Embattled former Luzerne County Common Pleas Judges Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. were arraigned in federal court Tuesday morning and pleaded not guilty to 48 counts, including racketeering and related charges.
The judges stood side by side, flanked by their attorneys and federal prosecutors, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Blewitt and listened with their heads bowed as all 48 counts were read aloud along with each one's maximum penalty.
A small gathering of reporters and onlookers sat at the back of the tiny courtroom in Scranton, Pa., for the duration of the proceedings, which lasted less than half an hour.
Following the arraignment, a crowd of television news crews was seen waiting at the courthouse steps for the judges to emerge.
Federal prosecutors told the court they believed the judges were flight risks now and asked Blewitt to consider adding electronic monitoring to the bail conditions.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Houser told Blewitt the government has reason to believe the judges have been "engaged in secreting assets," including a secret recording from 2008 of Conahan calling himself "judgment proof" and saying: "I don't have anything in my name."
Conahan's attorney, Philip Gelso, maintained that, despite the "topsy-turvy landscape" of this case, both judges have complied with federal Judge Edwin M. Kosik's original bail conditions set in February.
Houser also said the government has evidence that Ciavarella transferred assets to his daughter and is now living in a residence that is not in his name.
Ciavarella's attorney, William Ruzzo, said Ciavarella gave his daughter the money when she got married so that she could buy a house. "Any father would have done that," he said.
While both Gelso and Ruzzo argued that the judges had the opportunity to flee when they were first charged nearly a year ago, Houser said there's "much more at stake now."
But Ruzzo said it would be much more difficult for his client to hide after months of heavy media coverage of the case.
"His picture has been in the paper -- it's been in The New York Times and his name's been mentioned in international press. He's a topic of conversation all over the country. Where is he going to go where he won't be detected?" he said.
In the end, Blewitt decided to release the judges on the same bail conditions set by Kosik in February, which included a $1 million unsecured bond for each of them, backed by the condominium they share in Florida.
They are also prohibited from possessing passports and firearms and must refrain from having any contact with witnesses.
Blewitt did restrict the judges' travel to the Middle District unless authorized by the probation department but agreed to allow Conahan to travel to Lehigh County to visit his ill father-in-law.
Blewitt said the case will now be turned over to Kosik, with pretrial motions due within 20 days of Tuesday.
A federal grand jury handed down a 48-count indictment against the former judges Sept. 9.
The document is similar in several respects to the criminal information filed when the judges' conditional guilty pleas were entered in January. It outlines and details their scheme, which included funneling money from Robert J. Powell, the co-owner of two private juvenile detention facilities, and Robert K. Mericle, the builder of those facilities, to the judges through wire transfers, cash, side businesses and fraudulent rental payments for use of a Florida condominium.
The key theme running throughout the indictment is the allegation that the judges did partake in a quid pro quo, agreeing to "improperly exert influence on behalf of [Powell], PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care as specific opportunities arose to do so."
When one of those opportunities presented itself, the indictment alleges, Conahan sealed the record and granted injunctive relief in a civil case related to PA Child Care.
In addition, "Ciavarella, and others operating at his behest, also exerted pressure on staff of the Court of Common Pleas to recommend detention of juvenile offenders."
On some occasions, probation officers were pressured to change recommendations of release to recommendations of detention," the indictment alleges.
Outside of detailing those allegations and laying out the judges' money trail, the indictment is phrased mostly in generalities.
For instance, counts 31 through 38 of the indictment, which charge the judges with extortion under color of official right, are supported by the allegation that Conahan and Ciavarella were "soliciting, demanding, and accepting property, that is, payments in cash, check and wire transfer from [Powell], with his consent, induced by wrongful use of fear and under color of official right."
A government document filed in relation with Powell's plea agreement offered more specifics, describing a judicial shakedown.
Powell, who has pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony to federal authorities and with being an accessory after the fact to a tax conspiracy, told federal law enforcement officials that he "felt the judges 'had him over a barrel,'" and caved in to their demands, court documents said.
According to the statement of offense conduct, Powell eventually cooperated with federal investigators and "recorded incriminating conversations" with the judges.
The statement said Powell paid Ciavarella and Conahan $772,500, "often disguising the payments as 'rental fees'" for docking his boat at the judges' condominium in Florida. He also allowed more than $2 million to be passed through his bank accounts in connection with a "finders fee" that Mericle paid the judges.
"Ciavarella told Powell that he ... was making a lot of money from the youth detention center and that he had to pay for the privilege," the statement said.
Despite knowing federal investigators were looking at them, Conahan and Ciavarella were undaunted, according Powell's statement of offense conduct.
"Even after the judges became aware of the federal grand jury investigation into their finances, they continued to demand payments from Powell for the privilege of doing business with Luzerne County," the statement said.
Kosik threw out the judges' original plea agreements July 31, citing, in part, Conahan and Ciavarella's conduct following the announcement they had agreed to plead guilty to federal fraud charges and their refusal to accept responsibility for the crimes they had committed. Ciavarella's public comments were self-serving, he said, and Conahan was being obstructionist.
Conahan and Ciavarella made a joint filing Aug. 20, petitioning Kosik to reinstate their agreed upon sentence of 87 months in prison because neither could be found at fault for his post-plea hearing actions.
Kosik rejected that Aug. 24. That same day, the former judges withdrew their guilty pleas and formally entered pleas of not guilty to the charges.
For more coverage on Luzerne County, visit The Legal Intelligencer's Luzerne County Scandal page.