He Sent Kids To Jail For Cash…
The “kids for cash” scandal centered on judicial kickbacks to two judges at the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. In 2008, judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella were accused of accepting money in return for imposing harsh adjudications on juveniles to increase occupancy at for-profit detention centers.
Ciavarella disposed thousands of children to extended stays in youth centers for offenses as trivial as mocking an assistant principal on Myspace or trespassing in a vacant building.
Pennsylvania‘s Judicial Conduct Board received four complaints about Michael Conahan between 2004 and 2008, but later admitted it failed to investigate any of them, nor had it sought documentation regarding the cases involved. The FBI was tipped off about Conahan and nepotism in the county courts in 2006.An additional investigation into improper sentencing in Luzerne County began in early 2007 as a result of requests for assistance from several youths received by the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. Attorneys from the Center determined that several hundred cases were tried without the defendants receiving proper counsel. In April 2008, the Center petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeking relief for alleged violation of the youths’ civil rights. The application of relief was later denied, then reconsidered in January 2009 when corruption charges against both Conahan and Mark Ciavarella surfaced.
The FBI and the IRS also investigated Conahan and Ciavarella, although the exact dates and scope of these federal investigations were not made public.
Charges and Pleas
A statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania outlined the charges against the two judges on January 26, 2009. The charges outlined in the information described actions between 2000 and 2007 by both judges to assist in the construction and population of private juvenile facilities operated by the two Pennsylvania Child Care companies, acting in an official capacity in favor of the private facilities over the facility operated by Luzerne County.
The U.S. Attorney charged that in 2002 Conahan, who at the time was President Judge of the court, used his authority to remove funding for the county-operated facility. The judges were alleged to have received “millions of dollars” in payments for the completion of a binding agreement between the court and the private facilities, co-owned by attorney Robert Powell, to use their services and the subsequent closing of the county facility. The methods used to conceal the payments involved several parties and transactions which resulted in allegations of tax evasion against the two. Ciavarella and Conahan were also charged with “Ordering juveniles to be sent to these facilities in which the judges had a financial interest even when Juvenile Probation Officers did not recommend placement,” according to the statement.
Original, negotiated plea agreements called for both judges to serve up to seven years in prison, pay fines and restitution, and accept responsibility for the crimes.However, on July 30, 2009, Judge Edwin M. Kosik of Federal District Court in nearby Scranton rejected the plea agreement, citing “post-guilty plea conduct and expressions from the defendants” that he ruled did not satisfy the terms of the agreement. Kosik wrote that Conahan and Ciavarella continued to deny their crimes even in the face of overwhelming evidence, and therefore did not merit sentences that were well below federal sentencing guidelines. Attorneys for the two judges brought a motion requesting reconsideration of the judge’s rejection of the plea agreement. The motion was denied on August 24, 2009, and Ciavarella and Conahan subsequently withdrew their guilty pleas, an action which eventually resulted in a jury trial for Ciavarella and additional charges against the former judges.
Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
Criminal verdicts and sentences
On February 18, 2011, following a trial, a federal jury convicted Ciavarella on 12 of the 39 remaining counts he faced including racketeering, a crime in which prosecutors said the former judge used children “as pawns to enrich himself.” In convicting Ciavarella of racketeering, the jury agreed with prosecutors that he and Conahan had taken an illegal payment of nearly $1 million from a youth center’s builder, then hid the money.The panel of six men and six women also found Ciavarella guilty of “honest services mail fraud” and of being a tax cheat, for failing to list that money and more on his annual public financial-disclosure forms and on four years of tax returns. In addition, they found him guilty of conspiring to launder money. The jurors acquitted Ciavarella of extortion and bribery in connection with $1.9 million that prosecutors said the judges extracted from the builder and owner of two youth centers, including allegations that Ciavarella shared the proceeds of FedEx boxes that were stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars in cash.
Following Ciavarella’s conviction, he and his lawyer appeared on the steps of the courthouse to give an impromptu press conference. The press conference was interrupted by Sandy Fonzo, whose son Edward Kenzakoski committed suicide in June 2010 after Ciavarella adjudicated him to placement, despite Kenzakoski’s first-time offender status.
On August 11, 2011, Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison as a result of his conviction. He is currently being held at the Federal Correctional Institution, Ashland, a low-security federal prison in eastern Kentucky. He is scheduled for release in 2035, when he will be 85 years old.
On September 23, 2011, Conahan was sentenced to 17 and a half years in federal prison after pleading guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy. Due to coronavirus concerns, he was released from prison in June 2020, six years early.