Corruption Rampant in Pennsylvania Coal Country

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After a six-year run in the NFL, Greg Skrepenak came home to Pennsylvania and parlayed his name recognition and hometown popularity into a seat on the Luzerne County Board of Commissioners.

He'd campaigned as a reformer. It turns out he was anything but. Prosecutors charged him last month with accepting $5,000 in gifts from a developer seeking public financing of a condominium project. He is scheduled to plead guilty on Tuesday.

Another day, another fallen politician in the coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania, where FBI agents and federal prosecutors have spent the past year rooting out government corruption in a hardscrabble region known for its pay-to-play politics, suspicion of outsiders and resistance to political change.

Twenty-three people in Luzerne County — including a school superintendent, three county judges, four courthouse officials, and five school board members — have been charged so far in a variety of unrelated schemes.

In the most egregious abuse of the public's trust, two judges are charged with taking $2.8 million in kickbacks to place youth offenders in for-profit detention facilities — a scandal known as "kids for cash." While thousands of juvenile convictions have been dismissed by the state Supreme Court, youth advocates say the lives of countless children and their families were ruined.

The ongoing federal corruption probe has sent tremors through an insular political culture where graft, patronage and nepotism have been accepted practice since the golden age of anthracite coal a century ago — when waves of European immigrants arrived in this mountainous region 100 miles north of Philadelphia to work in mines, breweries and railroads. Their descendants still live in the tiny patch towns and tightly packed houses built by long-defunct coal companies.

Most of the charges filed over the past year involve public officials accepting cash or gifts — a $1,500 suit, for example — in exchange for helping contractors win government work or some other benefit. A few officials are charged with the outright theft of taxpayer dollars. The FBI is also looking into allegations that candidates for public school teaching positions paid bribes to school board members to land jobs.

"Things have been like this for so long that I don't think many people see a lot of wrong in what they've done," said Skrepenak, 39, a former offensive lineman who played for the Oakland Raiders and Carolina Panthers in the 1990s.

"I believe any elected official of the last five years is at risk" of prosecution, he added. "I don't think many of them truly know what they can and cannot do."

Few in the coal region are surprised. Machine-style politics has flourished here for decades; government jobs and other taxpayer-funded goodies are often doled out to the politically connected, not just in Luzerne County but throughout the area. Federal prosecutors, in fact, have set their sights on the courthouse in neighboring Lackawanna County, and indictments are widely expected.

To the southwest, meanwhile, the feds are investigating a different kind of corruption, charging police officers in the small former mining town of Shenandoah with plotting to cover up the fatal beating of a Mexican immigrant and, in a separate case, with shaking down illegal gambling rackets. The Mob, under the Bufalino crime family, once had a corruption foothold here.

Until recently, there's has been little outside scrutiny of the backroom dealmaking.

"There's no question this is an area that traditionally has not seen a lot of public corruption investigations, and now there are several big ones going on," said FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver. "It is a major undertaking, but we seem to be getting it done, so that's a good thing."

The kids-for-cash scandal, the first to break, remains by the far the biggest and most shocking. On Jan. 26, 2009, federal prosecutors announced charges against judges Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan, describing a scheme in which Conahan forced closure of the county-owned juvenile detention center in 2002 and reached an agreement with a for-profit company co-owned by his friend, a prominent local attorney, to send youth offenders to its new facility outside Wilkes-Barre.

Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths — many of them accused of minor offenses — to the PA Child Care LLC detention center and to a sister facility in western Pennsylvania while he was taking payments, running his courtroom with "complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles," in the words of the Supreme Court.

He once told a 14-year-old offender to count the number of birds sitting on a ledge outside the courtroom — then gave the teenager six months in detention, one for each bird, according to a recent civil suit.

Yet no one in Luzerne County blew the whistle on Ciavarella's courtroom behavior. Not court staff, not defense lawyers or prosecutors. As a result, juveniles typically got hearings that lasted only a few minutes, and many of them were pressured to waive their right to lawyers.

"This is not just a failure caused by two or three corrupt judges. This is a whole collapse of government," said John Cleland, a state appeals judge who chairs a panel investigating the scandal. "It's a cultural phenomenon that's inexplicable."

Youth advocates say lawyers who regularly appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom but kept quiet about the abuses should face discipline for failing to report the judge.

Testifying before Cleland's panel last week, Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, called Luzerne County a "toxic combination" of private enterprise, corrupt judges and indifferent lawyers and probation officers.

"It was the Love Canal of juvenile courts," he said, a place where children were "fast-tracked to oblivion."