With Corrupt Judges, Kids' Lives Hang in the Balance
By FRANK MASTROPOLO
March 27, 2009
Luzerne County sits in the heart of Pennsylvania's struggling coal country; Wilkes-Barre is the county seat, a hardscrabble, blue-collar city that knew hard times even before this latest recession.
People there were shocked in January when federal prosecutors announced that respected county judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan had pleaded guilty to tax evasion and honest services fraud, the result of a lengthy investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI. Yesterday the Pa. State Supreme Court overturned hundreds of convictions of low-level offenders, ruling that all juveniles who had appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom without lawyers between 2003 and 2008 had not been adequately informed when they waived their right to counsel.
Ciavarella and Conahan, who face up to 7 years in prison, had devised a plot to use their positions as judges to pad their pockets. They shut down the old county-run juvenile detention center by first refusing to send kids there and, then, by cutting off funds, choking it out of existence. They then replaced the facility with a cash cow -- a privately owned lockup built by the judges' cronies -- and forged a deal for the county to pay $58 million for a 10-year period for its use. At the time Conahan was serving as president judge of the Luzerne County Common Pleas Court, a position that allowed him to control the county-court budget. Ciavarella was the Luzerne County juvenile court judge.
The judges entered plea agreements in federal court in Scranton in February admitting that they took more than $2.6 million in payoffs from the private youth detention center between 2003 and 2006.
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