magnanimous souls who are looking out for our best interests rather than power-hungry a-holes attracted to positions of authority. The appropriateness of private prisons and detention centers are a separate issue altogether.

              This is no more the fault of the private sector than it is MacDonald’s fault that my neighbor is so big he gets winded when scratching himself. Quit blaming others for the character failings of individuals. There are only two issues here: a Corrupt judge and a system that allows such men to act with impunity

              1. Sure, people who offer public officials bribes to harm children for profit are just innocent victims. I mean, if a child sex trafficking ring bought little girls from the foster care system, can we blame them for seizing an opportunity that the government presents?

                Let he who hasn’t paid off a government official to be allowed to harm a child cast the first stone…

                1. Funny, I don’t remember excusing or condoning the behavior of those offering bribes. But if you wish to be that intellectually dishonest, go right on ahead. Fact is, it is the judge and his abuse of authority that allowed this to occur. Without the judge, there are no children harmed. The people running the facility are scumbag criminals and there are laws to deal with them. Without the judge and his corruption, however, they fail. He is the lynch pin. Don’t waste my time with BS arguments that blame the entire private sector for the damages caused by the greed of a public offical. You’re not “cynical”, you’re intellectually dishonest

        4. Yeah, I brought this up in Sullum’s other thread. I’m actually quite comfortable with the idea of prohibiting the privatization of government-authorized human warehousing.

          I’m not sure why companies should be granted the “freedom” to make a living off the mass deprivation of freedom.

          1. I wouldn’t be opposed to that. Moreover, I’d start closing down existing institutions by freeing most non-violent offenders.

    2. Is the private sector more prone to corruption than the government? I find that highly unlikely.

      Corruption is a frequent human failing and will show up pretty much anywhere. But it seems to thrive in environments where the government is the gatekeeper.

      1. No, it’s that this combination necessarily increases the opportunity and motivation for this sort of fraud.

        1. I suspect that corruption at public prisons is rampant.

          1. We’re not talking about a normal business with customers though. We’re talking about locking people up with the authority of the government. If privatizing prisons is OK, how about police forces or district attorneys or judges?

            To your point, clearly there are major corruption problems without involving the private sector at all. But it just seems weird to contract out severe government authority like that. Authorization for the proactive use of violent force should not be handed out to the most competitive bidder.

            1. Hah, shit, forgot about the joke handle.

              1. The problem lies more in who we’re imprisoning and what we tolerate in our prisons than in anything else.

                I’ve raised this point numerous times here, but the 13th Amendment does exempt from its terms prisoners. So a savvy company (or agency) could use its slave labor for all sorts of things.

                1. Very true, and that applies both ways. Here in GA both the government run and the private prisons get a lot of work out of inmates while paying them a few cents an hour–what a perverse incentive to lock up lots of people, esp. since governments everywhere are flat-ass broke.

                  1. Here in GA both the government run and the private prisons get a lot of work out of inmates while paying them a few cents an hour–what a perverse incentive to lock up lots of people, esp. since governments everywhere are flat-ass broke.

                    From the Constitution:

                    Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

                    It says nothing about payment for work performed while incarcerated. In fact, it does not ban any type of forced servitude for incarcerated individuals, whether in a public or private correctional facility.

                    1. Yes that’s my point. Slavery is constitutional if one has been convicted of a crime. So any prison, public or private, has a perverse incentive to lock up as many people as possible.

        2. Okay..government provides fewer opportunities for corruptions that privatization, is that your claim?

          Yep, you’ve convinced me! My home state of New Jersey is a shining example of how corruption is completely unheard-of in public service.

          1. “Okay..government provides fewer opportunities for corruptions that privatization, is that your claim?”

            I think the claim is that the incentive structure for certain forms of privatization allows more benefit from corruption (which is as much at issue as “opportunity”) than the typical incentive structure for public operations.

            It’s an assessment of relative corruptibility, mind you, not a statement of blamelessness on the part of government.

            1. Bull. Shit.

              A government official who makes or enforces the law has many more opportunities for corruption and much less chance of being caught or convicted. Also, most businesses have to spend years or generations building influence and profits to wield the influence of a single judge or elected official…and even then they only have indirect power as they still need some public official to act on their behalf.

      2. I concur.

      3. It seems to me that the most fertile ground for corruption is where you have government and private interests working closely together in areas (such as prisons) where most of the public doesn’t really care what happens.

