Judges Took Bribes to Send Children to Privately Owned Juvenile Facilities...




State may compensate juveniles sentenced by judges in Luzerne

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

By Tracie Mauriello, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau


HARRISBURG -- State lawmakers are seeking ways to compensate children sent to detention centers by a pair of Luzerne County judges charged with taking kickbacks for sending juvenile defendants to facilities in Luzerne and Butler counties.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf said yesterday he would hold a hearing to find ways to help the children and their families. One option is to provide money from the crime victims compensation fund, said Mr. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery.

The hearing, which has not yet been scheduled, is at the request of Republican Sens. Lisa Baker and John Gordner, whose districts include parts of Luzerne County.

They made the request yesterday, the same day a third Luzerne County court official was arrested in the ongoing corruption probe.

Court Administrator William T. Sharkey Sr., 57, of West Hazelton, yesterday agreed to plead guilty to embezzling more than $70,000 in illegal gambling money seized by authorities between June 1998 and June 2008.

Two other county court officials were charged last week with fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud.

Judge Mark A. Ciavarella and former Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan are accused of taking $2.6 million for sending children to two facilities owned by Pittsburgh businessman Greg Zappala.

Judges Ciavarella and Conahan each could face prison terms of up to seven and three months, according to the terms of plea agreements they signed last week.

No charges have been filed against Mr. Zappala, who is the brother of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and son of former state Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr.

Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court has agreed to review all juvenile cases adjudicated in Luzerne County during in the last five years.

That's good news to parents such as Susan Mishanski, whose 17-year-old son was sentenced by Judge Ciavarella last year to 90 days in a juvenile facility in Carbon County.

She said the punishment was excessive and that it traumatized her son, a first-time offender who was expecting community service or a fine for punishing another boy last year. Instead, he was taken from the courtroom in shackles and brought to Camp Adams, where he was beaten by other teenagers, forced to wear ripped clothes four sizes too big and permitted visitors only twice a month for an hour, she said.

"He was humiliated and he was scared," said Ms. Mishanski of Luzerne County. "I'm absolutely thrilled now that [these judges] got caught."

Judges Ciavarella and Conahan are scheduled to enter pleas Feb. 12 in U.S. District Court in Scranton.

Mr. Ciavarella, who stepped down as president judge but remains on the court, is continuing to receive a salary of $161,850, although he has been stripped of his judicial powers. Under the terms of his plea agreement, be must resign within 10 days of pleading.

His salary had been $163,260 but was reduced by $1,410 when he stepped down as president judge.

The Supreme Court last week revoked Judge Conahan's certification as senior judge, a designation given to retired judges who agree to temporary fill in at county courthouses as needed.

Judge Conahan retired in January 2008. He received $39,387 in per-diem pay for work between June 2008 and January 2009, according to records of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. It was not clear if he received payments in the first half of last year.

Mr. Sharkey could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 in fines. As part of the plea agreement, he also must pay $71,000 in restitution and resign within 10 days of entering a plea.

Tracie Mauriello can be reached tmauriello@post-gazette.com 717-787-2141.