ALLENTOWN - A third Luzerne County Court judge has been charged with corruption, becoming the latest public servant to be caught up in a widening federal probe that has snared 20 people in the northeastern Pennsylvania county since January.
Judge Michael Toole, 49, will plead guilty to fraud and tax charges and resign, according to court documents filed yesterday in federal court in Scranton.
Prosecutors said Toole had "corruptly abused" his position by concealing his financial relationship with a lawyer who appeared before him in an insurance case. Toole, elected in 2003, faces a maximum sentence of 23 years in prison and a $350,000 fine.
Toole's attorney, Frank Nocito, declined to comment.
President Judge Chester Muroski immediately removed Toole from his judicial responsibilities, leaving just seven judges on a bench that normally has 10.
"Clearly this action deals a severe blow to our already shorthanded Luzerne County Court," Muroski said in a statement. "I have spoken with my remaining colleagues, and while we are all extremely disappointed with these recent developments, we are, once again, committed to making a total effort to maintain the business and function of the Luzerne County Court.
Two former county judges, Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., are accused of taking millions of dollars in kickbacks to send juveniles to private detention facilities. They await trial on racketeering charges.
Besides Toole, the vacancies are for Ciavarella and Ann Lokuta, who was removed last December over misconduct allegations. She is appealing that ruling.
A replacement for Conahan, who retired, was elected last month.
In the latest case, prosecutors said Toole had accepted the free use of a New Jersey beach house from a plaintiff's attorney whose client was before Toole in an uninsured-motorist case. Toole appointed an arbitrator sought by the lawyer without telling the other side of the arrangement.
Federal prosecutors said in court papers that "the appointment was corrupt, deceptive, and biased and was made in a manner that undermined the fairness and integrity of the arbitration process."
The lawyer is not named in court papers.