Pa. Judges Face New Civil Suit Over Alleged Kickbacks
Two disgraced Pennsylvania judges charged with taking kickbacks to send youth offenders to private detention centers are facing another civil lawsuit tied to the scandal.
The suit, filed Thursday on behalf of juvenile offenders sentenced between 2003 and 2008, claims the judges perpetrated “what ranks as one of the largest and most serious violations of children’s rights in the history of the American legal system.”
Federal prosecutors charged Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan with taking $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in lockups run by PA Child Care LLC and a sister company when they were judges in Luzerne County, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Philadelphia.
The judges pleaded guilty to fraud earlier this month and face more than seven years in prison.
Federal authorities also have arrested a court administrator and a top probation official, and the investigation prompted the county prothonotary to resign.
The civil suit filed in federal court by the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center Thursday claims that Ciavarella, Conahan and others conspired to violate the juveniles’ civil rights and that they broke racketeering laws.
Conahan’s lawyer declined to comment and a lawyer for Ciavarella didn’t immediately return a phone call Thursday.
Youth advocacy groups had complained for years that Ciavarella was overly harsh and deprived youths of their constitutional rights. Ciavarella sent a quarter of his convicted juvenile defendants to detention centers from 2002 to 2006, compared with a statewide rate of one in 10.
The suit filed Thursday claims Ciavarella detained kids for offenses “as trivial as shoplifting a $4 jar of nutmeg or taking change from unlocked cars.” It lists 95 plaintiffs and asks a judge to certify it as a class action, meaning others could join in and share any monetary award.
Two other federal lawsuits making similar allegations were filed this month. One also seeks class-action status. The other was initially filed as a class action, but was refiled Wednesday to allow all 113 of its plaintiffs to seek damages individually.
All three suits also name Robert Powell, a former co-owner of the detention centers, and Robert Mericle, who owns the construction company that built them. Neither has been charged criminally. Powell has said through his attorney that he was the victim of extortion. A spokesman for Mericle has denied he made payments to influence the judges.
The judges were charged Jan. 26 and subsequently removed from the bench. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has appointed a judge from another county to review the cases handled by Ciavarella dating back to 2003. That judge could order juveniles’ records expunged or grant them new hearings.
Also on Thursday, Luzerne County’s president judge, Chester Muroski, confirmed that the FBI has requested records from civil cases. That development, first reported by the Philadelphia legal newspaper, The Legal Intelligencer, signals that the corruption probe has shifted into a new phase.