Former Luzerne County Common Pleas Judge Michael T. Conahan agreed Thursday to plead guilty to accepting, along with another judge, more than $2.8 million from the builder and former co-owner of a private juvenile detention facility.
Conahan, along with co-defendant and fellow former Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., is one of the key figures in the Luzerne County judicial scandal.
News of the plea deal is likely to cause a great deal of unease among some in Northeastern Pennsylvania, sources told The Legal Intelligencer, because the indication is that Conahan is cooperating with authorities. If that's true -- and sources close to the investigation believe it is, given the nature of the deal -- Conahan will have to tell federal authorities everything he knows.
Sources in Luzerne County and others close to the investigation have told The Legal Intelligencer for nearly a year that Conahan essentially ran the county and was the epicenter of corruption in the courthouse.
Since September, the two former judges have faced a 48-count indictment containing charges of racketeering, fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery and federal tax violations. And, along the way, they've made each public move -- court filings, hearing appearances -- together.
Thursday's development, described by people familiar with the case as surprising, changes that.
Notably absent from the men's criminal case docket was an accompanying plea agreement for Ciavarella.
Two months after Conahan and Ciavarella filed several pretrial motions charging federal officials with "outrageous government misconduct," questioning the impartiality of the judge assigned to their case and requesting a change in venue, Conahan made a move of his own.
His plea agreement limits his exposure to one racketeering conspiracy charge -- a crime that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Absent from the 21-page agreement is any minimum sentencing requirement or sentencing recommendation from prosecutors. Instead, the agreement outlines that any penalty is to be "determined by the court." It is that aspect, along with the fact the government filed the agreement along with a sealed document, that sources cited as the biggest indication that Conahan is cooperating with authorities.
Conahan's attorneys, Philip Gelso of Briechle & Gelso in Kingston, Pa., and Arthur T. Donato Jr. of Media, Pa., said it would be "inappropriate" to comment on the case. Neither would offer an explanation on how the plea agreement was reached.
The agreement also states that Conahan will surrender his law license within 10 days of the agreement being accepted by the court and that any assets seized through forfeiture proceedings may be applied to the amount of restitution Conahan may owe.
"The United States is entering into this Plea Agreement with the defendant because this disposition of the matter fairly and adequately addresses the gravity of the series of offenses from which the charges are drawn, as well as the defendant's role in such offenses, thereby serving the ends of justice," the plea agreement states.
Filed along with the plea agreement Thursday were an undisclosed document and a motion to keep that document under seal.
There is no explicit cooperation agreement.
In the motion to seal the undisclosed document, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania William S. Houser wrote that the reasons for doing were set forth in the "accompanying sealed declaration." Conahan and his attorneys signed the agreement Tuesday. U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Dennis C. Pfannenschmidt signed the agreement Thursday.
Ciavarella's attorney, Albert J. Flora Jr. of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., could not be reached for comment. Attorney Mark B. Sheppard of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads, who represents Robert Powell, the attorney who prosecutors have said paid the judges, declined to comment.
IMPLICATIONS FOR OTHERS
Several knowledgeable sources expressed surprise at news of Conahan's plea agreement. However, sources close to the investigation said there had been an offer on the table for weeks.
The sentiment from several sources upon reviewing the plea deal was: "He must be singing like a bird." If so, sources said, the government will most likely expect Conahan to name lawyers or others involved in the case-fixing that allegedly went on in the courthouse. Sources close to the investigation have confirmed for months now that a number of lawyers are under federal scrutiny and some are talking.
With Conahan talking, sources said, the attorneys for those lawyers will have little leverage to try those cases.
For the past few months there has been increased talk and speculation from knowledgeable sources that investigators may be looking at other judges and other branches of government. Some of those same sources echoed that sentiment Thursday, saying that if Conahan is talking, they wouldn't be surprised if the investigation touches other government officials.
The plea agreement may mark the end of yet another chapter in the ongoing judicial scandal that started nearly a year and a half ago.
Conahan and Ciavarella originally entered conditional guilty pleas in January 2009, but withdrew them in September after U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik rejected the deal, citing the co-defendants' conduct following the announcement of their plea agreement. Neither accepted responsibility for the crimes they committed, Kosik wrote, and Ciavarella's public comments were self-serving, while Conahan was being obstructionist.
The judges later petitioned Kosik to reinstate the agreement because neither could be found at fault for his post-plea hearing actions. Kosik did not.
A 48-count indictment was filed against both men about five weeks later and they responded by pleading not guilty.
Several sources close to the case said it was poised to go to trial and the two former judges seemed to be preparing for that fact.
In early March, they filed 44 motions exploring nearly every open option.
They sought, for instance, to move the case out of Pennsylvania and charged the prosecution with "outrageous government conduct." They also petitioned for Kosik to recuse himself from the case.