Judges Selling Justice

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Scranton Times-Tribune

April 30, 2010

Former judge Conahan pleads guilty in kids-for-cash scheme

Dave Janoski and Michael R. Sisak

Eight months after withdrawing his guilty plea in the kids-for-cash case, former Luzerne County President Judge Michael T. Conahan has entered a new guilty plea agreement with federal prosecutors with no escape clause.

Mr. Conahan faces up to 20 years in prison on a racketeering charge for accepting millions of dollars from two men connected to two for-profit detention centers that housed offenders from the county's juvenile court. He and his co-defendant, former President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., entered guilty pleas to fraud and conspiracy charges in the case last year, but withdrew them after a federal judge rejected the 87-month prison sentences contained in their plea agreements.

Mr. Conahan's new plea agreement, signed Tuesday and filed in U.S. District Court in Scranton on Thursday, specifically bars him from withdrawing the plea if he is unsatisfied with his sentence.

No plea agreement had been filed in Mr. Ciavarella's case as of Thursday night and his attorney, Al Flora Jr., said Mr. Conahan's plea deal should not be interpreted as a signal that Mr. Ciavarella would be signing a similar deal.

"As far as our client goes, he's presumed innocent under the law and entitled to his day in court," Mr. Flora said.

Mr. Conahan's plea agreement makes no mention of cooperation with federal prosecutors against Mr. Ciavarella or other defendants. The U.S. attorney's office, which filed the agreement and an additional sealed document in Mr. Conahan's case Thursday, declined comment.

Mr. Flora said Mr. Conahan's agreement will have no effect on Mr. Ciavarella's defense strategy and will not force him to consider a plea deal of his own.

"Why would it force us to do anything?" Mr. Flora asked.

Mr. Flora would not say whether he and Mr. Ciavarella are negotiating with prosecutors. They were not privy to Mr. Conahan's negotiations, Mr. Flora said.

Efforts to reach Mr. Conahan were unsuccessful Thursday. In an e-mail message, his attorney, Philip Gelso, wrote: "It would be inappropriate for anyone to comment on this case at this time."

Under his plea agreement, Mr. Conahan, who retired from the county bench in 2008 but was active as a senior judge until his arrest in January 2009, has 10 days to resign from the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

Prosecutors will make an "appropriate" recommendation as to the length of Mr. Conahan's sentence, but maintain the right to recommend the maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to the agreement.

Both the defense and prosecution reserve the right to make arguments over how federal sentencing guidelines, which weigh a defendant's criminal history, the nature of the crime and other factors in determining a sentence, should be applied in Mr. Conahan's case. The ultimate decision will be up to U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik.

In July, Judge Kosik rejected the 87-month prison sentences called for in the plea agreements Mr. Conahan and Mr. Ciavarella signed in January 2009 as too lenient.

Judge Kosik wrote in a court order that Mr. Conahan had been uncooperative and attempted to "obstruct and impede justice" in his dealings with probation officers preparing a pre-sentence report in the case. In his order, Judge Kosik also unfavorably cited public statements in which Mr. Ciavarella denied he had a "quid pro quo" agreement to jail juveniles for cash, as alleged by prosecutors.

The grand jury alleged that Mr. Conahan, 58, and Mr. Ciavarella, 60, accepted $2.8 million from the builder and former owner of two for-profit detention centers that housed juveniles sentenced by Mr. Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court for a dozen years.

Mr. Ciavarella violated state court rules by failing to fully inform juveniles of their right to counsel and jailed them on minor offenses, according to the state Supreme Court, which vacated thousands of the sentences he imposed in juvenile court. The incarceration rate in Mr. Ciavarella's court was more than double the state average.

Mr. Conahan and Mr. Ciavarella were instrumental in closing a county-owned juvenile detention center in 2003 and securing county contracts for facilities in Pittston Twp. and Butler County owned by two related for-profit companies, PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, prosecutors say.

The two former judges allegedly tried to disguise the payments by routing them through Beverage Marketing, a firm controlled by Mr. Conahan, and Pinnacle Group of Jupiter LLC, a holding company owned by the judges' wives but controlled by the judges that owned a condominium in Florida.

After the withdrawal of their guilty pleas in August, Mr. Conahan and Mr. Ciavarella were indicted by a federal grand jury on 48 counts that carried a cumulative maximum sentence of hundreds of years in prison.

Under his plea agreement, Mr. Conahan will plead guilty to one of the counts and the remainder will be dropped.

