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On the stand, Ciavarella insists he took no “cash for kids”

SCRANTON - Former Luzerne County Court Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. admitted hiding hundreds of thousands of dollars in income from the IRS. He admitted he kept the money off his public financial disclosures, too.

SCRANTON - Former Luzerne County Court Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. admitted hiding hundreds of thousands of dollars in income from the IRS. He admitted he kept the money off his public financial disclosures, too.

He admitted he should have disqualified himself from cases involving the friends who were secretly paying him the money. And he admitted, for the first time, that he skimmed cash from his campaign fund for his personal use.

But Ciavarella insisted from the witness box Tuesday, at his federal corruption trial here, that he wasn't guilty of the charges he was facing - shaking down a developer and pocketing "cash for kids."

Rather, the former judge said, he accepted the money in good faith, thinking the payments were rent or legitimate "finder's fees" for putting the owner of a new Luzerne County juvenile-detention center in touch with the facility's builder.

"Never in my wildest dreams," Ciavarella said, "did I think that that money would be construed as a kickback or a bribe."

Ciavarella was the sole defense witness Tuesday, taking the stand in an attempt to rebut charges that he and former President Judge Michael T. Conahan shook down the builder and owner for almost $2.9 million in bribes and kickbacks, in return for sending juveniles to a pair of centers ultimately opened by the development team.

The jury is expected to begin deliberations after closing arguments Wednesday, bringing a climax to what is perhaps the nation's worst modern-day scandal in juvenile justice. Conahan has pleaded guilty to charges in the scheme, as have the builder, Robert Mericle, and the owner, Robert Powell.

Ciavarella, the head of Juvenile Court in Luzerne County for almost a decade, acknowledged that he should have revealed the payments, saying, "I made the wrong decision" in failing to make them public on required judicial financial-disclosure forms. He said he kept them secret not out of fear that he had broken the law, but to keep "the general public" in the dark.

"I didn't want the publicity. I didn't want the scrutiny that would cause," he said, referring to listing the money on disclosure forms. "I did the wrong thing. But it wasn't because I was getting a bribe or a kickback."

Under sympathetic direct examination by his defense lawyer, Ciavarella, describing himself as "almost 61," portrayed himself as a humbled man reduced to painting houses, delivering flowers, and vacuuming offices to earn a living.

But then he faced a rough cross-examination from Assistant U.S. Attorney William Houser, 52, a runner-thin and intense prosecutor who wrung one admission after another from his target.

At one point, Ciavarella even admitted to a brand-new crime as a way of offering a defense to charges in his federal indictment.

This unfolded as Houser pressed him about the government's contention that he shared in $143,500 in cash that testimony had established Powell had delivered to Conahan in FedEx boxes in 2006.

To batter down Ciavarella's contention that he knew nothing of these cash payments, Houser confronted him with a receipt showing that the judge had put down $27,000 in cash for a new Audi vehicle in 2006. In rebuttal, Ciavarella replied that he had sources of cash other than the money passed on by Conahan.

For instance, Ciavarella volunteered, he had kept up to $20,000 in cash raised in 2005 when he was running for retention as a judge, keeping the bills at home and dipping into this kitty when needed. It is illegal under state law to use campaign money for personal expenses.

Wearing a microphone on his lapel, prosecutor Houser paced the courtroom and sometimes fired questions at Ciavarella with his back turned. He quickly got the former judge to admit that he committed federal income-tax fraud year after year, that he knowingly kept the payments off his financial-disclosure forms, and that he had a tacit understanding with Conahan that they would hide some of the payments as rent for a luxury condo the judges' wives owned in Florida.

He also got Ciavarella to acknowledge that he and Conahan were acting in their official capacities about a decade ago when they pressured Luzerne County to shut down the county-run juvenile center and began jailing minors in a new for-profit facility built by Mericle and owned by Powell.

For a time, the former judge tried to separate his official duties presiding over court hearings from his off-the-bench role as an advocate for a new facility, but he dropped this distinction under Houser's questioning. With a simple "yes," he finally admitted that he'd acted in his capacity as a judge.

Prosecutors have stressed to the jury that while people in private business may exchange finder's fees, as is done among real estate brokers, public officials may not take private money for their official actions.

On direct examination, Ciavarella said the county facility had been in deplorably bad shape, "unacceptable" as a place to send troubled youngsters. He said his campaign to replace the facility had nothing to do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars he was to be paid by Mericle, the developer, once it was under construction.

Ciavarella testified that Mericle, unprompted, came to his chambers one day in the county courthouse in Wilkes-Barre and promised to pay him 10 percent of the construction cost as a finder's fee.

"He says he wants to help me out financially. . . . I never went to him. I never asked about a finder's fee, never knew about a finder's fee. He came to me," Ciavarella testified.

"I thanked him. I can't believe it's happening. It's like manna from heaven."

As soon as Mericle left, Ciavarella said, he practically ran to Conahan's chamber to tell him that since he had been the leader in the push for a new facility, Ciavarella planned to split the fee 50-50 with him.

Conahan, he said, threw a pencil in the air in joy and told him he was lucky to have such a great friendship with Mericle. "I can't believe that," Ciavarella testified Conahan exulted. "That's one hell of a friend."

Ciavarella, a lawyer for 35 years and a judge for 14, said he did no further checking once Mericle assured him the payments were legal.

"He was the guy familiar with that type of financial arrangement," Ciavarella said of Mericle. "I had no reasons to think it was illegal."

All of this prompted a caustic question from Houser: "When did you start to turn to Robert Mericle for legal advice?"

Houser showed the jury checking-account records of Ciavarella's that suggested that Ciavarella had other reasons not to be too curious about the propriety of the payments. When the money first began flowing in early 2003, Houser disclosed, Ciavarella immediately spent $310,000 of it to pay off massive credit-card bills and other debts.

Houser also grilled the former judge about the circuitous path the money took on its way to his bank account.

According to testimony, the first payment to Ciavarella flowed from Mericle to Powell, then to a lawyer acquaintance of Powell's, then to a beverage company owned by Powell, and then, at last, to Ciavarella.

"Every penny of that money, you and Michael Conahan took steps to conceal," said Houser. "But you thought it was legal money."

"Yes," Ciavarella replied.

Throughout his six hours on the stand, Ciavarella kept insisting that he had not been banking kickbacks, only finder's fees. He said he had failed to disclose the money simply to avoid public embarrassment, not to hide a crime.

"I just wanted to avoid all this," he said, surveying the packed courtroom. "How'd I do?"