Former Pa. judge charged in juvenile justice kickback scandal agrees to plead guilty

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ex-Pa. judge to plead guilty in kickback scheme

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — One of two former state judges accused of taking millions of dollars in kickbacks to send youth offenders to for-profit detention facilities has agreed to plead guilty to a federal racketeering charge.

Former Luzerne County Judge Michael Conahan will plead guilty to his role in the $2.8 million “kids for cash” scandal, according to a plea agreement filed in Scranton on Thursday.

Prosecutors said Conahan and another former judge, Mark Ciavarella Jr., took kickbacks from the owner and builder of two private juvenile detention facilities. Last year, the state Supreme Court vacated the convictions of thousands of juveniles who appeared before Ciavarella between 2003 and 2008.

Conahan’s plea agreement does not require him to testify against Ciavarella, and Ciaverella’s attorney said Thursday his client maintains his innocence.

“He’s going to trial,” said the attorney, Al Flora Jr.

Conahan’s attorney declined comment.

The charge to which Conahan will plead guilty carries a maximum sentence of 20 years and a $250,000 fine. He must also surrender his law license. Prosecutors agreed to drop all other counts, including fraud, money laundering, extortion and bribery, and recommend a sentence reduction if the former judge accepts responsibility for his conduct.

Federal prosecutors first announced charges against Ciavarella and Conahan in January 2009, describing a scheme in which Conahan forced the county-owned juvenile detention center to close and reached an agreement with a for-profit company co-owned by his friend, a prominent local attorney, to send youth offenders to its new facility outside Wilkes-Barre.

Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths — many of them accused of minor offenses — to the PA Child Care LLC detention center and to a sister facility in western Pennsylvania while he was taking payments, running his courtroom with “complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles,” in the words of the Supreme Court.

The judges initially pleaded guilty in February 2009 to honest services fraud and tax evasion in a deal with federal prosecutors that called for a sentence of 87 months in prison. But their plea deals were rejected in July by Senior U.S. District Judge Edward M. Kosik, who ruled they had failed to accept responsibility for their actions.

A federal grand jury in Harrisburg subsequently returned a 48-count racketeering indictment against the judges.

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