SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) -- Two county judges in northeastern Pennsylvania were charged Monday with public corruption in an alleged scheme that authorities say gave them $2.6 million in kickbacks in return for placing juvenile offenders into certain detention facilities.
Federal officials said Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella, 58, and Senior Judge Michael Conahan, 56, have agreed to plead guilty to honest services fraud and tax fraud following a nearly two-year probe by the FBI and Internal Revenue Service. The agreements call for sentences of more than seven years in federal prison, they said.
"They sold their oaths of offices to the highest bidders," Deron Roberts, chief of the FBI's Scranton office, said at a news conference Monday.
Ciavarella and Conahan took kickbacks in exchange for guaranteeing the placement of juvenile offenders into facilities operated by PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care LLC, authorities alleged in court documents. In some cases, Ciavarella ordered children into detention even when juvenile probation officers did not recommend it, documents state.
Both judges have agreed to step down from the bench.
The investigation has been public knowledge for several months. Federal agents have served search warrants and subpoenas on several courthouse offices. U.S. Attorney Martin Carlson stressed the charges were "the first developments in an ongoing investigation" into public corruption at the courthouse in Wilkes-Barre.
PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, which built a juvenile facility in Butler County, have not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Responding to Monday's charges, Luzerne County District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll said her office would review cases in which offenders may have been improperly placed into juvenile detention. She declined to reveal how many cases will be reviewed, but said, "We're going to do our best to right the situation."
The Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group, complained last year to the state Supreme Court about the treatment of children in Luzerne County juvenile court, asking for the nullification of decisions in hundreds of cases since 2005. Juveniles were often denied their constitutional right to lawyers and were disproportionately sentenced to ill-advised, out-of-home placements, the group said.
The state Department of Public Welfare wrote an amicus brief in support of the group's petition. But the high court declined earlier this month to take up the case.
"It certainly confirms that Judge Ciavarella was not acting in the best interests of Luzerne County's children," Marsha Levick, legal director of the Juvenile Law Center, said of Monday's developments.
Conahan's lawyer, Philip Gelso, declined comment. An attorney for Ciavarella did not immediately return a phone message. But Ciavarella attorney Al Flora told The Citizen's Voice of Wilkes-Barre that the charges were just "allegations" and the plea agreements were "conditional" on the defendants accepting the facts to be presented by prosecutors at a plea hearing that has not yet been scheduled. "Everything could fall apart," he told the paper.
Luzerne County Judge Chester Muroski, who will assume Ciavarella's administrative responsibilities, on Monday pledged "every effort to restore public trust and confidence in the judiciary and the court."
Ciavarella agreed last year to step down from juvenile court, which he had run for 12 years. He said in an interview with The Associated Press last year that he almost always followed the recommendation of probation officers -- a contention at odds with Monday's charges.
"We feel that it's a great day for the young people and the youth of this area to see the system really does work, the system really isn't rigged against them," said Jack Van Reeth, the father of Jessica Van Reeth, whom Ciavarella ordered detained in 2007. "It's just wonderful to see that the scheme of jailing for dollars has come to an end," he said.
Jessica Van Reeth, then 16, was sent to a juvenile wilderness camp for three months in 2007 after admitting that she had possessed a cigarette lighter and pipe in school. She told the AP last year that the items were found in a purse she agreed to hold for a friend. The family, expecting probation, waived Jessica's right to a lawyer, unaware of the potential consequences.
Jack Van Reeth said Monday his daughter is "extremely happy. She said that this is better than Christmas."
The allegations were the latest to tarnish the image of Luzerne County government -- long regarded as a bastion of pay-to-play politics -- and of the county bench.
Last month, Luzerne County Judge Ann Lokuta was removed from office by the state Court of Judicial Discipline, which found that she failed to perform her judicial duties, terrorized courthouse workers and had employees run personal errands.
Lokuta, who has appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, attended Monday's news conference and said afterward that she felt vindicated. Lokuta has maintained that she was the target of a vendetta by Conahan and Ciavarella, and said the charges against them will help her appeal.
"Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella were the legal puppet-masters over all of the staff in the Luzerne County court system, and if anyone dared to step up and ask them questions, they stepped on them like little ants," she said. "I'm living proof of that."
Conahan shut down Luzerne County's existing juvenile detention facility in 2002, saying it was unsafe. In 2004, the county entered into a 20-year, $58 million agreement with PA Child Care to lease its new Pittston Township facility.
The county's annual spending on juvenile placements spiraled from $2.7 million in 2002 to $7.3 million in 2004, after the PA Child Care facility opened, according to Department of Public Welfare figures. County commissioners voted last year to terminate the lease with the company, which state officials had called exorbitant.
In addition to prison time and a likely order to pay restitution, the judges also could face the loss of their state pensions after they are sentenced.
Conahan retired in 2007 and became a senior judge in Luzerne County, continuing to hear cases there and elsewhere. Last September, he ruled that mass murderer George Banks cannot be executed because he is insane.
Associated Press Writers Maryclaire Dale in Coatesville, JoAnn Loviglio and Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia, and Martha Raffaele in Harrisburg contributed to this report.