Ex-judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. guilty in 'cash for kids' case

Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., found guilty of racketeering, fraud, conspiring to launder money.
Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., found guilty of racketeering, fraud, conspiring to launder money.
Posted: February 19, 2011

SCRANTON - A federal jury Friday found former Luzerne County Court Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. guilty of racketeering in one of the nation's worst judicial scandals, a crime in which prosecutors said the former judge used children "as pawns to enrich himself."

In convicting Ciavarella of racketeering, the jury agreed with prosecutors that he and another corrupt judge had taken an illegal payment of nearly $1 million from a juvenile detention center's builder and then hidden the money.

The panel of six men and six women also found Ciavarella guilty of "honest services mail fraud" and of being a tax cheat for failing to list that money and more on his annual public financial-disclosure forms and on four years of tax returns. In addition, they found him guilty of conspiring to launder money.

The jurors acquitted Ciavarella of extortion and bribery in connection with $1.9 million that prosecutors said the judges extracted from the builder and owner of two juvenile-detention centers, including lurid allegations that Ciavarella shared in FedEx boxes stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars in cash.

Convicted on 12 of the 39 counts he faced, Ciavarella faces a minimum sentence of 13 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.

Ciavarella was expressionless when the jury read its verdict. Pale and almost meek during his trial, though known as "Mr. Zero Tolerance" when he presided over Juvenile Court, he was released to await sentencing.

As he left the courtroom, Ciavarella said the verdict was something of a vindication. He "never took a dime to send a kid anywhere," he asserted.

One of his defense lawyers, Al Flora Jr., also claimed a kind of victory.

"There was never a bribe. This was not a 'cash for kids' scandal," Flora said, quoting the phrase that has come to epitomize the case since Ciavarella and Luzerne County's former president judge, Michael T. Conahan, were indicted two years ago.

U.S. Attorney Peter Smith, the top federal prosecutor in the region, rejected the defense view. "I find it interesting that a man just convicted of racketeering would consider this a victory," Smith said. "I'd like to know what he'd consider a defeat."

Lourdes Rosado, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which played a key role in bringing the scandal to light, also dismissed the defense claims.

"We are immensely gratified to see this day come and see that justice has been done," Rosado said.

As Ciavarella departed, a woman confronted him outside the courthouse, yelling that a jail sentence he imposed was to blame for her son's suicide last year.

"I'd like him to go to hell and rot there forever," said Sandy Fonzo.

Ciavarella, 60, now stands convicted of conspiring with Conahan, 58, in a scheme related to the construction of two juvenile-detention centers in the region. Conahan pleaded guilty last year and awaits sentencing.

The judges' prosecution has been a key chapter in a mushrooming investigation targeting public officials in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

In all, federal prosecutors have brought charges against nearly 30 officials, including a third county judge, numerous court officials, a state senator, school board members, and county officials. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court made public an opinion revealing that former State Sen. Robert Mellow (D., Lackawanna) is being investigated for "federal-program theft, extortion, fraud, and money-laundering."

To a limited extent, the jury's verdict affirmed Ciavaralla's legal strategy.

When he took the stand in his own defense on Tuesday, he readily admitted he had cheated on his taxes and mailed incomplete financial-disclosure forms to the state.

But he and his lawyers vigorously challenged the allegations that he had taken bribes.

He said he did not reveal those payments on the forms not because he thought they were illegal, but because he feared disclosure would upset the public.

In particular, the defense team attacked the government's key witness, one-time detention center owner Robert Powell, saying he was no extortion victim but a powerful political operative.

But lead prosecutor Gordon A.D. Zubrod ripped into Ciavarella's main defense: that the money he collected was legitimate "finder's fees," paid him for putting the facility's owner in touch with the builder.

"Mark Ciavarella is a judge and a lawyer," Zubrod told jurors. "He knows he's receiving an illegal kickback." As the jury sorted through the 39-count indictment, it seemed - in the end - to split the difference.

It convicted the judge in connection with the first payment in the scheme: $997,600 in 2003.

The jury also found him guilty of conspiracy to launder money in connection with that payment.

According to testimony, much of the money was sent on this circuitous route: It was wired from the center's builder, Rob Mericle. Then, it proceeded to Powell, to a lawyer associate of Powell's, to Conahan's beverage company, and, finally, into Ciavarella's bank account.

But the jury acquitted him with regard to later payments in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

The judges' scheme began unfolding about 10 years ago.

The pair cut off sending delinquent children to a county-owned facility, saying it was in terrible condition. This created a business opportunity for Powell, a wealthy tort lawyer and developer, who hired Mericle to construct a new facility - and secretly began paying millions to the judges.

Ciavarella sentenced youngsters to incarceration at a rate far higher than elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

After the scandal broke, the state Supreme Court agreed to wipe out the criminal records of up to 4,000 youngsters who appeared before Ciavarella.

As the government's top witness, Powell testified that the two judges were "relentless" in their demands for money.

He and Mericle have also pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the scheme.

When Ciavarella took the stand in his own defense on Tuesday, he insisted he had viewed the payments as legal rewards for hooking up Mericle and Powell.

In his closing argument, defense lawyer Flora urged the jury to ignore the circuitous path taken by the money.

"If that money was not a kickback," Flora told jurors, "how that money was transferred doesn't mean a thing, because it was legal money."

Ciavarella and Conahan initially agreed to plead guilty in 2009 to honest-services fraud and tax evasion in a deal that called for each to receive a sentence of seven years in prison.

But their initial plea deals were rejected by U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik, who grew disgusted that the two judges seemed to be minimizing their crimes. It will now be up to Kosik to sentence the two former judges.


Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

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