SCRANTON - Two top Luzerne County Court judges took kickbacks to place juvenile offenders in detention centers, even ordering some to be locked up against the recommendations of probation officers, federal authorities said yesterday.
President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Judge Michael T. Conahan agreed to a plea deal that would send them to prison for seven years, according to an agreement filed in federal court Monday.
The judges allegedly concealed $2.6 million in payments from one of the owners of the centers and an unnamed person, authorities said. At the same time, the judges also worked to ensure that the facilities reaped millions of dollars in business by sending them a steady number of juveniles.
The judges also agreed to plead to tax fraud. Both have stepped down, have agreed to be disbarred and will pay restitution, according to prosecutors.
"They sold their oath of offices to the highest bidders," said Deron Roberts, chief of the FBI's Scranton office.
The charges and plea agreements are the first developments in a nearly two-year investigation by the FBI, the IRS and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Harrisburg into corruption at the Luzerne County courthouse in Wilkes-Barre, said Martin C. Carlson, first assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Conahan's attorney, Philip Gelso, declined to comment. Al Flora, who represents Ciavarella, said only that the plea agreement was dependent on a series of allegations.
"If the facts are acceptable, he will enter a plea; if not, he will withdraw and go to trial," Flora said.
Plea agreements can disintegrate if the parties cannot agree on the allegations at sentencing. Judges are not bound by the agreements and may hand out longer sentences if they choose.
Complaint on treatment
The Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group, complained last year to the state Supreme Court about the treatment of children in Luzerne County Juvenile Court, asking for the nullification of decisions in hundreds of cases it had handled since 2005. Juveniles were often denied their constitutional right to lawyers and were disproportionately sentenced to ill-advised out-of-home placements, the group said.
The state Department of Public Welfare wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the group's petition. But the high court declined this month to take up the case.
At the heart of the case are two juvenile-detention centers, named PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care.
Federal charges allege the following: In June 2000, Ciavarella talked with someone referred to as Participant 1, described as a Luzerne County lawyer interested in constructing a juvenile-detention facility in the county.
Ciavarella introduced Participant 1 to a contractor who was a friend of the judge's, according to court documents.
The men found a site and agreed to build the facility. In 2002, Conahan allegedly signed an agreement that the court would pay a fee of $1.3 million to place juvenile offenders at the center. The agreement, signed when Conahan was president judge, made the payments "absolute and unconditional."
Later that year, Conahan acted to remove funding from the existing and potentially competing Luzerne County juvenile-detention facility, records say.
In January 2003, the judges arranged to receive a payment of nearly $1 million for the role they played in helping to build the new facility. The payment was described as a backdated "commission agreement and registration."
In an effort to conceal the payment, the judges shuffled the money through a series of financial transactions to companies they controlled, records say.
Eventually, $610,000 was wired to a beverage business, Beverage Marketing of PA, which Conahan controlled, records say.
Conahan then shuttled some of the money to Ciavarella. To hide these payments, Conahan allegedly directed that the beverage company make a series of false entries in its records.
Meanwhile, the juvenile center was doing so well that Participant 1 and his partner expanded, building another center in western Pennsylvania.
When this center was completed using the same contractor, the judges received another $1 million, court documents allege. The payments were sent to Pinnacle Group of Jupiter L.L.C., allegedly controlled by the judges.
This payment was also called a "broker's fee." Others were disguised as payments related to a Florida condominium and boat-slip rental fees.
To make sure that the flow of offenders continued, the judges or their agents allegedly pressured probation officials to recommend detention, and pressured other court workers to recommend the facilities.
The judges also helped the detention centers secure a county contract worth $58 million.
The charges also accuse the men of obstructing efforts by the IRS to collect taxes by disguising them as other types of payments and filing false financial-disclosure statements with the state court system.
"This is a dark day in our history," said Luzerne County District Attorney Jacqueline Musto Carroll, who assisted with the investigation. She said her office would look into whether any children were improperly detained.
"At the same time, it's an opportunity for those here who are good to go forward and rebuild our name and reputation. There are too many good people in county government, so to paint everyone with a broad brush and put everyone in the same category as these two judges would not be fair," she said.
The judges are also accused in a civil case of sealing the record and granting injunctive relief relating to one of the juvenile-detention facilities, according to the charges.