Former Pennsylvania judges withdraw guilty pleas

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ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- Two former northeastern Pennsylvania judges charged in the "kids for cash" corruption scandal withdrew their guilty pleas yesterday after a federal judge ruled they had failed to accept responsibility for their actions.

The decision by disgraced Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan paves the way for a trial on charges that they took $2.6 million in kickbacks to place youth offenders in privately owned detention centers.

The judges pleaded guilty in February to fraud and tax evasion in a deal with prosecutors that called for a sentence of 87 months in prison, far below federal guidelines. The plea deals were rejected last month by Senior U.S. District Judge Edward M. Kosik.

"Under the law, right now, he is not convicted of any crime," said Mr. Ciavarella's attorney, Al Flora. "He is entitled to the constitutional presumption of innocence. I would hope and expect that all people, including members of the public, respect the constitutional rights to which he's entitled."

Philip Gelso, Mr. Conahan's attorney, declined comment.

The judges withdrew their pleas shortly after Judge Kosik refused to reconsider his July 31 determination that the judges had failed to live up to their end of the agreement with prosecutors.

Judge Kosik said that Mr. Conahan refused to discuss the motive for his conduct with probation officers, tried to obstruct justice and failed to accept responsibility. Mr. Ciavarella, meanwhile, repeatedly and publicly denied that he took cash to send kids to jail, as prosecutors charge. Judge Kosik called the denials "self-serving" and "abundantly contradicted by the evidence."

The judges could have kept their guilty pleas intact and let Judge Kosik sentence them. The fraud charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. For the tax charge, the maximum is five years.

Instead, the judges decided to take their chances at trial.

The scandal has been a daily staple of newspapers, TV news and talk radio, though, and the heavy publicity could make it difficult to select an impartial jury even in the vast Middle District of Pennsylvania, which includes 33 counties.

Federal prosecutors declined comment yesterday. After Judge Kosik rejected the plea deals, the U.S. Attorney's office said in a statement that it remains committed to pursuing "justice for the people of Luzerne County."

Marsha Levick, an attorney for the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which represents youths in a lawsuit against the judges, said she doesn't believe the withdrawal of the guilty pleas will affect the civil case.

"I think it's very nice that they exercised their right to withdraw their plea, and that they have counsel, and that they will proceed to trial, and I note, in passing, that such rights were denied to children in Luzerne County," she said.

PA Child Care owner Robert Powell, a lawyer, pleaded guilty July 1 to paying kickbacks to the judges, who shut down a county-run facility and sent wayward youths to Mr. Powell's jails. Prominent construction company owner Robert K. Mericle, who built the detention centers, is scheduled to plead guilty next month.

The corruption led the state Supreme Court to overturn hundreds of juvenile convictions on grounds that Mr. Ciavarella violated the constitutional rights of youths who appeared in his courtroom without lawyers for hearings that last just a few minutes. More convictions are under review.


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