When Robert Powell showed up at Mark Ciavarella’s judicial chambers in the fall of 2003, he was met with news that surprised him.
The money — nearly a million dollars — sent to Ciavarella and fellow judge Michael T. Conahan by builder Robert K. Mericle in January of that year was gone, Powell told a federal jury in Scranton Wednesday.
Now, the two judges were looking for more.
Ciavarella, armed with a piece of paper that featured rough calculations of PA Child Care’s profits, told Powell, the owner of the facility, that it was time for him to pay the judges himself.
“‘You guys are doing very, very well,’” Powell said Ciavarella told him. “‘I know what’s going on up there.’”
Powell later continued: “I said to him, ‘You mean to tell me you guys blew through $1 million already?’ They sort of laughed and said, ‘Yeah.’”
For nearly two hours Wednesday, Powell — a key figure in Ciavarella’s federal trial on racketeering, fraud and money laundering charges — testified that he unwittingly involved himself in laundering money in an unlawful business scheme and found himself the victim of extortion.
It’s alleged by prosecutors that Ciavarella and Conahan received $2.8 million in payments from Powell, a lawyer and former co-owner of two private juvenile detention facilities at the heart of the alleged scheme, and Mericle, the builder of those facilities.
Powell is expected to return to the stand today, with Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Zubrod continuing direct examination.
From the beginning, Zubrod asked questions of Powell that painted him as a sympathetic character.
According to his answers, Powell is a local boy, raised in West Hazleton by a father who worked the kiln at the local brick plant and a stay-at-home mother who took a job as a teacher’s aide only after he began high school.
From there, Powell said, it was on to St. Francis College of Loretto, Pa., on a Division I basketball scholarship, a commercial real estate job in Boston and the New England School of Law — at night — so he could keep working.
Zubrod then hit the fast forward button on the life of Powell and showed to the court a copy of his plea agreement for misprision of a felony and tax fraud.
It set Powell up nicely for the prosecution, as Zubrod walked him, step-by-step, through how PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care came into existence and how Ciavarella and Conahan allegedly arranged for themselves to receive $2.8 million in kickbacks from Powell, a co-owner of the juvenile detention facilities, and Mericle, the builder.
Powell, in his testimony, said the judges roped him in slowly, tying him to the project with Mericle after Ciavarella approached him about the deal.
Eventually, though, it became clear that he was getting in deep, he said.
During the day on Christmas Eve 2001, for instance, Powell drove Conahan to the site of PA Child Care to show him around.
The land was still rough, Powell said. The construction of the facility had not yet begun. So, the two talked and Powell described, generally, what the facility would look like and how it would operate.
Conahan was impressed.
“‘When we get this thing done,’” Powell said Conahan told him, “‘We have to do something to take care of Mark.’”
It was the first time either Conahan, who has since pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the alleged scheme, or Ciavarella mentioned payment.
“I was surprised he would say that,” Powell said.
But his mind was elsewhere. PA Child Care did not yet have a state license to operate as a juvenile detention facility and any prospects of a successful business hung on that license, Powell said.
“I thought we were a long, long way away,” Powell said. “I knew a lot had to fall in place.”
But when it did, Powell said, the judges squeezed him for money.
Conahan told him how much money to send the judges and where to send it. Often, it was sent via check and wire to a company controlled by the judges’ wives, Pinnacle Group of Jupiter, which was used to purchase a condominium in Florida.
Powell, on his check, left memos indicating the funds were rental money.
“It’s nonsense,” he said when asked about the notes by Zubrod. “There was only so much you could write … Now, it looks foolish.”
During his time on the stand, Powell was asked by Zubrod why he made the payments.
Powell told the prosecutor he knew the arrangements were wrong, that he was a conduit in a money laundering scheme and that he was “getting into something deeper and deeper that was not going to end well.”
Still, he didn’t see himself as having much of a choice.
The judges had effectively arranged for the facility to be built and guaranteed it would be used. Later, after Conahan and Ciavarella were able to stave off the county’s attempts to build a new facility of its own, the county government signed on to use PA Child Care for 20 years.
“They made it clear there wasn’t an option,” Powell said about making — or not making — payments. “There would have been hell to pay.”
All of which registered echoes of that fall 2003 meeting in Ciavarella’s chambers.
“Ciavarella was very animated,” Powell said of that meeting and the former judge’s desire “to be paid.” “He said he didn’t care.” •