The Kids for Cash Scandal

I had never heard of this case until probably a year or more ago when I came across a documentary on Netflix.  As happens in so many cases that make it to my list of those to research I had either forgotten a lot of the specifics of the case, or there was just so much more to it than I knew.  This case was one in which I wondered if I would ever be able to stop researching because it seemed at every corner there was another name connected either with the state of Pennsylvania or the county of Luzerne related to some sort of corruption.  Being a lifelong resident of Indiana I know very little about Pennsylvania but my husband spent some of his childhood there.  He was unfamiliar with the county but I informed him it sounds as if he, and especially his troubled brother, were lucky they were not from the area.

This case is so convoluted that I am not even sure where to begin.  Let me first say that unlike most of the cases I blog about here this one does not involve a murder.  But, it does in a sense involve a death.  While the vast majority of the cases that I discuss here do involve at the very least attempted murder the blog itself is called True Crime Stories so this case still qualifies.  By the time this case was over there were two judges sitting in federal prison along with two businessmen who were convicted and serving time for their roles. Nearly 2,500 juvenile cases have been reversed and expunged. However, it was not necessarily their crimes that got them caught, it was the misbehavior of yet another judge in the county that ended up bringing this case to light despite the fact that there had been at least five complaints, including an official complaint brought on by the Juvenile Law Center in the area. The latter complaint was completely dismissed when filed in April of 2008.  It was reopened and looked at again in January 2009 when it appears some eyes had been opened to what was really going on in the county.

Judge Mark Ciavarella was elected to the bench in Luzerne County Pennsylvania in 1995 to a ten year term.  It was said that his campaign ran on the strategy that he would be tough on juveniles and would bring some control to the area that seemingly was having a teenage delinquency problem.  By the sound of things people were frustrated with the system and wanted some order brought in and some real justice to be served and thought Ciavarella was the answer.  It also sounds as if the first few years he was doing just that and people were happy.  That is usually when things go bad, or people do.  By all appearances since the majority of people appeared happy about how Ciavarella was doing things they took their eyes off him.  Then as things went out of control they still kept their eyes off of him and anyone who complained about his practices were all but ignored.  How could this pillar of the community who had followed through on his campaign promise do anything wrong? He did so well that in 2005 he was re-elected for another, ten year term.  It seems that few people knew when he was re-elected he had already gone bad.

Then in November of 2006 Judge Anne Lukuta had hearings in front of a disciplinary board. She had been accused of using her workers for personal agendas, being openly bias to particular attorney's who had been before her and berating her staff in public and causing emotional harm to them.  Throughout these hearings and all that went with them it seems Lukuta mentioned that another judge, Judge Michael Conahan, bullying her and leading a conspiracy to have her removed from the bench.  The disciplinary board took two years but in November of 2008 they voted to remove her from the bench.  It seems it was soon after this that Lukuta either raised enough eyebrows with what she was saying or it was just a coincidence that around that same time some information had been verified.  I am not certain, and could not find exactly what Lukuta knew or said but it opened a can of worms that the county will likely never live down.  For her part Lukuta apparently had nothing to do with the case that would later become known as the "Kids for Cash" case but she knew something obviously.  By March of 2009 her removal from the bench was temporarily halted, as well as the special election to have her removed.  However, in January of 2011 her removal was upheld.  But enough about Lukuta.

It seems though between what Lukuta had to offer and a few other things coming together an investigation was warranted.  Between 2004 and 2008 a state judge had received at least four complaints against Judge Conahan about his sentencing practices but failed to investigate them. It was even said that the FBI had been given a tip in 2006 but they too failed to look into the issue. Then there was the complaint from the Juvenile Law Center. They were arguing that both Judge Conahan and Judge Ciavarella had improperly sentenced juveniles to a youth facility without offering or allowing them proper counsel, which violated their civil rights.

Digging a bit deeper into these cases they would discover hundreds, if not thousands, of cases in which a minor infraction had been made and yet the judges, especially apparently Ciavarella, had ordered sentences to one of two local youth detention facilities.  Oftentimes this was ordered despite recommendations from the juvenile probation officer suggesting differently.  When discussing or going through the cases involved there are just to many to list or name but there are three that are most often used as examples as to the unreasonable sentences that were given.

One was the case of fourteen year old Hillary Transue.  Hillary had made a fake MySpace page that ridiculed the vice principal of her school.  Another was the case of Justin Bodnar who at age twelve had cursed at the mother of another student.  Both Hillary and Justin were ordered to spend at least two months in one of the youth facilities.  Then there was Ed Kenzakoski. According to his parents he had always been hyper and rambunctious but he had also began being defiant as an early teenager and his parents discovered him drinking at age fourteen.  Ed's father apparently had a few friends on the police force and they decided to "set" Ed up by planting a marijuana pipe on him.  While in today's age this sounds absolutely crazy and by my own standards I think went way too far, I do sympathize and understand where his father was coming from.  The idea was they wanted to "scare him straight."  The goal really was for Ed to get arrested but not to serve time.  They wanted him to have an encounter with an authority figure and hoped it would put him on the right path. Instead he found his way into Judge Ciavarella's courtroom without an attorney and sentenced to the youth facility.  Ed's mother would later argue that the time spent there had done more harm than good.  Ed's mother would not be the only parent, or child to say this because while obviously the facilities were filling up with teenagers with petty crimes under them, they were also filled with teenagers who had committed much more serious crimes. At age nineteen Ed was sent back to the facility by judge Ciavarella after he had a car accident.  According to his mother when he got out this time he had a lot of pent up anger and things got worse.  Ed got into some sort of altercation and ended up going to state prison for a while.  He was released in January of 2010.  That following May, again according to his mother, after drinking a lot of alcohol and having an argument with his father Ed placed a gun to his chest and killed himself.  Now, I am not going to sit here and tell you without the entire story just what was going on in Ed Kenzakoski's head or even tell you that everything happened the exact way his mother claims, but when everything came out in this story you have to wonder if she is not correct in the fact that Judge Ciavarella's actions did not help destroy this young man's life.

