The ascension of Mark Ciavarella from neighborhood lad from the East End to the presidency of the Luzerne County judiciary and his subsequent fall from grace is a cautionary tale in many ways.
I used to work with a lot of guys who were delighted to see their “Scooch” wearing the robe on the bench. An affable guy, he didn’t seem to mind the nickname.
Perhaps it was too much, too soon. It seems Judge Ciavarella fell in with the wrong crowd pretty quick. His companions were people like the arrogant Attorney Bob Powell and fellow Judge Michael Conahan, two high rollers who enjoyed la dolce vida. Ciavarella already knew developer Bob Mericle from his younger days, and these four concocted a deal that sounded good on the surface, but quickly turned into what the government now calls “a criminal enterprise.”
A “for profit” juvenile detention center sprung up like a wild mushroom in a Pittston Township industrial park. Soon, the county’s juvie center was deemed unfit for humans, even though the state of Pennsylvania didn’t see it that way. Then, there was a multi-million dollar lease and a contract that yoked the county to the facility for two decades.
Of course, there were the stories. They began to circulate long before the feds pulled back the curtain to reveal this caper in the harsh light of day. Since juvenile proceedings were closed to the public, Judge Ciavarella could operate without scrutiny and often amongst his friends in the court system. Soon, the rate of incarceration for juvenile offenders skyrocketed. At one point, the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia cried foul about youthful offenders appearing without counsel, but that was only a pothole on the super highway of corruption.
The sensational trial that’s been unfolding for the past eight days has had a little bit of everything. There was Bob Powell’s contention that he was a cowering victim of a shakedown, instead of a towering former D1 athlete known for his cocky behavior and extravagant flair. I mean, how many other “friends” leave $1,000 on the barbeque grill when a son graduates? That’s what Mark Ciavarella’s kid got from Powell. Some grads around here are lucky to score a savings bond.
Then, there was a bombshell from a hostile defense witness, who was ordered to appear against her will. She testified she saw Bob Powell hand over two envelopes overflowing with cash to an unnamed state official on the tarmac of the Hazleton Airport in 2006. I guess the defense wanted to illustrate everyone’s doing it.
The testimony of the defendant himself was the damning of them all. Yes, he cheated on his taxes. Yes, he pocketed about 20 grand from his retention campaign. Of course, there was a whiff of conspiracy.
Just don’t accuse him of taking cash for kids, whatever you do. Ciavarella said he received a finder’s fee from Robert Mericle. What did he find, you ask? That’s a great question.
Amazingly, this former president judge who graduated from law school asked the builder, “Is it legal?”
Imagine if Mericle had taken Ciavarella to a warehouse and asked him, “Is this ceiling in good shape?” Yep, that’s the level of absurdity this case has reached.
Today, Judge Edwin Kosik meticulously instructed a jury on how to judge the 39 counts Ciavarella faces, which, if he’s found guilty of, could put the former jurist into jail for an undoable stretch of 597 years. They looked determined to see it through and I believe they will. And, they’ll probably do something Mark Ciavarella avoided in some of his decisions: Rational thought and careful deliberation of the facts.