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Pa. Judges Admit Taking $2.6M in Kickbacks from Detention Center Owner

Posted Feb 13, 2009 8:23 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Two former judges from northeastern Pennsylvania pleaded guilty yesterday in a scheme to accept $2.6 million in kickbacks from the owners of a juvenile detention facility.

The Luzerne County judges, former President Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. and retired Judge Michael Conahan, pleaded guilty to two charges. The Legal Intelligencer identifies the charges as honest services wire fraud and conspiracy to defraud the United States, while the New York Times describes the charges and income tax and wire fraud.

The agreement calls for prison sentences of 87 months. The judges are free on an unsecured $1 million bond, according to the Legal Intelligencer. Conahan was accused of securing contracts with the centers and Ciavarella was accused of sentencing juveniles to serve time there, the Times says.

Prosecutors said the kickback scheme began in December 2002, when the judges shut down the county juvenile detention center on the ground it was in bad shape and said juveniles should be housed at two private centers, according to the Times account.

Ciavarella says he only sentenced juveniles to detention centers if they deserved it, but his record is tougher than the norm, the Times story says. He sent one-fourth of juvenile defendants to detention from 2002 to 2006, compared with a state average of 1 out of 10, the story says.

Juveniles have a constitutional right to counsel, but about half the juveniles appearing before Ciavarella had waived that right, the Times says. Only Illinois, New Mexico and North Carolina require representation for juveniles.

The case has spurred the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review all juvenile cases decided in Luzerne County in the last five years and all appointments by the judges in the last seven years.

Former Luzerne County Judge Ann Lokuta attended the hearing. She has said she reported improper conduct by the judges to the FBI, according to the Legal Intelligencer article. The state’s judicial discipline body banned Lokuta from the bench in December based on findings that she belittled her staff, used court personnel to clean her home and created a warlike atmosphere with other judges.

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