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Former Pennsylvania County President Judge and Juvenile Judge Mark Ciavarella Sentenced to 28 Years in Prison

U.S. Attorney’s Office August 11, 2011
  • Middle District of Pennsylvania (717) 221-4482

SCRANTON, PA—Mark A. Ciavarella, former president judge of the Court of Common Pleas and former judge of the Juvenile Court for Luzerne County, was sentenced in federal court in Scranton, Penn., today by Senior U.S. District Court Judge Edwin M. Kosik II, announced Peter J. Smith, U.S. Attorney for Middle District of Pennsylvania. Senior Judge Kosik sentenced Ciavarella to 28 years in prison and ordered restitution be paid in the amount of $965,930 to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for his judicial salary and $207,861 in restitution related to the tax charges.

Ciavarella and his co-defendant, Michael Conahan, who also served as president judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County, were initially charged in January 2009 with honest services mail and wire fraud and tax fraud in connection with the use of privately owned juvenile detention facilities. The charges were the result of a federal investigation of alleged corruption in the Luzerne County court system. The inquiry began in 2007 and over the next four years expanded to include county government offices, state legislators, school districts, and contractors in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Both defendants agreed to plead guilty. In July 2009, Judge Kosik rejected the proposed plea agreements because the defendants did not appear to accept responsibility for their conduct.

In September 2009 and September 2010, a grand jury in Harrisburg, Penn., returned superseding indictments charging both defendants with racketeering, honest services mail fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery, tax violations, and conspiracy. The government also sought the forfeiture of approximately $2.8 million in assets allegedly acquired by the defendants through racketeering and money laundering. In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in United States v. Skilling, the 2010 indictment specifically charged that bribes and kickbacks were paid to the defendants.

After an 11-day trial in Scranton in February 2011, a jury found Ciavarella guilty on 12 of 39 counts: racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, four counts of honest services mail fraud, and four counts of filing false income tax returns. The jury also found that Ciavarella should forfeit $997,600, the sum he received from Robert Mericle, the developer who built the juvenile detention facilities.

Ciavarella testified at trial, claiming that the payments he received from Mericle were “finders fees” or “honest money” with no connection to Ciavarella’s actions as a judge, and denied that he received payment from Robert Powell, owner of the facilities.

The evidence established that Conahan closed the Luzerne County Juvenile Detention Facility when he was chief judge and helped arrange the financing for the private facilities; that Ciavarella, as juvenile court judge, sent juveniles to those facilities; that both men obstructed efforts to question the county’s use of the facilities and their financial relationships with Mericle and Powell; and both judges used bank accounts, straw parties and real estate vacation property to hide and launder payments received from Mericle and Powell. The evidence also showed that Ciavarella failed to report receipt of the funds on annual financial interest statements he was required to file as a judge and failed to report the income on his federal income tax returns. Mericle and Powell have pleaded guilty pursuant to plea agreements and are awaiting sentencing.

Conahan pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy in April 2010. He did not testify at trial and has not been sentenced.

The judicial scandal, described as the worst in Pennsylvania’s history, and the federal prosecutions have had major consequences: Ciavarella and Conahan resigned from the bench in 2009. Reform and housecleaning are underway in the Luzerne County court system. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was compelled to vacate thousands of juvenile convictions in Luzerne County as a result of Ciavarella’s conduct as a juvenile court judge. A State Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice was established to study what happened and to recommend changes in the state’s justice system aimed at safeguarding the constitutional rights of juveniles and improving the oversight and disciplinary process for judges in Pennsylvania. In June 2011, a committee of the American Bar Association reviewed and made recommendations to improve procedures in the state’s Judicial Conduct Board. A procedure was established in Luzerne County for compensation of victims of the activities of Ciavarella and Conahan.

Ciavarella voluntarily surrendered at the end of the sentencing hearing and was taken into custody by the U.S. Marshals.

In the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the prosecution was conducted by a team consisting of Senor Litigation Counsel Gordon A.D. Zubrod, Assistant U.S. Attorneys William S. Houser, Michael A. Consiglio and Amy Phillips, and Criminal Division Chief Christian A. Fisanick.

The case was investigated by the agents of the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigations and the FBI’s Scranton office.

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