Charges and pleas
A statement from the office of the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania outlined the charges against the two judges on January 26, 2009. The charges outlined in the information described actions between 2000 and 2007 by both judges to assist in the construction and population of private juvenile facilities operated by the two Pennsylvania Child Care companies, acting in an official capacity in favor of the private facilities over the facility operated by Luzerne County.
The U.S. Attorney charged that in 2002 Conahan, who at the time was President Judge of the court, used his authority to remove funding for the county-operated facility. The judges were alleged to have received “millions of dollars” in payments for the completion of a binding agreement between the court and the private facilities, co-owned by attorney Robert Powell, to use their services and the subsequent closing of the county facility. The methods used to conceal the payments involved several parties and transactions which resulted in allegations of tax evasion against the two. Ciavarella and Conahan were also charged with “Ordering juveniles to be sent to these facilities in which the judges had a financial interest even when Juvenile Probation Officers did not recommend placement,” according to the statement.
The original, negotiated plea agreement called for both judges to serve up to seven years in prison (84 months), pay fines and restitution, and accept responsibility for the crimes. However, on July 30, 2009, Judge Edwin M. Kosik of Federal District Court in nearby Scranton rejected the plea agreement, citing “post-guilty plea conduct and expressions from the defendants” that he ruled did not satisfy the terms of the agreement. Kosik wrote that Conahan and Ciavarella continued to deny their crimes even in the face of overwhelming evidence, and therefore did not merit sentences that were well below federal sentencing guidelines. Attorneys for the two judges brought a motion requesting reconsideration of the judge’s rejection of the plea agreement.
The motion was denied on August 24, 2009, and Ciavarella and Conahan subsequently withdrew their guilty pleas, an action which eventually resulted in a jury trial for Ciavarella and additional charges against the former judges.
On September 9, 2009, a federal grand jury in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania returned a 48-count indictment against Ciavarella and Conahan including racketeering, fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery, and federal tax violations. Both judges were arraigned on the charges on September 15, 2009.
Ciavarella and Conahan entered pleas of not guilty to the 48-count indictment and remained free on $1 million in bail, despite federal prosecutors’ contentions that their bail should be raised. Prosecutors argued the judges’ bail should have been higher, since they faced the possibility of substantially more prison time and there had been evidence of attempts made to shield assets.
Robert Powell, an attorney and co-owner of the two juvenile facilities at the heart of the scandal, pleaded guilty on July 1, 2009, to failing to report a felony and being an accessory to tax evasion conspiracy, in connection with $770,000 in kickbacks he paid to Ciavarella and Conahan in exchange for facilitating the development of his juvenile detention centers. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court temporarily suspended Powell’s law license on September 1, citing his criminal conviction.
Robert Mericle, the prominent real estate developer who built the two juvenile facilities, pleaded guilty on September 3, 2009, to failing to disclose a felony. Mericle had failed to tell a grand jury he had paid $2.1 million to Ciavarella and Conahan as a finder’s fee. As part of his plea, Mericle agreed to pay $2.15 million to fund local children’s health and welfare programs. Mericle faced up to three years in prison and a $250,000 maximum fine. On April 25, 2014 Robert Mericle was sentenced to serve one year in Federal Prison.
Sandra Brulo, the former Deputy Director of Forensic Services for the Luzerne County Juvenile Probation Office, agreed to plead guilty in March 2009 to federal obstruction of justice. Those charges stemmed from actions Brulo took after she became aware she had been named in the federal civil action. Brulo backdated her recommendation of placement she made concerning a juvenile defendant in September 2007, and changed her original recommendation of placement to probation.
- Morgan-Besecker, Terrie (March 26, 2009). “Ruling: Keep Lokuta seat off ballot”. Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. Archived from the original on September 1, 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-27.
- “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. MICHAEL T. CONAHAN and MARK A. CIAVARELLA, JR., Defendants”(PDF). U.S. Department of Justice for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. January 26, 2009. Retrieved 2009-09-12.
- “Press Release”. U.S. Department of Justice for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. January 26, 2009. Retrieved2009-08-26.[dead link]
- Urbina, Ian (July 31, 2009). “Plea Agreement by 2 Judges Is Rejected In Pennsylvania”. New York Times. Retrieved2009-08-27.
- “Memorandum and Order of Judge Kosik” (PDF). United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 2009-08-25.
- Leo Strupczewski and Hank Grezlak (August 21, 2009).“Former Pa. Judges Ask for Reconsideration of Rejected Pleas”. The Legal Intelligencer. Retrieved 2009-08-27.
- Morgan-Besecker, Terrie (September 16, 2009). “Ex-jurists plea, still free Magistrate judge declines to raise bail. Federal prosecutors see Conahan, Ciavarella as flight risks.”. Timesleader.com. Retrieved 2009-10-05.
- Dale, Maryclaire (August 14, 2009). “Luzerne builder latest to admit guilt in scandal”. Associated Press/The Morning Call. Retrieved 2009-08-26.[dead link]
- “United States v. Robert Powell”. The United States Attorney’s Office, Middle District of Pennsylvania. Retrieved2009-08-25.
- Lewis, Edward (September 2, 2009). “Pa. court suspends Powell’s law license Action taken as Butler Twp. lawyer awaits sentencing in federal corruption probe.”. Timesleader.com. Retrieved 2009-09-06.[dead link]
- “United States v. Robert K. Mericle”. The United States Attorney’s Office, Middle District of Pennsylvania. Retrieved2009-08-27.
- Morgan-Besecker, Terrie (September 3, 2009). “Mericle pleads guilty”. The Times Leader. Retrieved 2009-09-03.