Friday, April 30, 2010

Pennsylvania's Pleasure Island affair

You remember Pleasure Island, right? You know, that place where Pinocchio ran off to with the not-so-ruffian Lampwick?

Well, run off is the wrong term. They got "invited" to go there by The Coachman, actually.

This story is not about Pinocchio or Lampwick.

It's about The Coachman. More accurately, it's about The Coachmen.

Former judge Conahan pleads guilty in kids-for-cash scheme

Former Luzerne County President Judge Michael T. Conahan faces up to 20 years in prison on a racketeering charge for accepting millions of dollars from two men connected to two for-profit detention centers that housed offenders from the county's juvenile court.

He and his co-defendant, former President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., entered guilty pleas to fraud and conspiracy charges in the case last year, but withdrew them after a federal judge rejected the 87-month prison sentences contained in their plea agreements.

Mr. Conahan and Mr. Ciavarella were instrumental in closing a county-owned juvenile detention center in 2003 and securing county contracts for facilities in Pittston Twp. and Butler County owned by two related for-profit companies, PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, prosecutors say.

The grand jury alleged that Mr. Conahan, 58, and Mr. Ciavarella, 60, accepted $2.8 million from the builder and former owner of two for-profit detention centers that housed juveniles sentenced by Mr. Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court for a dozen years.

Mr. Ciavarella violated state court rules by failing to fully inform juveniles of their right to counsel and jailed them on minor offenses, according to the state Supreme Court, which vacated thousands of the sentences he imposed in juvenile court. The incarceration rate in Mr. Ciavarella's court was more than double the state average.

The two former judges allegedly tried to disguise the payments by routing them through Beverage Marketing, a firm controlled by Mr. Conahan, and Pinnacle Group of Jupiter LLC, a holding company owned by the judges' wives but controlled by the judges that owned a condominium in Florida.

After the withdrawal of their guilty pleas in August, Mr. Conahan and Mr. Ciavarella were indicted by a federal grand jury on 48 counts that carried a cumulative maximum sentence of hundreds of years in prison.

In July, Judge Kosik rejected the 87-month prison sentences called for in the plea agreements Mr. Conahan and Mr. Ciavarella signed in January 2009 as too lenient.

Judge Kosik wrote in a court order that Mr. Conahan had been uncooperative and attempted to "obstruct and impede justice" in his dealings with probation officers preparing a pre-sentence report in the case. In his order, Judge Kosik also unfavorably cited public statements in which Mr. Ciavarella denied he had a "quid pro quo" agreement to jail juveniles for cash, as alleged by prosecutors.

Under his plea agreement, Mr. Conahan, who retired from the county bench in 2008 but was active as a senior judge until his arrest in January 2009, has 10 days to resign from the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

Judge in Pa. 'Kids for Cash' Scandal to Plead Guilty to RICO Charge
Sources in Luzerne County and others close to the investigation have told The Legal Intelligencer for nearly a year that Conahan essentially ran the county and was the epicenter of corruption in the courthouse.

Since September, the two former judges have faced a 48-count indictment containing charges of racketeering, fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery and federal tax violations. And, along the way, they've made each public move -- court filings, hearing appearances -- together.

In early March, they filed 44 motions exploring nearly every open option.

They sought, for instance, to move the case out of Pennsylvania and charged the prosecution with "outrageous government conduct." They also petitioned for Kosik to recuse himself from the case.

The sentiment from several sources upon reviewing the plea deal was: "He must be singing like a bird." If so, sources said, the government will most likely expect Conahan to name lawyers or others involved in the case-fixing that allegedly went on in the courthouse. Sources close to the investigation have confirmed for months now that a number of lawyers are under federal scrutiny and some are talking.
To quote a non-Disney character, "Dithpicable".

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