Experts reflect on juvie scandal


January 23, 2013

WILKES-BARRE – Luzerne County's judicial corruption scandal did not end with the incarceration of former county judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan.

Luzerne County is still coping with the aftermath, just as the children shuffled through the machine of Ciavarella's juvenile court still cope with the psychological impact of that abuse.

On Tuesday, a panel of experts gathered to reflect on that scandal, the culture that allowed it and the reforms it prompted.

The real question in my mind has always been not how greedy or evil these judges were, but indeed how did they get away with it for so long, said William Ecenbarger, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of the book Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.8 Million Kickback Scheme.

Joining Ecenbarger were Terrie Morgan-Besecker, investigative reporter for The Times Leader who covered Ciavarella's treatment of juvenile defendants and the judicial corruption scandal from 2004; Margaret Hogan, chair of Luzerne County's Accountability, Conduct, and Ethics Commission; and Joseph Cosgrove, the former Luzerne County judge who was appointed to fill Ciavarella's unexpired term in office.

Some of the answer to Ecenbarger's question lies in the historical fabric of Luzerne County, he suggested.

Luzerne County is a place where nepotism is everywhere, Ecenbarger said; where until recently bribing school board members for teaching jobs was a known and grudgingly accepted practice; where then Judge Conahan could have regular breakfast meetings with a known organized crime figure.

Juveniles sent to PA Childcare for psychiatric evaluation would be assessed by Judge Conahan's brother-in-law, Ecenbarger said, and both judges had multiple family members who were employed by the courts or county government.

Hogan said that nepotism … tends to insulate the people in power.

(Relatives and associates) provide a wall or shield around people in power, and you saw that here in Luzerne County, she said.

A conspiracy of silence also surrounded Ciavarella's juvenile court, Ecenbarger said.

While closed to the public and the news media, juveniles in court hearings were surrounded by attorneys, stenographers, police officers and other adults who stood watch as kids were given two-minute hearings and taken away in shackles, Ecenbarger said.

In Luzerne County a large group of people agreed to ignore an unpleasant truth of which they were all aware, Ecenbarger said. …The Luzerne County Bar had some 700 members, all of whom had a legal obligation to report any suspicious conduct by a judge, but they never acted and refused to testify before an ethics commission that was formed in the wake of the scandal.

Part of people's reluctance to speak out might be attributed to the power Conahan and Ciavarella wielded as president judges, which included the authority to appoint nearly all figures in the courthouse.

Morgan-Besecker recalled interviewing an attorney about Ciavarella's court who agreed to be interviewed only on condition of anonymity out of fear he would never be appointed to another position in the county if he spoke out about the judge.

As she spoke with him in a hallway, the attorney ducked into an alcove as a member of Ciavarella's staff approached. It was at that moment I truly got an understanding of how powerful Judge Ciavarella and the other president judges were, Morgan-Besecker said. He's a grown man and he's hiding behind a wall rather than be seen talking with me. You can't help but wonder what, if any role, fear played.

Much has occurred in the wake of the judicial corruption scandal and the FBI corruption probe continuing in Northeastern Pennsylvania to ensure the crimes of Ciavarella, Conahan and others cannot be repeated, but the panel also noted that work remains to restore the public's faith in its justice system.

An ethics commission like that now in place could have brought the injustice of Ciavarella's court to light much sooner, and the county's commission has developed an ethics code to hold public servants accountable, Hogan said. But she also conceded she has been met with nothing but resistance since (she) took this position with Luzerne County.

People simply do not want to face up to the command that they have to be ethical in their dealings with the county, she said.

Cosgrove said president judges have been stripped of some of their unilateral authority over appointments and courthouse employees, and that the county judiciary has established new courts – mortgage foreclosure court, drug treatment court and mental health court – that take a more holistic rather than punitive approach to righting wrongs.

But he also said Pennsylvania's public defense system – one of two in the nation that funds public defenders at the county, rather than the state level – is broken beyond repair because it tends to leave communities with the highest crime and poverty rates with the fewest resources.

Ecenbarger added that for-profit detention centers, including PA Child Care, remain open, and business is booming.