The two former Luzerne County, Pa., judges who have pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges effectively controlled the county for years and ruled through fear and intimidation, overseeing widespread corruption, including rampant case-fixing and payoffs.
That is the picture that has been painted through hundreds of interviews with dozens of sources and extensive research of court records and prior news accounts conducted by The Legal Intelligencer.
While the federal government's case against former Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan centers on their roles in taking money from attorney Robert Powell, the co-owner, and Robert Mericle, the builder, of a juvenile detention facility and the judges' alleged abuse of the rights of juveniles sentenced to the facility, sources close to the investigation and inside Luzerne County say the scam some in the media have labeled "kids for cash" was just the tip of the iceberg and only the most blatant example of the corruption overseen by the two judges.
Luzerne County Commissioner Stephen A. Urban said that "when it came to people, budgets and personnel" he always thought Conahan and Ciavarella "got whatever they wanted, unjustly."
"They never had to justify anything," he said.
"I think some people felt like the courts controlled the county," Urban said. "I felt that way sometimes, too. I think people were afraid to challenge them."
The two judges ran the courthouse like a mafia family, according to several sources. And while The Legal Intelligencer has previously reported Conahan's ties to admitted felons, including reputed mob boss William "Billy" D'Elia, multiple sources have said that Conahan's links to organized crime go back decades. Sources have linked Conahan and his father to Joseph Scalleat and Michael "Hoppy" Carsia.
According to a former member of the now-defunct Pennsylvania Crime Commission, Scalleat and Carsia ran the mob in Hazleton, where the Conahans hailed from, for years. Both Scalleat and Carsia are mentioned in several of the commission's reports.
James Kanavy, the former special agent-in-charge of the commission's Northeast Region, said Scalleat was the "political guy" and set the big picture, while Carsia ran day-to-day operations on the street. Scalleat, he said, was a member of the Philadelphia crime family, while Carsia was a member of the Bufalino crime family.
THE TWO FACES OF CONAHAN
Although the two judges were seen as a team, nearly every source identified Conahan as the ultimate leader and mastermind of the corruption. Sources have been consistent in describing Conahan as having two distinct sides. One is warm, friendly, charming and hardworking and a gentlemen to lawyers appearing before him. The other side was constantly scheming, always looking to make money or to leverage favors, as well as vindictive, hell-bent on punishing those who challenged him and always keeping score.
Tom Pendergast, who said he has known Conahan since the first grade, said Conahan was "always on the make." He also said Conahan, with his business and political ties, was running the county long before he became president judge.
"He thought he could do what he could do and nobody could touch him," he said.
Pendergast said he once worked as a police officer in Hazleton and recounted hanging out in Conahan's chambers frequently. Pendergast said he and Conahan started drifting apart in the 1980s and that he eventually moved out of the state.
Pendergast said that Conahan sometimes set up no-show jobs for him, although he never got paid because he felt uncomfortable with the situation.
"I knew there were strings attached to that," Pendergast said. "I wouldn't want to be in his debt."