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Pa. judges plead not guilty in racketeering case

Two former Pennsylvania judges implicated in a "kids-for-cash" scandal on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to federal racketeering charges.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two former Pennsylvania judges implicated in a "kids-for-cash" scandal on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to federal racketeering charges.

Former Luzerne County judges Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan are accused of taking millions of dollars in payments related to the construction of two juvenile detention facilities.

They had agreed to plead guilty in February to honest services fraud and tax evasion in a deal with prosecutors that called for 87-month prison sentences, far below federal guidelines.

But a federal judge rejected the deal last month, saying Conahan, 57, and Ciavarella, 59, hadn't fully accepted responsibility for the crimes. They switched their pleas to not guilty, and prosecutors secured a 48-count indictment that includes racketeering, bribery and extortion charges.

At their arraignment Tuesday, prosecutors also asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Blewitt to tighten bail conditions for both former judges, claiming they had tried to protect assets and are now more likely to flee.

Both are free on bail and restricted to traveling within northeastern Pennsylvania. Prosecutors wanted them also to be electronically monitored. Blewitt denied the request.

Ciavarella and Conahan declined comment after the arraignment.

Kickbacks alleged
Prosecutors allege the two judges participated in a scheme in which Conahan, the northeastern Pennsylvania county's former president judge, shut down the county-owned juvenile detention center in 2002 and signed an agreement with PA Child Care LLC to send youth offenders to its new facility near Wilkes-Barre.

Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths to the detention center and to a sister facility in western Pennsylvania while he was taking payments, according to prosecutors.

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

Former PA Child Care owner Robert Powell, a lawyer, pleaded guilty July 1 to paying kickbacks to the judges. Prominent construction company owner Robert K. Mericle, who built the detention centers, pleaded guilty earlier this month to a charge of withholding information of a crime related to the millions of dollars in payments. Powell and Mericle have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.