    3. LAWS are public institutions. THe government needs to enforce its own laws. If it’s too expensive to enforce a particular law because it’s too expensive to build more prisons and hire more guards, then government may be forced to think about which laws are useful and which are not.

      Not to mention private entities cannot and should not hold people prisoner.

      There is not one single libertarian thing about private prisons, and thinking there is (just because the word “private” is in there) is either a) ignorant b) moronic or c) both.

      1. Where is the line on that though? Must the food staff at the prison be government employees or can that be outsourced to a private company?

        And how is that different that the guards being private v public? Or the building owner?

        I would think that the warden should be a government employee as he is the responsible imprisoner of record. But beyond that, any of it can be privatized, IMO.

        1. I’m with Kristen on this. Government should be enforcing its own laws, full stop. If that means private companies can’t staff prison cafeterias and serve confinement loaf, big deal. There’s a moral problem with outsourcing criminal justice. We shouldn’t be employing mercenaries to maintain domestic order.

      2. The only inherent difference between a private prison and a public prison is that, in addition to the prison staff and the people that manage them, the people that own the prison’s physical property also get a cut of the money.

        Of course, the incentive structures are often different, but only because they are set up that way — there’s no reason that the government can’t negotiate a flat yearly contract with a private prison company just like it budgets for its own prisons department.

    4. This problem exists whenever you have “incentives.” I worked for private non-profits that could only bill for my services when kids had disciplinary or behavioral problems that needed my expertise. One was fairly good about admitting when kids no longer needed treatment, the other only ended treatment when the state stopped sending checks.

    5. I think you are right. Prisons are something that does fall within the proper scope of government. As long as you always remember, as JsubD points out, that prisons (and government in general) are at best a necessary evil.

  8. Ah, 15. I thought she was 36!

    Come on, guys. Tell me you wouldn’t have popped her.

    1. Cop: “You can’t strike a prisoner in police custody.”
      Brodie: “C’mon, just once?”
      Cop: “All right, but make it fast.”

  9. “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.”…

    Picture a parent watching their kid hauled off saying “WTF? How is making a facebook page illegal enough to go to prison?”

    What are the chances Ciavarella would have pulled out the old, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse?”

    The sick part of the whole deal is that Ciavarella’s going to prison for taking the bribes, not for screwing over so many kids.

    1. He was apparently very big on telling kids he was sending to jail they needed to take responsibility for their actions. I hope there is a mob of people standing outside of prison laughing the day he turns himself in.

      1. He was apparently very big on telling kids he was sending to jail they needed to take responsibility for their actions.

        AAAACT-ING!!!!

      2. Laughing…hurling rotten fruit…shouting abusive things about his future anal virginity…sounds about right.

  10. Draw and quarter this monster!

    1. 🙂

  11. Also, it is pretty clear to me that this guy deserves death.

    Blah blah blah the usual disclaimers about the death penalty.

    If some Ted Bundy out there abducted and terrorized thousands of women over the course of decades, would he deserve death? If so, then so does this guy.

    1. While I’m against the death penalty–even for this epic shitbag–I have no problem letting it be known far and wide that killing him wouldn’t be considered a crime.

      1. The scariest thing in the world for some people is the notion of individuals making their own decisions.

        Don’t worry, when he goes to the pokey and word of his crimes gets out in the population of his medium security prison, he will be very “popular.”

        1. Check out this other thread – it may not be long until making decisions, or not making decisions, results in any of us with a stay in the pokey.
          https://reason.com/blog/2011/02…..th-insuran

      2. Like you, I am against the death penalty, but only because it is operated by government.

        Personally, I think the judge should be handcuffed to a chair in a small room. Each of the children he convicted should be given an opportunity for an unsupervised five-minute “interview” with the understanding that it’s their turn to exact justice.

    2. a crooked judge is an order of magnitude worse than a crooked cop which is an order of magnitude worse than a crook. punishments should be commensurate.

      1. I’ve sent boys your age to the gas chamber. I didn’t want to do it. But I felt I owed it to them.

      2. Word. If we are going to have a death penalty, it should be specially reserved for agents of the government who use their power to harm people or shield others who do (i.e. mostly crooked cops, prosecutors and judges).

    3. His defense boils down to that sure he took the money but he never sent anymore kids to jail than he would have otherwise because of it. While “hey I am a sadistic shitbag who just liked sending 10 year olds to jail even without the money” doesn’t make him look good, I am not sure considering the current state of our justice system, it is not pretty believable.

