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Former Pennsylvania County President Judge Michael Conahan Sentenced

U.S. Attorney’s Office September 23, 2011
  • Middle District of Pennsylvania (717) 221-4482

Peter J. Smith, United States Attorney for Middle District of Pennsylvania announced that Michael Conahan, former president judge of the Court of Common Pleas for Luzerne County, was sentenced in federal court in Scranton today to a term of 17-and-a-half years of imprisonment by Senior United States District Court Judge Edwin M. Kosik II.

Senior Judge Kosik also ordered restitution be paid in the amount of $874,167.37 to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for his judicial salary and a fine of $20,100.00. Conahan previously forfeited his right to his state pension.

At the conclusion of the sentencing hearing, Conahan voluntarily surrendered and was taken into custody by the United States Marshals Service.

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 efforts 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.

Conahan and his co-defendant, Mark Ciavarella, who also served as president judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County, were initially charged in January 2009. 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.

Ciavarella and Conahan were originally charged with honest services mail and wire fraud and tax fraud in connection with the use of privately owned juvenile detention facilities. 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 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 United States Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in United States v. Skilling, the 2010 indictment specifically charged that bribes and kickbacks were paid to the defendants.

Conahan pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy in April 2010. After a jury trial in February 2011 Ciavarella was found guilty on 12 counts, including racketeering and tax fraud. Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years’ imprisonment on August 11, 2011.

In the United States Attorney’s Office, the prosecution was conducted by a team consisting of Senor Litigation Counsel Gordon A.D. Zubrod, Assistant United States Attorneys William S. Houser, Michael A. Consiglio, and Amy Phillips and Criminal Division Chief Christian A. Fisanick. The federal investigation, the largest and the most sustained political corruption inquiry in the history of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, was initiated under the direction of Former United States Attorney Martin C. Carlson, now a United States Magistrate Judge in the Middle District, and continued under Dennis C. Pfannenschmidt, who succeeded Carlson as court-appointed United States Attorney in 2009, and the current United States Attorney.

The case was investigated by the agents of the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigations and Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Scranton office. To date, over 30 local or state government officials and contractors have been convicted or are awaiting trial.

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