By David M. Reutter
Several of the defendants in a “widespread scheme and subversion of the Luzerne County juvenile justice system” in Pennsylvania have agreed to a $17.75 million settlement to resolve a class-action federal lawsuit. The scheme involved the building of two private juvenile detention centers and payments to two judges to ensure the facilities were filled with youthful offenders, many of whom were convicted of minor offenses absent legal representation.
The conspiracy was exposed after a bill of information was filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office against two Luzerne County judges, Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella, Jr., from the Court of Common Pleas for Pennsylvania’s 11th Judicial District. They were charged with fraud for accepting around $2.1 million for sending children to the privately-operated juvenile facilities.
The scheme began in June 2000 when Ciavarella had a conversation with Robert J. Powell, an attorney who expressed interest in building a juvenile detention center in Luzerne County. He was introduced to Ciavarella’s friend, Robert K. Mericle, the owner of Mericle Construction, Inc., for the purpose of locating land and building the facility. Powell and his business partner, Gregory Zappala, bought land and contracted with Mericle through their company, PA Child Care (PACC), to construct the juvenile detention center.
Once completed, Conahan, who was the President Judge of Luzerne County, entered into a $1.314 million “Placement Guarantee Agreement” on January 29, 2002 between the county and PACC. From that point on, Ciavarella often denied children who came before his court of their right to counsel and disproportionately sentenced them to terms of juvenile detention, even for minor offenses.
For their assistance in helping construct PACC’s juvenile facility, Conahan and Ciavarella arranged to receive a $997,600 payment from PACC. To conceal the payment, a backdated “Registration and Commission Agreement” was created that indicated Mericle was receiving a broker’s fee. Mericle transferred $610,000 of the “broker’s fee” to an attorney’s trust account; it was then transferred to an account for Beverage Marketing of PA, which was owned by other parties but controlled by the two judges. From there a number of wire transfers were made to numerous bank accounts, designed to hide the payments, and fraudulent entries were made in the books and records of Beverage Marketing.