Builder sentenced for role in 'kids-for-cash' scheme

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A builder of for-profit youth detention centers was sentenced Friday to a year in prison for his role in the "kids-for-cash" juvenile justice scandal in Luzerne County in which thousands of young offenders were sent to his facilities by two judges who took money from him.

The builder, Robert Mericle, also was fined $250,000 and ordered to serve 100 hours of community service by a federal judge who increased the sentence recommended by prosecutors, citing the severity of the crime and Mr. Mericle's lies to investigators about what he knew of the judges' scheme.

Mr. Mericle, the last major figure in the scandal to be sentenced, apologized to the court.

"I'm ashamed to be here. But I put myself here," he said.

Prosecutors said two Luzerne County judges accepted $2.1 million in illegal payments from Mr. Mericle. Former Luzerne County Judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella Jr. 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 and a second lockup, Western PA Child Care in Allegheny Township, Butler County.

Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent young people to the for-profit detention centers -- often for minor offenses -- while he was taking payments from Mr. Mericle, a prominent builder and close friend of Ciavarella, and from the facilities' co-owner, Robert Powell.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out some 4,000 juvenile convictions after the scheme was uncovered.

Sandy Fonzo, whose son committed suicide in 2010 at the age of 23 after bouncing in and out of Ciavarella's courtroom, said Friday she was pleased with the sentence.

"He's going to feel what it's like to lose his family and sleep in a cell like the one he built for our children," she said.

Mr. Mericle had pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony.

Prosecutors had recommended six months, lower than the guideline range of eight to 14 months.

Trying to keep Mr. Mericle out of prison, defense lawyers urged U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik to consider their client's extensive cooperation with the government, his charitable works and the potential damage a prison sentence would do to his business, one of the largest commercial construction firms in northeastern Pennsylvania.

But Judge Kosik said Mr. Mericle deserved a stiffer sentence.

While acknowledging Mr. Mericle had taken full responsibility, "his false information to the government is nothing but corruption," Judge Kosik said.

Mr. Mericle did not break the law by paying the judges, but the judges committed a crime by taking the money, and Judge Kosik said the developer had contributed to a widespread culture of corruption in Luzerne County.

Mr. Mericle closed his eyes after the sentence was handed down but otherwise showed no emotion and made no comment as he left court. His attorney said no decision had been made on whether to appeal the sentence.

A federal judge in December 2012 approved a $17.75 million settlement Mr. Mericle agreed to in a civil suit brought by a class of juvenile plaintiffs.

Conahan is serving a 17.5-year sentence in Florida; Ciavarella is serving 28 years in an Illinois prison. Powell already served an 18-month sentence.

First Published April 25, 2014 5:39 PM


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