Courthouse Kickbacks
David Kidwell  /  AP
Mark Ciavarella leaves federal court in Scranton, Pa., on Thursday after pleading guilty to fraud. Prosectuors say the former judge and a colleague took $2.6 million in payoffs to put juveniles in lockups run by private companies. Ciavarella has denied taking kickbacks.
updated 2/13/2009 2:27:19 PM ET 2009-02-13T19:27:19

A lawsuit has been filed against two Pennsylvania judges accused of taking more than $2 million in kickbacks to send youth offenders to privately run detention centers.

The suit names Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan and 14 other defendants. It was filed in federal court late Thursday on behalf of hundreds of children and their families who were alleged victims of the corruption.

"At the hands of two grossly corrupt judges and several conspirators, hundreds of Pennsylvania children, their families and loved ones, were victimized and their civil rights violated," plaintiffs' attorney Michael Cefalo said in a statement Friday.

Prosecutors allege Ciavarella and Conahan took $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in lockups run by PA Child Care LLC and a sister company, possibly tainting the convictions of thousands of juvenile offenders.

The judges pleaded guilty to fraud in federal court in Scranton on Thursday. Their plea agreements call for sentences of more than seven years in prison.

The suit asks for at least $150,000 for each of three counts, the minimum required to avoid mandatory arbitration, but the plaintiffs are likely to argue for a much higher amount.

An attorney for Conahan said he hadn't seen the suit and declined comment. Ciavarella's lawyer didn't immediately return a phone message.

The lead plaintiff is Florence Wallace, whose 14-year-old daughter Bernadine was charged with making threats after getting into an argument on MySpace. The lawsuit said the teenager was not advised of her right to an attorney and was pressured to plead guilty. She was taken from Ciavarella's courtroom in shackles and spent time in PA Child Care and at a youth wilderness camp.

As a result of the judges' corruption, parents were forced to pay for the "wrongful incarceration" of their children, the suit said. Some parents had their wages garnished, public assistance benefits taken and social security benefits seized.

In addition to the judges, the plaintiffs are suing two individuals who allegedly paid the kickbacks: attorney Robert Powell, who co-owned PA Child Care LLC and Western PA Child Care LLC until last June, and Robert Mericle, who owns one of the largest commercial construction firms in northeastern Pennsylvania and built the detention centers.

Through an attorney, Powell has said he was the victim of extortion. A spokesman for Mericle has denied making payments "to influence a decision to secure a contract to build any PA Child Care facility."

Mericle's company was also named as a defendant.

The lawsuit is the first of what is expected to be a number seeking class-action status in the case.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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