Former Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas Judge Ann H. Lokuta has filed a federal lawsuit against the former chief counsel of the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board, a prosecuting attorney for the board, and other individuals from Luzerne County, all of whom Lokuta claimed pursued charges against her after she alleged judicial misconduct on the part of her colleagues.
In a complaint filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Lokuta alleged Joseph A. Massa Jr., former chief counsel of the JCB, and Francis J. Puskas II, one of its prosecutors, tabled a complaint Lokuta filed with the board about former Court of Common Pleas Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan while the JCB advanced its case against Lokuta.
Lokuta became the first judge in Pennsylvania to be removed from the bench for accusations not involving criminal conduct. Both Conahan and Ciavarella are serving lengthy prison sentences for their involvement in the "kids-for-cash" kickback judicial scandal.
Lokuta has alleged Massa did not promptly act on her complaint against Conahan and Ciavarella so that Conahan and other witnesses could testify against Lokuta during her 2008 trial before the Court of Judicial Discipline.
"Conahan became so vital to the [Lokuta] prosecution that Massa intentionally sat on a complaint filed against Conahan, which complaint outlined in detail many of the allegations that subsequently led to Conahan’s indictment and guilty plea," the lawsuit alleged. "It is asserted and therefore believed that this was done by Massa in order to preserve Conahan’s credibility against Lokuta."
The CJD removed Lokuta from the bench in 2008, and Lokuta pursued remedies unsuccessfully all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to take up her case. The state Supreme Court upheld her removal from the bench, declining to endorse Lokuta’s argument that she was prejudiced during her trial on charges she mistreated lawyers and court staff, disregarded her duties and failed to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
In her current lawsuit, Lokuta has asked the court to reinstate her as a judge on the Court of Common Pleas, give her back her pension and benefits, award actual and compensatory damages plus attorney fees, and let her run for judicial office in the future.
She has alleged violations of her constitutional rights, including a civil rights claim under Section 1983 and a civil conspiracy count. Conahan, Ciavarella and several other former Luzerne County court staff members are also named as defendants.
The 22-page complaint details allegations of how Lokuta was "subject to relentless intimidation and retaliation" by the judges while she worked with the former county controller, Stephen Flood, to investigate Conahan and Ciavarella as far back as 2002. Lokuta subsequently served as an informant for the FBI, the complaint alleged, which the lawsuit calls the only place Lokuta found a "willing ear."
But Conahan was onto her, the lawsuit claims, as evidenced by his complaint to the JCB about Lokuta.
"Verification of Conahan’s knowledge of Lokuta’s discussions with the FBI was established in the form of a sealed complaint received by the JCB on or about April 6, 2009, but sealed from public view, and thus from use by Lokuta in her defense, by the Court of Judicial Discipline," the complaint said. "Massa and Puskas were aware of the sealed complaint filed against Conahan with the JCB and in fact moved to have the same sealed from public view."
Conahan and Ciavarella were first charged in the scandal, in which prosecutors alleged they accepted more than $2.8 million in kickbacks from the builder and former co-owner of a private juvenile detention facility in exchange for detainees, in early 2009.
The state Supreme Court has denied Lokuta’s bid to reclaim her seat on the bench, dismissing arguments that she was prejudiced by the fact that Philadelphia lawyer Richard A. Sprague was a member of the CJD during her 2008 trial. At the time of Lokuta’s trial, according to her petition and previous reporting in The Legal, Sprague was also representing Robert Powell, the former co-owner of the juvenile detention center that paid money to Conahan and Ciavarella.
Other issues, such as whether Lokuta could use after-discovered evidence — the guilty pleas of several key figures in the courthouse corruption scandal and a cooperation agreement signed by a former county prothonotary — also did not help Lokuta secure relief.
Reached for comment, one of Lokuta’s attorneys said the fact that Lokuta’s sanctions were upheld on appeal despite her proceedings playing out alongside the scandal definitely represented a hurdle for the lawsuit, but added the lawsuit was a fresh start in a different league.
"You’re talking about different proceedings, different remedies, and different processes here," said Ronald V. Santora of Bresset & Santora in Forty Fort, Pa.
"It’s our position that Ms. Lokuta’s rights were pretty much trampled on in an obsessed prosecution of her," he added.
Massa could not be reached for comment and Puskas did not return a call requesting comment.