WILKES-BARRE - To the frequent frustration and occasional exasperation of a special panel investigating judicial corruption in Luzerne County, yesterday's testimony gave off the steady and unmistakable sound of the buck being passed.

Phrases like "I was not aware," "Yes, but," and "It was not my responsibility" wafted from the witness chair as officials who oversee the county's courts denied knowing that thousands of adolescents were being locked away, often for petty offenses, after hearings in which they had been effectively denied lawyers.

When Luzerne County District Attorney Jacqueline Musto Carroll challenged the 11 members of the state-appointed Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice to "tell me what you do when you have a judge who is a crook," she was promptly interrupted by the questioner-in-chief.

"You report him," interjected John M. Cleland, the commission chairman and a judge on the state Superior Court.

Cleland and his fellow panelists have until May 31 to discover how two former judges, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan, managed to get away with what federal prosecutors say was a five-year, $2.8 million kickback conspiracy, a scheme that one juvenile-justice advocacy group called "one of the largest and most serious violations of children's rights in the history of the American legal system."

Musto Carroll said she was unaware that more than half the teenagers whose cases came before Ciavarella did not have legal representation. She said the judge's "zero-tolerance" policy was a result of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.

"I think Judge Ciavarella was probably doing what he thought he ought to do," the district attorney testified. "I have heard in a number of cases, what he did actually straightened out kids' lives. Some went on to get scholarships and college educations."

That brought an angry response from panel member Robert L. Listenbee, head of the juvenile unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. "Ms. Carroll, I remind that you and I as attorneys took an oath to uphold the Constitution. There were children here whose basic constitutional rights were being violated every day. Let's keep that in mind."

Lawyer Kenneth J. Horoho Jr., a commissioner from Pittsburgh, offered a litany of questions about Musto Carroll's having not known or questioned Ciavarella's methods. Horoho concluded, "The bottom line is that 'zero tolerance' went unchallenged by your office."

"Don't worry about Luzerne County," Musto Carroll assured the commission. "As long as I'm here, it's in good hands."

Yesterday's first witness was David W. Lupas, Musto Carroll's predecessor as district attorney and now a county judge, who said that none of his assistants ever brought concerns about Ciavarella's conduct to his attention.

Panel member Dwayne D. Woodruff - the head juvenile judge in Allegheny County, and a former Pittsburgh Steelers safety - noted that 54 percent of the children brought before Ciavarella did not have lawyers. "Would you expect your assistant D.A.s to come to you with that?" Woodruff asked.

"No one came to me," Lupas said.

Cleland interjected, "I could understand a case here and a case there. But 6,000 cases? This went on for years, and it was a massive deprivation of rights. No assistant D.A., no public defender, no private lawyer ever raised a question? That's hard to believe."

Basil G. Russin, who has been chief public defender in Luzerne County since 1980, said that even if he had known the extent of Ciavarella's denial of rights to juvenile defendants, he would not have had many options. "We don't have the time or the money to look into things very deeply. We just do the best we can," he said.

Besides, Russin said, the judges' get-tough stance against juvenile misbehavior had wide public support.

"Everybody loved it. The schools loved it because they got rid of every problem kid. The parents loved it because there were kids they couldn't control. The cops loved it because it got kids off the streets, and the D.A. loved it because they were getting convictions."

In earlier testimony, Sandra Brulo, a former Luzerne County probation official, said she had raised concerns about Ciavarella with her boss, but did not hear back.

"Don't you think you should have taken it further when you didn't get any satisfaction from your supervisor?" asked Ronald P. Williams, a panel member from nearby Wyoming County, raising his arms in amazement.

"I took it to my boss," Brulo replied. "That's as far as I thought I should go."

She testified that probation officers, not attorneys, asked young defendants to sign forms just before they entered Ciavarella's courtroom that waived their right to a lawyer. Commissioner George D. Mosee, a deputy Philadelphia district attorney, asked Brulo if this was a proper role for probation officers.

"We did what the judge instructed us to do," she said.

"Even when their very liberty was at stake?" Mosee asked. Brulo did not answer.

Joseph Massa, senior counsel for the state Judicial Conduct Board, which investigates complaints against judges, told the panel that his agency had acted properly more than two years ago when it referred allegations it received against Ciavarella and Conahan to federal prosecutors.

By not acting on its own, the board allowed the jurists to stay on the bench until they resigned this year. The judges stepped down after a federal grand jury indicted them on racketeering, bribery and fraud charges.

"To allege the [Judicial Conduct Board] members put their heads in the proverbial sand while juveniles in this county were sent to the hoosegow is a disgrace," Massa told the panel.

Ciavarella is accused of taking bribes from operators of two for-profit detention centers in return for sending children to the centers. Conahan is accused of securing lucrative contracts for the private jails, which the state paid according to the numbers of inmates they housed.

Once the scheme was set up, prosecutors say, Ciavarella guaranteed that the jails were filled with a steady stream of juvenile offenders.

Ciavarella and Conahan are awaiting trial. They initially pleaded guilty but withdrew their pleas after a federal judge rejected the terms of their plea agreements.

Seeking Juveniles' Stories

The Juvenile Law Center, the legal advocacy group in Philadelphia that sounded the alarm about unconstitutional practices in Luzerne County's juvenile court, wants to know if similar rights violations are taking place elsewhere in the state.

It is promoting a questionnaire on its Web site, www.jlc.org/shareyourstory, for children or their parents to tell their stories anonymously.

The center is putting together a report for the state panel investigating the scandal in Luzerne County, where judges are accused of taking millions of dollars in kickbacks to place youths in for-profit detention centers.

The law center wants to hear from youths and parents from outside Luzerne County. Their responses will help the center make recommendations for improving the state's youth courts.

The questionnaire covers a number of practices that emerged from the scandal. Among other youths who have landed in a Pennsylvania juvenile court, the center wants to hear from defendants who were referred to juvenile court for an incident that took place at school; were shackled or handcuffed while in court; waived their right to an attorney; or were sent to a for-profit detention center.

SOURCE: Associated Press