A humbled Conahan, 59, sat completely still as U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Judge Edwin M. Kosik handed down the sentence, which is 10 years shy of the 28-year sentence received by his alleged co-conspirator, Mark A. Ciavarella.
Kosik also ordered the former judge to pay more than $874,000 in restitution, along with other fines. He recommended the judge be sent to a prison in Delray Beach, Fla., “not for convenience” but so that his family can be in close proximity.
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.
Before the sentence was handed down, Conahan sat as he read a prepared statement accepting responsibility for his actions and apologizing to all of those he harmed.
“This system was not corrupt,” he told Kosik. “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.”
Conahan’s statement followed a narrative from his lawyer, Philip Gelso of Briechle & Gelso in Kingston, Pa., in which the attorney asked Kosik to consider the many other “tiles in the mosaic” of Conahan’s life — a life in which the judge’s “outward expression of confidence” was secretly masking “insidious feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.”
He said the judge’s long-repressed insecurities, coupled with a history of alcohol abuse, led to a “perfect storm” of factors contributing to Conahan’s abusing his power as president judge of Luzerne County. Gelso said Conahan’s father, Joseph Conahan, had physically abused him as a child, lending a hand in the judge’s ongoing emotional strife.
For two years, Gelso said, Conahan had been receiving psychiatric treatment, a process in which he had to “confront demons.”
The prosecution, while acknowledging Conahan appeared to be remorseful, still asked Kosik to “send a clear message” with his sentence.
Conahan “abused his power to enrich himself along with his friend Mark Ciavarella,” Assistant U.S. Attorney William Houser said. “The judicial system in Pennsylvania was shaken to its very foundation.”
Before he handed down the sentence, Kosik said he “sees a lot of grays” in Conahan’s case, analogizing the connection between the judge’s internal struggles and allegations of misconduct he faced, with the notion that perhaps he did not understand the severity of that misconduct.
He said Conahan viewed the filtration of juveniles to the privately owned detention center as a system in which “everyone was going to benefit and nobody was going to get hurt.”
Joseph Conahan, Kosik noted, had been under similar scrutiny when, as mayor of Hazleton, Pa., he attempted to obtain a contract for a friend because he thought it would benefit the city.
He called the younger Conahan a player in a “cabal” of misconduct and corruption and said allegations of abuse of power are “not uncommon in this area.”
After the sentence, Gelso and co-counsel Arthur T. Donato 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.
U.S. Attorney Peter Smith, who spoke on behalf of the prosecution, said that “justice was done,” and the “sad chapter” with respect to Conahan and Ciavarella had come to a close.
“We are very satisfied with the sentence imposed by Judge Kosik,” he said.
Former Luzerne County Common Pleas Court Judge Ann Lokuta, who was the first to greet reporters on the courthouse steps, offered similar sentiments.
“No one can restore the lives of our children,” Lokuta said. “And the Michael Conahan that I dealt with on a daily basis, from the first day he became president judge, was evil.”
Donato also revealed to reporters after the hearing that Conahan was prepared to testify at Ciavarella’s trial, but the prosecution declined to call him.
When asked why the government decided against calling the disgraced former judge to testify against Ciavarella, Houser said: “Those are decisions that we have to make to assess what we think are the risks and what are the benefits of a person’s testimony.”
“It was our decision not to call Conahan, and we’re very satisfied with that decision,” he added.
When asked if Conahan cooperated with authorities in their investigations of other possible cases related to the scandal, Houser declined to comment but said the government had filed no departure motions nor had it made any requests for downward variance.
In July 2009, 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.
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 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.”
Then, some eight months later, Conahan made the stunning decision to plead guilty to one count of racketeering, the most serious charge filed against the judges in an initial 48-count indictment. But Ciavarella did not follow in his former friend and colleague’s footsteps, eventually deciding to take on a reduced, 39-count indictment in federal court.
In February, a federal jury in Scranton found Ciavarella guilty of 12 of the 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.
As the scandal unraveled, Ciavarella publicly said he was being unfairly portrayed, and he did not back off his claims at the mercy of Kosik last month.
At his Aug. 11 sentencing hearing, Ciavarella read a prepared statement at the podium of Kosik’s courtroom, in which he said he had been unfairly demonized by the prosecution and the public. He claimed 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 the facilities.
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.”
Conahan took a different approach, saying he was deserving of any consequences that would come his way.
“I have done some good as a judge, but that was lost along the way,” he said.
In addition to the juveniles and their families, he offered apologies to the courthouse staff that worked beneath him, the people of Luzerne County, and the state judiciary and legal community.
After his client left with authorities, Donato said it would have been “reasonable to expect a sentence of around 87 months.”
Standing beside Donato, Gelso emphasized there was a “stark contrast” to be drawn between the two judges, adding “Ciavarella fought this tooth and nail.”
The prosecution agreed.
“I’m glad at this point that he feels remorseful for what he did,” Houser said after the hearing. “It helps all of us. It helps the community to feel better about this. It makes people think he recognizes the damage that he caused.”
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’s cooperation with authorities.
“The conduct was jointly undertaken,” he said. “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.”
He added prosecutors wanted to recognize Conahan was “entitled to consideration” for acknowledging his own guilt, but added “the crime was very, very serious and needed to be dealt with seriously.”
Another distinction observers reported at Friday’s hearing was a difference in the general mood of the courtroom between Ciavarella’s trial and ensuing sentencing, and Conahan’s sentencing. While a handful of civilians gathered outside, none were clad in T-shirts bearing the faces of juveniles who faced Ciavarella as juvenile judge. And although the court Friday opened a second room for people to watch the proceedings on monitors, as was the case with Ciavarella’s sentencing, observers reported it less crowded than last month.
About half of those lining the benches of the courtroom appeared to be Conahan supporters, whom he greeted with handshakes and hugs about 45 minutes before his hearing. The other half quietly sat behind the supporters.
Also looking on was Sandy Fonzo, who has said that Ciavarella drove her son to suicide by sending him to juvenile detention. After the hearing, Fonzo said she wanted the maximum, 20-year sentence Conahan was facing.
Choking back tears, she said the judge’s apology would have felt more authentic had he turned around and faced the courtroom, but added it appeared to be “a little more heartfelt” than Ciavarella’s remarks last month.
Kosik also ordered the judge to pay a $100 special assessment, a $20,000 fine and $874,167 in restitution.
Ben Present can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BPresentTLI . •