White-Collar Crime

Prosecutor: Judge's 'Cash Cow' Job Milked Money Envelopes From Attorney Owner of Juvenile Facility

  • Print.

At first, then-Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. and a senior colleague in Luzerne County, Pa., allegedly laundered hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks they received for sending juveniles to jail through shell companies and by disguising some of the cash as rental payments on Florida condominium owned by their wives, the Associated Press reports.

But as the scheme to turn the job of president judge into what a prosecutor described as “a cash cow, a money-making machine” progressed, an attorney co-owner of one of the two private juvenile detention facilities paying the kickbacks started simply stuffing envelopes with cash. He sent the money to the chambers of then-Judge Michael Conahan, a prosecutor and witnesses said today as Ciavarella’s federal trial began.

Conahan earlier pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge and awaits sentencing. He had served as president judge of the county prior to Ciavarella, then continued on the bench as a senior judge after retiring in 2008.

Ciavarella’s lawyer, William Ruzzo, said his client never accepted kickbacks or bribes, although he did take a finder’s fee from developer Robert Mericle. And Ruzzo denied that Ciavarella had any leverage to extort wealthy attorney and real-estate developer Robert Powell, the alleged provider of the cash-stuffed envelopes to Conahan, into making the payments.

While Ciavarella should have used better judgment while he was on the bench, Powell “wore a wire and couldn’t get an admission,” Ruzzo told the jury. “He couldn’t get the smoking gun.”

Additional coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Opening Statements Loom in ‘Kids-for-Cash’ Trial of Former Luzerne, Pa., President Judge”

Citizens Voice: “Trial update: Mericle to testify”

Standard Speaker: “A Victim Looks for Justice”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.