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Plea Agreements in Pa. Judicial Corruption Scandal RejectedThe federal judge responsible for overseeing the sentencing of two former Luzerne County, Pa., judges who have pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges has rejected their plea agreements in light of their refusal to accept responsibility for their crimes. In his order, Judge Edwin M. Kosik said he will hold a hearing, during which Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. can withdraw their guilty pleas or accept a potentially stiffer sentence.
The Legal Intelligencer2009-08-03 12:00:00 AM
The federal judge responsible for overseeing the sentencing of two former Luzerne County, Pa., judges who have pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges has rejected the judges' plea agreements.
U.S. Middle District Judge Edwin M. Kosik's stunning order rejecting the plea deals of Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. was posted late Friday afternoon and dated July 30.
Kosik said he could not accept the plea agreements in light of the judges' refusal to accept responsibility for the crimes they had committed.
"In light of the post-guilty plea conduct and expressions from the defendants that contradict some offense conduct, the negotiated pleas, which were grounded in the good faith of the government, are well below the sentencing guidelines for the charged offenses," Kosik wrote in his five-page order.
"We paraphrase what has been written about judges, that, above all things, integrity is their lot and proper value, the landmark, and he that removes it, corrupts the fountain. In this case, the fountain from which the public drinks is confidence in the judicial system -- a fountain which may be corrupted for a time well after this case."
According to the order, Kosik will hold a hearing, during which Conahan and Ciavarella can either withdraw their guilty pleas or accept a potentially stiffer sentence from Kosik. In addition, Kosik said the parties had 10 days to waive the hearing in writing.
What happens next is uncertain. One source said the government might come back with a superseding indictment against the former judges seeking additional charges.
Sources have been telling The Legal Intelligencer for months there was a good chance Kosik would not accept the plea agreements. Several sources late Friday said they were not surprised by Kosik's decision, although upon hearing the news, some said: "Wow!"
Kosik expressed displeasure with both former judges, but it was Conahan's objections to the pre-sentence report that brought the brunt of Kosik's ire. He said Conahan filed "several sets of objections."
"The most recent revised objections, which remain unresolved, total some twelve which address more than one paragraph of the pre-sentence report," Kosik said.
While he did not provide details about the objections, Kosik said some of them are denials of the "receipts of money."
"The report represents that defendant Conahan refused to discuss the motivation behind his conduct, attempted to obstruct and impede justice, and failed to clearly demonstrate affirmative acceptance of responsibility with his denials and contradiction of evidence, which is essential to the tenor of the government's case," Kosik said.
Ciavarella, the judge wrote, was less obstructive.
Instead, Kosik took issue with Ciavarella's public remarks -- which have been frequent as of late -- that his actions did not amount to a "quid pro quo."
The government had an "abundance of evidence" detailing a "routine deprivation of children's constitutional rights," Kosik wrote. He further wrote that the government's evidence described Ciavarella's role in the juvenile detention facility as having "helped to create [it] in return for a 'finder's fee.'"
"Such denials are self serving and abundantly contradicted by the evidence the government proffers as offense conduct," Kosik wrote.
Ciavarella's attorney, Al Flora, could not be reached for comment late Friday. Conahan's attorney, Philip Gelso, could not be reached for comment.
Heidi Havens, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, said in a statement that the office is reviewing Kosik's order and determining the "appropriate course of action." She had no further comment, except that the office remains committed to "achieving the goal which we have pursued from the outset of this case, justice for the people of Luzerne County."
Sources have said that Conahan and Ciavarella effectively controlled the county for years and ruled through fear and intimidation, overseeing widespread corruption, including rampant case-fixing and payoffs.
While the federal government's case against the former judges centers on their roles in taking money from attorney Robert Powell, the 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 and Carsia worked for Scalleat.
The Legal Intelligencer has previously reported that federal investigators are looking at allegations of case-fixing in Luzerne County, particularly UM/UIM arbitration cases, as well as criminal case-fixing. Admitted felon Robert Kulick testified during a special hearing in early July that he and D'Elia met regularly with Conahan to fix cases. At that same hearing, a county security guard, Patty Benzi, testified that she ran envelopes from D'Elia and Kulick to Conahan, though she also testified that she had no knowledge of the contents of the envelopes. Sources have told The Legal Intelligencer that Benzi was not alone in running envelopes from D'Elia to Conahan.
An investigation by The Legal Intelligencer has shown that parties with ties to the two judges often won favorable rulings when challenging their tax assessments, particularly the builder of juvenile detention facility PA Child Care, Mericle. In addition, as The Legal Intelligencer first reported in March, multiple sources have said the federal government is investigating whether Luzerne County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Toole allegedly took a payment from Powell.