Mr. Conahan and Mr. Ciavarella remain free on bail.

Robert White's picture
Robert White
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Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

Comments

Well, private prison corporations haven't been around very long. They are naive. Outright bribery to a sitting judge is illegal.

Probably the future course will be to lobby on their behalf for an appointment...or in the case of elected ones, to finance name recognition and "fairness" in return for sentencing to get a profitable return on their "investment".Ah the marvels of corporate personhood and their Constitutional right fo finance politicians...and judges.

If Congress is sold to the highest bidder...why not a judgeship?. Private prisons...another means for corruption to take root. The losers of course, being citizens incarcerated in return for back-scratching.

Retired Monk - "Ideology is a disease"

polycarp2
Joined:
Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

There is a price for everything in the wonder world of commodification. Raj Patel's VALUE OF NOTHING completes the Oscar Wilde insight and applies it to the culture of capitalism and "economic man." It is the best thing I have read sofar in debunking the religion of Wall St. He and Korten are required reading.

DRC's picture
DRC
Joined:
Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm
Quote polycarp2:[...]

If Congress is sold to the highest bidder...why not a judgeship?. Private prisons...another means for corruption to take root. The losers of course, being citizens incarcerated in return for back-scratching.

Therein lies a critically important tale that far too few Americans are at all acquainted with. One conspicuous element of it is the unwillingness of high-level politicians, including a progression of Presidents, to debate the dubious wisdom of continuing marijuana prohibition. Those who understand the facts in this controversy are aware that the only beneficiaries of the unreasonable persecution are various corporate entities, outstanding among which is the law-enforcement industrial complex.

Year after year, tens of thousands of decent, peaceful, productive and otherwise law-abiding Americans are arrested for marijuana possession. While most are punished with fines, probation, community service and property seizure, some are sentenced to prison terms. Regardless of the degree of any individual punishment an insidious consquence of this outrageously wasteful policy is the ruin of the individuals' futures by the stigma imparted by their criminal records.

This clearly unnecessary persecution is conducted for the express purpose of benefiting those corporations whose bottom lines would be negatively affected by legalized marijuana. This injustice could not continue without the de facto conspiracy of corrupt politicians and judges.

"Americans will know they have an honest President when he or she aggressively promotes the legalization of marijuana and a review of the War on Drugs!" (Federal Judge Robert W. Sweet)

MikeK's picture
MikeK
Joined:
Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

Well, decriminalizing marijuana has an additional opponent...the private prison industry. They make a bundle off of having it remain criminalized.

Those employed in supplying resources for the "drug war" have an ally. Lots of guns, lots of body armor, lots of helicopters....and a way to finance paramilitary groups south of the border. to keep " transnational friendly" governments in power. Three sneers for Columbia.

Three decades of a war on drugs...and we haven't even reached a stalemate. Time for a new strategy, isn't it? Sell 'em cheaply through state stores and drive the cartels and drug dealers out of business. Stop them from recruiting new customers by driving them out of business. Provide free rehab for those wanting off them. The prison, industry of course, will fight anything that may work.

Retired Monk - "Ideology is a disease"

polycarp2
Joined:
Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm
Quote polycarp2:

Well, decriminalizing marijuana has an additional opponent...the private prison industry. They make a bundle off of having it remain criminalized.

Those employed in supplying resources for the "drug war" have an ally. Lots of guns, lots of body armor, lots of helicopters....and a way to finance paramilitary groups south of the border. to keep " transnational friendly" governments in power. Three sneers for Columbia.

Three decades of a war on drugs...and we haven't even reached a stalemate. Time for a new strategy, isn't it? Sell 'em cheaply through state stores and drive the cartels and drug dealers out of business. Stop them from recruiting new customers by driving them out of business. Provide free rehab for those wanting off them. The prison, industry of course, will fight anything that may work.

Retired Monk - "Ideology is a disease"

Quite true. And the private prison industry is a major component of the law-enforcement industrial complex.

Persecuting marijuana sellers and users has become a highly profitable industry. The process begins with cops at local, state and federal (DEA) levels and moves upward through prosecutors, jail guards, bondsmen, defense lawyers, judges, court personnel, probation officers, prison construction and maintenance contractors, prison guards, prison support personnel and parole officers. A significant but hidden cost to society is the effect that a "criminal" record has on those who would have been productively employed taxpayers were it not for the plainly unnecessary and eminently wasteful marijuana prohibition which has severely compromised their earning potential.

MikeK's picture
MikeK
Joined:
Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

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