SCRANTON, Pa. – A former juvenile court judge who sent thousands of children to detention centers was convicted Friday of racketeering for taking a $1 million kickback from the builder of the for-profit lockups, in what prosecutors said was a "kids for cash" scheme that ranks among the biggest courtroom frauds in U.S. history.
Former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella, 61, left the bench in disgrace two years ago after he and a second judge, Michael Conahan, were accused of using juvenile delinquents as pawns in a plot to get rich. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has dismissed 4,000 juvenile convictions issued by Ciavarella, saying he sentenced young offenders without regard for their constitutional rights.
Federal prosecutors accused Ciavarella and Conahan of taking more than $2 million in bribes from the builder of the PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care detention centers and extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the facilities' co-owner.
A federal jury in Scranton convicted Ciavarella of 12 counts, including racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy, but acquitted him of 27 counts, including extortion. He is likely to get a prison sentence of more than 12 years, according to prosecutors — who revealed after the verdicts that a reputed mob boss turned informant helped them make their case.
Ciavarella insisted the payments were legal and denied that he incarcerated youths for money — a position he defiantly clung to even after he was convicted of a charge, racketeering, that federal prosecutors often use to go after mobsters.
"Never took a dime to send a kid anywhere. If that was the case, that would have been in this trial. Never happened. Never, ever happened. This case was about extortions and kickbacks, not about 'kids for cash,'" said Ciavarella, who plans to appeal.
He was allowed to remain free pending sentencing, a decision that galled parents of juveniles who appeared before the judge. Ciavarella often ordered youths he had found delinquent to be immediately shackled, handcuffed and taken away without giving them a chance to say goodbye to their families. Some of the children he ordered locked up were as young as 10.
The mother of a former defendant jailed by Ciavarella who later killed himself confronted Ciavarella on the courthouse steps, screaming obscenities and even poking the judge as he and his attorneys held a news conference.
"My kid's not here anymore!" yelled Sandy Fonzo, whose son committed suicide last year at age 23. "He's dead! Because of him! He ruined my ... life! I'd like him to go to hell and rot there forever!"
Ciavarella glanced at Fonzo, then turned his back.
Fonzo's son, Edward Kenzakowski, was a 17-year-old all-star wrestler with no prior record when he landed in Ciavarella's courtroom for possession of drug paraphernalia. She said her son never recovered from the months he served at the detention centers and a wilderness camp.
Tears streaming down her face, Fonzo said she couldn't believe Ciavarella was allowed to walk out of the courthouse.
"There's no justice, there's not. He's never going to get what he deserves," she said. "I just wanted to see him handcuffed and taken out. But when I saw him just being released with that stupid smirk on his face ..."
The jury found Ciavarella guilty of taking a $997,600 kickback from Robert Mericle, the builder of the juvenile facilities — money he was ordered to forfeit to the federal government after the verdicts were announced. He was also convicted of failing to report the payments on his state-mandated financial disclosure forms and failing to pay taxes on the income. Jurors acquitted him of extorting Robert Powell, the facilities' developer and co-owner.
The defense declared victory. "We're amazed. The jury rejected 95 percent of the government's case," said attorney Al Flora.
"I find it interesting," U.S. Attorney Peter Smith said in response, "that a man just convicted of racketeering is claiming any sort of a victory out there today. I wonder what he would consider a defeat."
Prosecutors alleged that Conahan, who pleaded guilty to racketeering last year, and Ciavarella plotted to shut down the dilapidated county-run juvenile detention center in 2002 and arrange for the construction of the PA Child Care facility outside Wilkes-Barre.
Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths to the center and later to its sister facility in western Pennsylvania while he was taking payments from Mericle, a prominent builder and close friend of Ciavarella, and Powell, a high-powered attorney.
Luzerne County paid Powell's company more than $30 million between 2003 and 2007 to house juveniles at PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care. The county could have built its own juvenile center for about $9 million, according to testimony.
In dismissing thousands of Ciavarella's convictions, the state high court said he ran his courtroom with "complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles," including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea.
Hundeds of youths and their families are suing Ciavarella and Conahan in federal court, but Smith said the judges' handling of juvenile cases did not figure into the federal prosecution for legal and evidentiary reasons.
"We're very sympathetic to the pain to the community that was caused here by the conduct of the defendant as a juvenile court judge, and we're fully aware of the deep anguish that many parents and many juveniles feel. But the federal criminal courts are not the appropriate venue to resolve that issue fully," he said.
Ciavarella, who took the stand in his own defense, acknowledged to jurors that he failed to report the payments on his tax returns and hid them from the public, but he denied any plot to take kickbacks or extort money.
Ciavarella told jurors that he thought he was legally entitled to Mericle's money, calling it a "finder's fee" for introducing Mericle to Powell.
Ciavarella also denied that he extorted Powell, who had testified for the prosecution that he was forced to pay the judges nearly $600,000 after they agreed to send juvenile delinquents to his new lockup. The payments were disguised as rent on a Florida condominium owned by the judges' wives.
It was Conahan who made the arrangements with Powell, Ciavarella insisted. He said Conahan told him that Powell had agreed to pay them $15,000 a month for 60 months to lease the waterfront Florida property. Prosecutors scoffed at that explanation, questioning why Powell would pay nearly $1 million in rent on a condo he could have purchased outright for less than $800,000.
Officials disclosed for the first time Friday that they were led to the judges by the reputed boss of a northeastern Pennsylvania Mafia family. William D'Elia — who regularly met for breakfast with Conahan — became a government informant after his 2006 arrest on charges of witness tampering and conspiracy to launder drug money.
"D'Elia led us to Judge Conahan," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Zubrod. "From there we began to focus on them, the financial dealings between Judge Conahan, Judge Ciavarella, Mericle, Powell."
D'Elia won a sentence reduction last year based on his cooperation in another criminal case and could be released as early as next year.
Ciavarella and Conahan initially pleaded guilty in February 2009 to honest services fraud and tax evasion in a deal that called for a sentence of more than seven years in prison. But their plea deals were rejected by Senior U.S. District Judge Edward M. Kosik, who ruled they had failed to accept responsibility for their actions.
A federal grand jury in Harrisburg subsequently indicted the judges on charges of racketeering, fraud, money laundering, bribery, extortion and tax offenses. Conahan pleaded guilty to a single racketeering charge last year and awaits sentencing. Mericle and Powell pleaded guilty to lesser offenses and testified against Ciavarella; both await sentencing.
Ciavarella faces a maximum of 157 years in prison at sentencing, but will more likely receive 12½ years to about 15½ years under federal sentencing guidelines, prosecutors said.
PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care remain open and continue to accept juveniles from many Pennsylvania counties, though Luzerne County no longer sends delinquents to them.