Before a packed courtroom that spilled into a second room where a crowd watched on monitors, former Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. was sentenced to 336 months — 28 years — in federal prison.
Ciavarella, 61, who had remained relatively still throughout most of his trial, showed little emotion, only shifting in his chair as U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Judge Edwin M. Kosik handed down his sentence.
Outside the courtroom following the hour-long sentencing hearing, several people, many of whom were clad in white T-shirts bearing the images of juveniles who had appeared before Ciavarella, hugged and congratulated each other, some with tears in their eyes, most with smiles.
In February, a federal jury in Scranton found Ciavarella guilty of 12 of 39 counts of corruption filed against him, including racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, honest services mail fraud, money laundering conspiracy and a host of tax fraud charges. Ciavarella was cleared of extortion, bribery and honest services wire fraud charges, however.
Marsh Levick of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia said she thought the sentence was “consistent with the sentencing guidelines for what he was convicted of.”
“I think the sentence was long because I think Judge Kosik took the conduct quite seriously,” she said, adding that she believes the juvenile victims and their families were satisfied with the outcome.
Ciavarella read a prepared statement at the podium during Thursday’s sentencing hearing in which he said he had been unfairly demonized by the prosecution and the public, claiming Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon A. Zubrod had ignited a public outcry when he used the term “kids-for-cash” to describe Ciavarella’s crimes after Ciavarella agreed to plead guilty to honest services fraud for allegedly receiving a payment from the builder of two detention facilities to which the county sent juveniles.
Ciavarella said that statement made the public view him as “the personification of evil, the Antichrist, the devil.”
According to Ciavarella, Zubrod “backdoored me and I never saw it coming.”
After defense attorneys Albert Flora and William Ruzzo implored Kosik not to consider in his sentencing any allegations with which Ciavarella was either never charged or never convicted, Zubrod said Ciavarella’s argument appeared to be that he “was not selling kids retail.”
“We agree, he was selling them wholesale,” Zubrod added.
A former juvenile delinquency court judge, Ciavarella was alleged to have taken more than $2.8 million from the builder and former co-owner of two private juvenile detention facilities, PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care.
Prosecutors alleged that money was the fruit of improper kickbacks and extortion. Ciavarella denied those allegations, saying instead that he received a finder’s fee from the facilities’ builder, Robert K. Mericle, and rent money for a condominium in Florida that his wife co-owned from the former co-owner of the facilities, Robert J. Powell.
Ciavarella maintained in his statement Thursday that the money he received from Mericle presented a conflict of interest but was not a quid pro quo.
He also called Powell a “liar” who would “do anything to protect himself.”
Conversely, he said Mericle, as well as alleged co-conspirator and fellow former Luzerne County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael T. Conahan, are “good people who have reached out and helped more people than everyone in this courtroom combined.”
When Kosik noted that Ciavarella neglected to apologize to those people whose rights the state Supreme Court has said he violated, the former judge said he disagreed with the high court and called the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice’s report unfair.
Ciavarella claimed he has transcripts that “completely contradict” the report’s accounts of his behavior in the courtroom as a juvenile judge.
“My courtroom was always conducted in a fair manner,” he said, adding that he “didn’t do anything different than any other judge” in Luzerne County.
Levick said it was a “surreal moment.”
“It was a sad but also very telling footnote to this whole episode,” she said.
Zubrod said Ciavarella’s statement boiled down to “the commission got it wrong, the court got it wrong, the jury got it wrong.”
“We’ll leave it to the court to decide how that reflects on him,” he said.
Kosik offered little comment before issuing his sentence except to say that, even after 40 years on the bench, doing so “has never been a pleasant task.”
Following the hearing, when U.S. Attorney Peter Smith emerged on the steps of the William J. Nealon Federal Building in Scranton with the prosecution team of Zubrod and Assistant U.S. Attorneys William Houser and Michael Consiglio, the crowd waiting outside erupted into cheers and applause.
Smith told reporters Ciavarella’s statement during the hearing was “self-centered” and showed a “perverse blindness” to the seriousness of his crimes.
Smith noted that while the former judge expressed some remorse at the start of his statement, he “for some reason only psychologists can explain” ended it by attacking the prosecution, the Supreme Court and the Interbranch Commission.
