You’re a judge, Mike Vough, in Luzerne County where people don’t trust judges for good reason. Two, count ’em, Mike, two former presidents judges are currently serving mind-numbing sentences in federal prisons for public corruption.
Mark Ciavarella is doing 28 years.
Mike Conahan is doing 17 ½.
Their bunks are a long walk from the condo they once shared in Florida where at least one other county judge and a former county cocaine trafficker shared drinks and good times with the women in their lives.
So, in the aftermath of this disaster, you decided to run for the bench, in part, hopefully, to help restore the public trust in a cash-strapped and skeptical place where crooked politicians crawl out from every rock at every church picnic, breed and then inflict their children on the same public institutions we are supposed to trust.
Donning the black robe, you raised your hand and made a solemn vow to uphold the law, to set a good example, to live by a higher standard under uncommon public scrutiny that is highlighted very prominently in the state judicial code of conduct. Even the mere appearance of impropriety is enough to get you slapped with an ethics charge.
You don’t have to break the law to act unethically, either, Mike.
Maybe your gavel-wielding peers will argue that you absolutely did not act unethically when you and your wife failed to pay about 10 grand in last year’s school taxes. Maybe they’ll come to your defense against the ravages of a free press that tries to hold judges accountable. Maybe they’ll take up a collection for you.
“I got a little behind,” you told me when we spoke yesterday and I asked about your lapse in responsibility.
I felt bad when you told me that your West Pittston home got hammered in the 2011 flood. And I felt bad when you said that you had no flood insurance.
So why didn’t you just go stay at the Harvey’s Lake house that’s assessed at $425,000 while you saved enough money from your well-paid county judge (about $170 grand a year) job to pay for repairs?
I don’t know the status of the lake house. Maybe it’s a vacation home. Maybe you let poor people stay there for free. Maybe you hold judicial conferences there so you and your pals on the bench can better improve justice for the poor slobs in the county who pay their taxes before they buy anything else. Or maybe you just played the system the way so many other know-it-all lawyers and hack public officials play the system for their own benefit.
I read in the paper this morning that at the same time the flood hit you were busy loaning yourself about a year’s judicial salary to pump into your campaign. Smart move, Mike, since even failing campaigns cost a lot of money.
Then, instead of paying your taxes, money that our schools depend on to help raise a new generation of lawyers and judges, if nothing else, you told me that you decided to sink your cash into your West Pittston home.
Lots of your neighbors in town are still scrimping and saving to repair their ravaged homes as well. But most of them paid their taxes, Mike. Most of them understand civic responsibility. And they’re not even judges.
You wondered on the phone yesterday if I was going to use this information on my show. I told you I had to. I even invited you to come on the show and explain in your own well-chosen words your personal and public predicament. But you declined, I believe, because you knew that nothing you said would make you look good. If anything, even your good excuse would make you look worse.
You’re a judge, Mike, in a county known for being one of the worst judicial systems in the civilized world, a county where judges sold kids for cash and few people in power did anything to stop them.
Ciavarella had some problems understanding tax responsibility, too, if my memory serves me well. He flagrantly broke the law and eventually admitted on the stand to his tax fraud.
You broke no law, Mike. You just made a slick decision – pay whatever late charges that might arise and write off your tardiness as the cost of doing business. Most lawyers can do that, Mike.
But you’re a judge doing the people’s business. So coughing up every penny due Uncle Sam is an absolute prerequisite for the job – if your word really is good and you truly do want to help restore the public trust that Ciavarella, Conahan and so many others did everything to decimate.
Pay up, Mike.
Then go back to the bench and start all over again.