WILKES-BARRE - A special panel seeking ways to avoid a recurrence of the Luzerne County "cash-for-kids" judicial scandal clashed heatedly yesterday with the state agency charged with investigating complaints against judges.
"The Judicial Conduct Board has repeatedly expressed its willingness to assist us," said Superior Court Judge John C. Cleland, chairman of the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice. "At each turn, however, while we have been assured of the board's cooperation in principle, we have been denied the board's cooperation in practice."
Sitting directly across the table from Cleland in witness chairs at a hearing were two key judicial board officials - Edwin L. Klett, a board member, and Joseph Massa, the chief counsel.
While the two board members freely answered questions involving its routine policies and procedures, they declined to answer any specifics on the central focus of the commission's ongoing hearings: two former Luzerne County judges, Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., who have been charged with taking $2.8 million in kickbacks from two private juvenile detention centers.
Each time commission members sought information about the two accused judges, the witnesses, who are both lawyers, were advised not to answer. "You are getting into matters that I believe are confidential under the Constitution," their lawyer, Paul H. Titus of Pittsburgh, told the commission.
At one point, Cleland told them: "One is tempted to conclude that your definition of confidentiality is a definition of convenience. It is a definition which, to be absolutely frank, does not inspire confidence in our system of judicial discipline."
The commission is seeking any information the judicial board has growing out of an anonymous complaint it received in September 2006 containing numerous allegations about Conahan, including that he had ties to organized crime.
At the time, the judicial board staffer passed the complaint on to the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and a federal grand jury, but it is not clear whether the agency conducted its own investigation.
The commission members appeared surprised when Klett testified that he and the other 11 board members had not seen the complaint until this year - nearly three years after it was filed with the board. By not taking action against Conahan immediately, the board, in effect, allowed the judges to remain on the bench until they were indicted this year.
"That was a bombshell," said Jason Legg, a commission member and prosecutor from Susquehanna County.
In his questioning, Legg pressed Massa to explain why the judicial board could share information on the two judges with federal agencies and the grand jury, but not with the commission. Titus advised Massa not to answer on constitutional grounds.
There was a sharp exchange between Klett and Kenneth Horoho, a Pittsburgh lawyer and commission member, over the possible existence of a second anonymous complaint the board received about the judges.
"Convince me that the second anonymous complaint against the judges was not lost in the shuffle," Horoho demanded.
"I'm not here to convince you of anything," Klett shot back. "I'm here to answer your questions."
Klett later said he would like to share information on the judges "chapter and verse," but was refusing to do so under a "higher calling," which, he said, was "to protect the process of the Judicial Conduct Board."
In a statement explaining its limited cooperation with the commission, the board said: "The constitution of Pennsylvania clearly mandates the board to zealously protect the confidentiality of information it receives from complaints or that it develops in the course of investigations.
"To encourage potential complainants to come forward with important information, it is critical that the umbrella of complete confidentiality be maintained." To do otherwise, the statement said, "would destroy the very foundation of the board's work."
Klett described a judicial board that met formally only six times a year and was so strapped for cash that it was difficult to find funds to pay the traveling expenses on staff and members.
Yesterday's hearing was the fifth the commission has conducted on the corruption allegations. It is to issue its recommendations in May.
Federal prosecutors allege that Conahan arranged for himself and Ciavarella to receive the kickbacks from the detention centers. During a five-year period ending in 2008, Ciavarella sent thousands of children to detention centers, including the two that were paying him the kickbacks, for relatively minor infractions.
Ciavarella allowed about half of the teenage defendants to waive their right to a lawyer and plead guilty without explaining to them the consequences of these actions, as required by law.