When asked whether he expects Conahan to be sentenced soon, Smith said it’s up to the court to decide, but added that no one should underestimate the “major role” Conahan played in the scandal.
Conahan, who faced an equally damning indictment and opted to plead guilty to one racketeering charge in relation to the alleged crimes, was a name that arose often during the trial. He was, however, conspicuously absent in person during the trial.
Neither side called him as a witness. His absence from the case was nearly as shocking as his decision to place himself at the mercy of Kosik by accepting an open-ended plea agreement in April 2010.
In July 2009, nearly a year before that turn, Kosik threw out the initial plea agreements reached between Conahan, Ciavarella and federal prosecutors, in part because of the judges’ conduct following the plea agreements and their refusal to accept responsibility for the crimes they had committed. Ciavarella had been speaking out against the allegations lodged against him in public and Kosik described them as self-serving. Conahan was being obstructionist, Kosik also said.
The two former judges subsequently made a joint filing Aug. 20, 2009, petitioning Kosik to reinstate their agreed upon sentence of 87 months each in prison because neither could be found at fault for his post-plea hearing actions. Kosik rejected that Aug. 24, 2009. That same day, the former judges withdrew their guilty pleas and formally entered pleas of not guilty to the charges.
In his Aug. 24 order, Kosik said in light of the presentence report and sentencing recommendation from the probation office, it was within his discretion to throw out the plea agreements.
The probation officer’s “assessment and justification for the recommendation” was partly the basis for Kosik’s earlier conclusions that Conahan was obstructing justice, failing to discuss the motivation behind his conduct and failing to accept responsibility for his crimes, he said.
“The probation recommendation characterized these failures by Conahan as based on his ‘scandalous conduct,’” Kosik wrote in his Aug. 24 order. “The defense claims that a defendant is not required to admit relevant conduct beyond the offense of conviction. The court generally agrees, but the defendant was expected to admit relevant conduct related to the scandalous nature of the offense of conviction.”
In a telling footnote, Kosik said he had met with Conahan’s and Ciavarella’s lawyers twice and rejected reconsidering the plea agreements both times. He said federal prosecutors as well as the defense attorneys had urged him to reconsider the plea deals.
Both sides offered to meet with him separately “to explain each side’s reasons for entering into the plea agreement,” Kosik said.
“The offer was rejected by the court because such a meeting might impermissibly involve the court in plea bargaining,” he said.
Later in the body of his opinion, Kosik said: “It ill behooves both parties to want the court to consider additional reasons to be conveyed in private.”
A new 48-count indictment was filed by the federal government in September 2009 and the judges entered joint “not guilty” pleas. They followed that up by filing a series of pretrial motions together, charging federal officials with “outrageous government misconduct,” questioning the impartiality of the judge assigned to their case and requesting a change in venue in March 2010.
Conahan, however, took the surprise turn and there were reports that he was willing to testify against Ciavarella at trial.
That never happened.
Powell and Mericle were called early in the trial by federal prosecutors, however, and described the scheme as alleged by the prosecution in detail. Both men, like Conahan, pleaded guilty to crimes related to the alleged scheme, leaving Ciavarella as the sole alleged participant to stand trial.
The former judge is now one of three to don black robes in the Luzerne County courthouse to be facing at least 10 years in prison.
Fellow former Judges Conahan and Michael T. Toole both pleaded guilty to criminal charges last year as investigators untangled a web of corruption.
Toole, who pleaded guilty to one count of corrupt receipt of a reward for official actions, had fixed the appointment of a neutral arbitrator for a UM/UIM case in exchange for the use of an attorney’s beach house.
A number of other public officials were caught in the probe as well, including the county’s court administrator, the clerk of courts and a member of the juvenile probation services office.
While The Legal had previously reported that sources had tied Conahan to mobsters, following Ciavarella’s trial Zubrod said that the investigation into Conahan and Ciavarella’s activities “sprang from” a probe of reputed mobster William “Billy” D’Elia.
On Thursday, Smith said Conahan’s and Ciavarella’s actions appeared to constitute the worst judicial scandal in state history.