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.