In the week following the 17.5-year federal prison sentence handed down to former Luzerne County President Judge Michael T. Conahan, several judicial watchers told the Law Weekly they were far from surprised by the high number, which fell just two-and-a-half years shy of the maximum sentence the disgraced judge faced.
On Sept. 23, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Judge Edwin M. Kosik told a humbled Conahan that his sentence would fall practically dead in the middle of his initial request — 87 months — and the 28-year sentence of his alleged co-conspirator, Mark A. Ciavarella.
Although Conahan did not put the prosecutors through the burden of a trial, those interviewed by the Law Weekly pointed to the “egregious” nature of the case as a reason for the heavy sentence.
They said the sentence, while it would not erase the damage the judges caused, should indicate to the public that the system works and corruption will not go unpunished.
“It was a particularly egregious set of facts,” said Richard J. Zack, a white-collar defense attorney with Pepper Hamilton. “It’s obviously a very long sentence. But with those types of facts, given that kids were sent to a jail that the judge had a hidden interest in, a lengthy sentence is not a surprise.”
In April 2010, Conahan surprisingly agreed to enter an open-ended plea agreement, in which he pled guilty to accepting more than $2.8 million in kickbacks, along with Ciavarella, from the builder and former co-owner of a private juvenile detention facility. Eight months before that, Kosik rejected plea agreements reached by Conahan, Ciavarella and federal prosecutors, saying he could not accept the plea agreements in light of the judges’ refusal to accept responsibility for the crimes they had committed.
“They’re probably kicking themselves for not acting appropriately after the initial plea agreement,” said Jason J. Legg, a member of the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice. “Looking back, pride’s a horrible thing.”
After the sentence, Conahan’s lawyers told reporters at the William J. Nealon Federal Building in Scranton that they were “bitterly disappointed” with the sentence but had no plans of an appeal.
“What that tells us is that judges have tremendous discretion in imposing sentence,” Zack said. “It’s very difficult to get a successful resolution on appeal of a sentence, even if it’s longer than expected.”
Marsha Levick, who is an attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said that because Ciavarella went to trial, he preserved more avenues for an appeal than Conahan did.
“Because Conahan pled guilty, he’d have to have profoundly strong reasons to compel an appellate court to reverse and revise the sentence,” Levick said. “It’d be a pretty futile effort.”
During last month’s sentencing hearing, Conahan apologized to the children who were wrongfully sentenced by Ciavarella, their families, the courthouse staff that worked beneath him, the people of Luzerne County, and the state judiciary and legal community.
“This system wasn’t corrupt,” Conahan told Kosik and about 60 looking on. “I was corrupt.”
To the families of the juveniles that were sent to PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care and the juveniles themselves, he said: “I was president judge. I owed you better.”
During the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Houser asked Kosik to “send a clear message” with his sentence. After Conahan left with authorities, Houser said the judge did just that.
Houser said he did not know if the difference between the sentences reflected a difference in culpability, but rather suggested it came down to Conahan not going to trial.
“The conduct was jointly undertaken,” Houser told reporters after last month’s hearing. “The difference is that Mr. Conahan accepted his responsibility, was remorseful, didn’t put us through a trial, didn’t put the community through the continuing heartache of this for a couple of years.”
According to Kenneth J. Horoho Jr., also a member of the ICJJ, evidence presented to the commission throughout the scandal suggested Conahan allowed Ciavarella to “enforce his will” on the county juvenile court.
“It was Ciavarella’s way or the highway to the juvenile center,” Horoho said.
According to Horoho, research conducted by the ICJJ indicated that the scandal was not only the worst in state history, but one of the worst the country has ever seen.
Levick said that was a factor in the sentence.
“It’s important that the justice system treat what happened in Luzerne as seriously as the victims and the families of the kids have viewed it and, frankly, as seriously as history will view it,” Levick said. “Long sentences are one of the ways our justice system demonstrates how seriously we view the conduct.”
On whether Conahan’s sentence would allow healing for those affected by the scandal, several said it reflected a step in a long process.
“The public will know corruption will be addressed and corruption will be punished,” Legg said, but added healing is a “matter of players in the system doing their jobs and the public watching.”
Legg called the Luzerne County scandal an aberration and said such conduct is not “endemic to the entire [state court] system.”
Looking forward, Legg said lawyers and judges need to “take a hard look at each other,” be open to criticism, and be unwilling to look the other way in the face of corruption.
“When we see something wrong, we need to address it” Legg added. “The last thing we should do is pack our stuff, go back to our office and forget about it. That’s what happened in Luzerne County.”
“There was no testimony that Conahan grabbed [Ciavarella] by the collar and said ‘What are you doing?’” Horoho said. “There’s still a bad odor of what these guys did.”