SCRANTON, Pa. — A former juvenile court judge was convicted Friday of racketeering in a case that accused him of sending youth offenders to for-profit detention centers in exchange for millions of dollars in illicit payments from the builder and owner of the lockups.
Luzerne County ex-Judge Mark Ciavarella, 61, left the bench in disgrace two years ago after prosecutors charged him with engineering one of the biggest courtroom frauds in U.S. history by using juvenile delinquents as pawns in a plot to get rich.
Federal prosecutors accused Ciavarella and a second judge, Michael Conahan, of taking more than $2 million in bribes from the builder of the PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care detention centers and extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the facilities' co-owner. Ciavarella insisted the payments were legal and denied that he incarcerated youths for money.
A federal jury in Scranton returned a mixed verdict, convicting Ciavarella of 12 counts, including racketeering and conspiracy, and acquitting him of 27 counts, including extortion. The guilty verdicts related to nearly $1 million that the builder paid to the judges.
Ciavarella was expressionless as the verdicts were being read. Prosecutors called him a flight risk and asked that he be held pending sentencing, but he was allowed to remain free. He is likely to get a prison sentence of more than 12 years, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors alleged Ciavarella and Conahan plotted to shut down the dilapidated county-run juvenile detention center in 2002 and arrange for the construction of the PA Child Care facility outside Wilkes-Barre.
Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths to PA Child Care and later to its sister facility in western Pennsylvania while he was taking payments from Robert Mericle, a prominent builder and close friend of Ciavarella, and Robert Powell, a high-powered attorney who co-owned the youth lockups.
The judge, known for his harsh and autocratic courtroom demeanor, filled the beds of the private lockups with children as young as 10. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed thousands of juvenile convictions issued by Ciavarella, saying he ran his courtroom with "complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles," including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea.
His rough treatment of youths — whom he often had handcuffed and shackled — did not figure into his corruption trial, which focused on the payments from Mericle and Powell. But prosecutor Gordon Zubrod told jurors in his closing argument that Luzerne County's juven