    4. There are occasions when I wish the constitution did not prohibit cruel and unusual punishments.

    5. That’s not far-fetched. Here in GA the penalty for kidnapping for ransom is either life in prison or death. This POS illegally transported and imprisoned children against their will for profit. How is this not kidnapping?

    6. Also, it is pretty clear to me that this guy deserves death.

      Blah blah blah the usual disclaimers about the death penalty.

      Deserves it? sure.
      Usual disclaimers? Yessirree. Sentencing him to the total of all the years he unjustly sentenced kids works for me. If we have to hold his bones for a few centuries, oh well. We can put them on display in judicial chambers somewhere as an object lesson.

  12. This guy shouldn’t be facing 13 years, he should be facing Mr. Wu’s pigs.

    At the very least he should be holed up in a juvi detention center.

  13. Mistakes were made. Money was deposited. I don’t see what the big deal is.

  14. This motherfucker should be going to the gallows.

  15. At minimum, this SOB should be sentenced to a prison term equal to the total of all the prison terms he meted out to his victims.

    1. ooh, that would be some justice*

      *some, because you can only compound the ruin of his life so much and it will never equal the ruination of those kids lives.

  16. I am against the death penalty, but using one’s official government position and authority to engage in a slave auction?

    Fuck ’em.

  17. At minimum, this SOB should be sentenced to a prison term equal to the total of all the prison terms he meted out to his victims.

    And the contract for his holding should be sold for $2.1 million dollars.

    And the Kochtopus should give Heroic Mulatto $2.1 million dollars.

  18. Ciavarella said the Mericle payments were “like a manna from Heaven”

    Right.

  19. To show how “blind” the rest of the legal “profession” are. My neighbor (a lawyer) said that this case was proof that the internal checks from the lawyer’s guild worked.

    He didn’t have a coherent response when I asked him why this judge had honored by the local bar associated shortly before he was arrested

    1. To be fair the scandal was busted open by a group of juvenile criminal defense lawyers who couldn’t see why Luzerne County, PA was their most unsuccessful venue. So, in a sense, the system worked.

      1. Their counterparts in the DA office are hiding their commemorative coffee mugs though.

  20. Jacob Sullum do you have any info on what the Commonwealth of PA is going to do about this mess once Ciavarella’s federal criminal trial is over? As nice as it is to contemplate his smug ass in prison, I’m curious about the fate of the juveniles he railroaded. Thanks.

  21. Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I tell you, I gotta plead ignorance on this thing, because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing is frowned upon… you know, cause I’ve worked in a lot of courtrooms, and I tell you, people do that all the time.

  22. 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.

    In all fairness, though: you can’t reasonably expect contrition from a sociopath.

    1. Sure. But more creative sociopaths are at least clever enough to fake it.

  23. CHUTZPAH
    I haven’t seen such a display of Chutzpah since I was 15 and trying to convince a Catholic girl that sticking my p*nis into her p*ssy was somehow analogous to drinking wine or something….Hey, it is as logical as this judge, and I was 15!

  24. I can’t say how genuinely surprised I am that some commenters here dared to mention the obvious failure of privatization and of incentives polluting the justice system.

    It proves that some Reasonites are actually capable of comprehending that the free market for justice does exist, just like the free market for political results — and that both should be shut the fuck down.

    1. Then don’t say anything, moron.

    2. Wait, you mean libertarians aren’t just a bunch of selfish assholes who spooge in their pants whenever they hear the word “privatize”? Screw that, I’m outta here.

      1. Wait, you mean libertarians aren’t just a bunch of selfish assholes who spooge in their pants whenever they hear the word “privatize”?

        Ha ha. Of course they are. Just not uniformly.

  25. This judge is so obviouly a sociopath, there is no punishment that will mean anything to him. There was a news clip where he was being led out of the courthouse. A mother of a child who was sent to juvy, and that child subsequently committed suicide, started to scream at the judge. Any normal human being would have wet themselves. This guy just looked at the mom like she was singing his praises.
    At least a long prison term will keep him away from hurting anyone else.

  26. This scumbag POS ‘judge’ deserves every bad thing that happens to him in prison and more. IMO he is guilty of not only ruining the lives of scores, perhaps hundreds, of young lives but murder (once removed) as well. The shame is that he will likely do his time in a country club white collar facility. He betrayed a sacred responsibility of applying justice under the law. He was only concerned with lining his pockets. I’m disgusted.

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