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Class-action suit filed in corrupt judges case

Two Luzerne County judges used youths as "commodities that could be traded for cash," attorneys for more than 70 juveniles and their parents alleged in a lawsuit filed yesterday in federal court in Scranton.

Judges Michael T. Conahan , left, and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr.
Judges Michael T. Conahan , left, and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr.Read more

Two Luzerne County judges used youths as "commodities that could be traded for cash," attorneys for more than 70 juveniles and their parents alleged in a lawsuit filed yesterday in federal court in Scranton.

In failing to disclose $2.6 million in alleged kickbacks from two juvenile centers, Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan violated the right of every juvenile defendant to a fair and impartial trial, says the suit, which seeks class-action status. Thousands of county youths were sentenced to the facilities.

The judges pleaded guilty this month to charges that they had failed to disclose and pay taxes on payments from two juvenile centers, PA Child Care L.L.C. and Western PA Child Care L.L.C. Each has agreed to serve more than seven years in federal prison.

Both judges have declined to comment until sentencing but have said through their attorneys that they never sentenced children for money.

A half-dozen other defendants also are named in the suit, including the shell companies allegedly used to move around the tainted money and the owners and builders of the juvenile centers.

Calling the scope of the alleged scheme "profoundly shocking," the suit for the first time portrays the massive toll of the Luzerne County Courthouse scandal, which has ensnared a half-dozen court officials.

"This is one of the worst judicial scandals in history," said Daniel Segal, a lawyer at Hangley, Aronchick, Segal & Pudlin. He is working pro bono on the case along with the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit that advocates for juveniles' legal rights.

"The people you're stepping on are the true, true little guys," he said.

Some of the cases in the civil action describe children as young as 13 being sent to harsh wilderness camps and detention centers for crimes as petty as stealing loose change from cars or shoplifting.

The suit alleges that Ciavarella never informed juveniles appearing before him of their right to an attorney and allowed them to plead guilty without understanding the consequences of such a plea. In addition, the suit says, the court garnisheed the wages of parents to pay for their detention.

Marsha L. Levick, an attorney with the law center, said that as many as 2,500 youths Ciavarella sentenced between 2003 and 2008 may have been wronged.

"Thousands of these children . . . were victims of a wave of unprecedented lawlessness" that changed the trajectory of their lives, the center wrote in the suit.

According to the suit, Ciavarella sentenced one 13-year-old boy who had lied to 93 days in a wilderness camp for perjury. The boy was not represented by an attorney in the case. The boy's father had to pay $150 a week for his son's stay.

One child was allegedly sent away for stealing a $4 jar of nutmeg.

Such harsh treatment, advocates say, runs contrary to the basic tenet of the juvenile justice system, which presumes that children can change and that judges should use detention as a last resort.

"The scales of justice are tipped against incarceration in the juvenile system," Segal said.

Also named in the suit were the centers' owners at the time, Robert J. Powell and Gregory R. Zappala. Neither has been charged in the criminal case involving the judges.

Powell has admitted to making payments to the judges but has said through an attorney that it was a mistake he later reported to authorities. The judges, Powell said, were pressuring him to make payments.

Zappala, who is now sole owner of both centers, has not been implicated in the scandal. Zappala's attorney, William Brucker, said he had not seen the suit and could not comment.

The suit seeks to have all profits from the centers returned and put into a fund that would compensate the youths for their emotional distress.

Earlier this month, the law center asked the state Supreme Court to throw out all cases of juveniles convicted under Ciavarella and to expunge their records.

The judge assigned by the court, Berks County Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim, began that review yesterday.

Federal prosecutors are undertaking their own review.

Two other multiple-party suits have already been filed over the cases. They are likely to be combined if the judge determines that they meet the qualifications of a class action.

Many Luzerne cases appear minor

Many of the cases in the civil suit filed yesterday against two Luzerne County judges read like high school high jinks. Some youths were arrested for fighting in school. Others committed minor thefts and still others were in possession of drug paraphernalia.

Typically, such cases would be handled by stern guidance counselors or probation officers. But all of these children were sent to detention centers.

In one case described in the lawsuit, a 14-year-old boy spent 12 months in a facility because he stole loose change from unlocked cars.

The police told his mother at the time of the arrest in 2007 that the child would receive probation. His mother called two lawyers for help, but one said the boy's crime was so minor he had no need for legal help. The other said Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. didn't listen to lawyers, so hiring one would do little good.

Before court, the woman was asked to sign a paper saying she waived the boy's right to an attorney. She said that she wanted a public defender but that court workers told her that would take too long.

The teen pleaded guilty without an attorney and without knowing the consequences, the suit says.

Two lawyers eventually got him released.

The boy's father, who pays child support, was ordered to pay that money to the probation department instead. The court also ordered the teen to pay $1,900 in restitution. The case was so traumatic that the boy is now being home-schooled, the lawsuit says.

– John Sullivan