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Pennsylvania Private Juvenile Prison Scandal Results in Guilty Pleas

by Matt Clarke

On June 9, 2009, attorney Robert J. Powell of Hazeltown, Pennsylvania pleaded guilty to charges related to an illegal scheme involving two for-profit juvenile facilities – PA Child Care in Luzerne County and Western PA Child Care in Butler County.

Powell was charged with one count of withholding information about a crime and two counts of being an accessory after the fact. He has not yet been sentenced, but according to his plea agreement will receive 5½ years in prison. He also will be fined $500,000 and must forfeit his corporate jet and an ocean-going yacht christened “Reel Justice.” See: United States v. Powell, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:09-cr-00189-EMK.

Federal prosecutors say Powell helped two former Luzerne County juvenile court judges, Mark A. Ciavarella, Jr. and Michael T. Conahan, send juvenile offenders to the private facilities for minor crimes that did not warrant imprisonment, often when the juveniles were not represented by attorneys. The county paid millions to the private facilities to incarcerate juvenile offenders, and the judges reportedly received about $2.6 million in bribes and “finder’s fees” – first for their help in getting the facilities built and then to keep them filled.

The contractor who built the two private juvenile prisons, Robert K. Mericle, was accused of bribing the judges; Powell was the bagman who helped deliver and disguise the illicit payments, claiming they were for renting a Florida condo owned by the judges’ wives. Mericle pleaded guilty on Sept. 2, 2009 to withholding information about a crime. He has not yet been sentenced. See: United States v. Mericle, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:09-cr-00247-EMK.

Ciavarella and Conahan had entered preindictment guilty pleas to wire fraud and tax evasion last February, and were to receive seven years in federal prison as part of plea agreements. [See: PLN, May 2009, p.20].

However, the U.S. District Court rejected the agreements on July 31, 2009, citing a failure of the former judges to take responsibility for their actions. District Court Judge Edwin M. Kosik noted that Conahan had “refused to discuss the motivation behind his conduct, attempted to obstruct and impede justice, and failed to clearly demonstrate affirmative acceptance of responsibility with his denials and contradiction of evidence.”

Further, Ciavarella’s denials that he had taken bribes or “traded kids for cash” were criticized by the court, which found that “Such denials are self serving and abundantly contradicted by the evidence.”

“In this case, the fountain from which the public drinks is confidence in the judicial system – a fountain which may be corrupted for a time well after this case,” Judge Kosik stated.

On Sept. 9, 2009, a federal grand jury returned a 48-count indictment against Ciavarella and Conahan that included charges of fraud, bribery, extortion, racketeering, money laundering and tax-related offenses. The disgraced judges now face significantly more prison time than they would have received under their plea bargains. See: United States v. Conahan, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:09-cr-00272-EMK.

Powell, whom prosecutors said falsified records and helped the former judges launder their illegal income, co-owned the juvenile facilities along with Greg Zappala, brother of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr. and son of former state Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala, Sr. Greg Zappala has not been charged with any wrongdoing but is being sued – along with Powell, Ciavarella and Conahan – by hundreds of former juvenile offenders and their parents for civil rights and RICO violations. See: Wallace v. Powell, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:09-cv-00286-ARC.

Ciavarella and Conahan have moved to dismiss the civil lawsuits based on the doctrine of judicial immunity, which immunizes judges “for their judicial acts, even when such acts are in excess of their jurisdiction, and are alleged to have been done maliciously or corruptly.” Judicial immunity is, of course, a judicially-created doctrine, not a constitutional or statutory protection. For more on judicial misconduct, see PLN’s August 2009 cover story.

Sources: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,,

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