Third Circuit panel upholds conviction, sentence of disgraced 'Kids for Cash' judge

By Jon Campisi | May 31, 2013

A federal appeals court panel in Philadelphia has upheld the conviction and near-three-

decade sentence of a disgraced former family court judge involved in the largest judicial scandal in Pennsylvania history.

The three-member panel of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals this week unanimously upheld the conviction of former Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas Judge Mark Ciavarella, who worked in the juvenile court unit, and was found guilty after an 11-day trial in February 2011.

U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik ended up sentencing Ciavarella to 336 months, or 28 years, in federal prison, and ordered the disgraced former jurist to pay the commonwealth close to $1 million in restitution and more than $200,000 relating to tax charges.

Ciavarella was one of two state judges who were charged in what came to be known as the “Kids for Cash” scandal, in which juveniles were said to be hauled off to private detention facilities allegedly in return for monetary kickbacks.

Ciavarella and his co-defendant, former Luzerne County Common Pleas Court President Judge Michael Conahan, were originally charged in early 2009 as a result of a federal investigation into the alleged corruption within the Luzerne County court system, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Conahan ended up pleading guilty to racketeering conspiracy in the spring of 2010 and is currently serving out a 17-year prison sentence.

Both Ciavarella and Conahan resigned from their judicial positions in 2009, records show.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ended up vacating thousands of juvenile convictions in Luzerne County as a result of the scandal, described as the worst of its kind in the commonwealth’s history.

The federal investigation was what the U.S. Attorney’s Office called the “largest and the most sustained political corruption inquiry in the history of the Middle District of Pennsylvania,” the office said in a statement announcing the Third Circuit’s recent decision to affirm Ciavarella’s conviction and sentence.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the two former judges were originally charged with honest services mail and wire fraud, as well as tax fraud in connection with the use of privately owned and operated juvenile detention facilities.

The defendants initially agreed to plead guilty to the crimes, but Kosik, the federal judge overseeing the case, rejected the plea agreements in July 2009, saying the disgraced jurists did not appear to accept responsibility for their actions.

Then, in September 2009 and September 2010 respectively, a grand jury returned superseding indictments charging Ciavarella and Conahan with racketeering, honest services mail fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery, tax violations and conspiracy, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The federal government also sought the forfeiture of about $2.8 million in assets that the defendants allegedly acquired through their criminal activities.

Ciavarella was ultimately found guilty on 12 of the 39 counts lodged against him, which included racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Government, honest services mail fraud and filing false income tax returns.

At trial, the jury also determined that Ciavarella should have to forfeit the nearly $1 million he had received from Robert Mericle, who was the developer behind the privately operated juvenile detention facilities where the judge had sent those youngsters who came before him in the courtroom, often for very minor offenses.

The scandal also led to the filing of multiple lawsuits against Mericle and the two former judges.

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