But, I have not even gotten into just what it was that was done other than teenagers were sent to a youth facility in many cases are committing not just non violent crimes, but barely crimes at all in some cases.  By February 2009 the story was coming out.  Keep in mind this was just three months since the disciplinary board had decided to remove Anne Lukuta from the bench and only one month after the state decided to look again at the complaint filed in 2008 by the Juvenile Law Center.  It had all come to light that Judge Mark Ciavarella and Judge Michael Conahan had been receiving what are called "kickbacks" for sentencing these teenagers to the youth facilities.

It appears that before 2000 the county had a facility but it was wholly not adequate and seemingly barely fit to house anyone so two businessmen, Robert Powell, an attorney, and Robert Mericle, a real estate developer, decided they would build a new one.  Well, maybe they decided on two initially, or maybe it was decided once things got started they needed another, I am unsure.  However, in the end there were two facilities.  These were not state run facilities or non-profit facilities by any stretch of the imagination. For these two businessmen, and later the two judges, this was a money making opportunity.  It was as if they were starting their own franchises of youth facilities, and of course the more you have, the more money you make and that is where the judges came in.  The facilities could not make money if they did not have residents inside.  

It appears that Ciavarella and Conahan wanted this to go away very quickly, and there is little doubt that the county and the state would have wanted the same.  In mid-February of 2009 the judges decided they wanted a deal and would plead guilty to charges that ranged from conspiracy to defraud the U.S. (i.e tax evasion for not reporting the money they received that came into the millions) and a charge of "honest services fraud." This latter charge is most often related to things like mail or wire fraud but also pertains to corruption of public officials.  Apparently the plea agreement would have required that the judges be upfront and honest about their actions and admit their fault.  A few months after this started to be hashed out a federal judge voided the plea agreement on the basis that he said neither of the judge were abiding by the rule of admitting their fault as well as he felt it  that the time in which the plea stipulated was basically unethical for him to allow considering the position the men had held.  

In September of 2009 a grand jury was convened in Harrisburg Pennsylvania and they returned indictments against the judges.  The indictments included charges of racketeering, fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery and tax evasion.  The judges decided it was time to take their guilty pleas back, well at least at the time being.  By July of 2010 apparently Michael Conahan had been able to negotiate a plea that was acceptable.  He pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering and received a sentence of seventeen years.  For his part, and it does seem he received more and was more involved, Mark Ciavarella decided a plea was not going to work.  He went to trial in February of 2011.  He was found guilty on twelve of the thirty nine counts he faced.  It appears that he was acquitted on the extortion and bribery charges.  To be honest I am not sure where the prosecutors came up with those charges unless Powell and Mericle had mentioned something, but obviously it was not proven at trial.  Ciavarella was sentenced to twenty-eight years.  His appeal was rejected in 2013.

Robert Powell was a co-owner of the facilities.  His law license was suspended upon the investigation.  He pleaded guilty in July of 2009 to failing to report a felony and accessory to tax evasion.  He had given the judges over $700,000. He was sentenced to eighteen months in prison and in 2015 ordered to pay $4.75M in a civil suit brought against him in the case.

Robert Mericle, the real estate developer behind the deal pleaded guilty in September of 2009 also for failing to report a felony and fraud.  He had failed to tell the grand jury that he had paid the judges over $2M in what he called a "finders fee."  He also agreed to pay $2.15M to local children's health and welfare programs.  His sentencing was delayed until another case he was involved with continued.  The other case involved a Pennslyvania State Senator, Raphael Musto who was being charged with bribery.  Musto died on April 25, 2014, apparently without settling his case and the following day Mericle was sentenced to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine.  

There was still yet one other person who pleaded guilty in this case.  It was a woman named Sandra Brulo.  She had been the Deputy Director of Forensic Services for the county Juvenile Probation Office.  In March of 2009 she pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for backdating documents attempting to make it look as if placement had been recommended when it had not.  I could not find what, if any kind of prison time she may have served.

Both Judge Ciabarella and Conahan remained free on $1M bond as they awaited the progression of their cases.  The prosecutor argued that this should not been allowed because from their estimates the judges had already begun to move and shield assets. I was unable to determine if any of their efforts were successful.

Something else that seems different about this case than the others that I have researched is that because this was considered to be a crime at the federal level I had to find a website for the Department of Corrections at the federal level to search for the defendants.  I was unable to find Sandra Brulo at all, but to be fair I am unsure that she served any prison time. The same held true for Robert Powell but that is simply because there were several Robert Powell's listed on the site and while only one had a discharge date listed after his plea, there were two that listed "unknown" as a release date so I could not determine which he may have been.  As for Robert Mericle, he was released in May of 2015.  But, the judges are still serving time.  Ciavarella is serving his time in a Kentucky prison.  His scheduled release date is not until 2035.  Conahan is in much warmer climate in Florida with a release date in 2026.  


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