Conahan gets 171/2 years

The former judge is "bitterly disappointed" with sentencing after plea deal was rejected.

Posted: September 25, 2011

SCRANTON - A former judge who orchestrated a massive kickback scheme involving for-profit youth detention centers was sentenced Friday to 171/2 years in federal prison, closing a major chapter on a scandal that prosecutors said shook Pennsylvania's judicial system "to its very foundation."

Appearing in a federal courtroom in Scranton, former Luzerne County Court President Judge Michael T. Conahan, 59, apologized to the incarcerated youths, the legal community, and the public for his role in the notorious "kids for cash" case.

"The system is not corrupt," said Conahan. "I was corrupt."

Conahan, a once-powerful man who regularly met for breakfast with the reputed boss of a northeastern Pennsylvania Mafia family, offered a direct apology to the children who spent time in a pair of youth lockups from which he and another former judge derived millions of dollars.

"My actions undermined your faith in the system and contributed to the difficulty in your lives," said Conahan, who pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy last year. "I am sorry you were victimized."

Federal prosecutors said Conahan and former Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. took more than $2 million in bribes from the builder of the PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care detention centers and extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the facilities' co-owner.

Ciavarella took the case to trial and was convicted of some of the charges. He was sentenced last month to 28 years in prison.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned about 4,000 juvenile convictions after Ciavarella and Conahan were charged, saying that Ciavarella, who presided over Juvenile Court, routinely trampled on youths' constitutional rights in his eagerness to send them to the for-profit jails.

Unlike Ciavarella, who denied jailing youths for money and defiantly attacked the government's case at his sentencing, Conahan accepted responsibility, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Houser acknowledged Friday. But he said Conahan's crimes required a stiff sentence.

Ciavarella and Conahan initially pleaded guilty in February 2009 to honest services fraud and tax evasion in a deal that would have required them to spend more than seven years in prison. But their plea deals were rejected later that year by U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik, who ruled they had failed to accept responsibility for their actions.

Conahan's attorney, Philip Gelso, told Kosik on Friday that his client is a changed man from two years ago.

Conahan, who had faced up to 20 years behind bars, had requested a prison term similar to the seven-plus years Kosik rejected two years ago. Gelso said outside the court that Conahan was "bitterly disappointed" by the 171/2-year sentence but that it would not be appealed.

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