Fueled by greed and armed with virtually limitless power, the men ran roughshod over county government, unilaterally shutting down Luzerne County‚??s juvenile detention center to pave the way for a facility proposed by their friend, attorney Robert Powell, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Zubrod said Tuesday during his opening statement in Ciavarella‚??s corruption trial.
The ex-judges eagerly accepted a nearly $1 million ‚??finders fee‚?Ě from the center‚??s builder, Robert Mericle. But when they blew through the money in a matter of months, they ‚??turned‚?Ě on Powell, extorting more than $700,000 additional cash, Zubrod said.
It‚??s a sinister tale that could send Ciavarella to prison for many years. There‚??s just one problem: It‚??s not true, Ciavarella‚??s attorney, William Ruzzo, said in his opening statement.
For Ruzzo the story is one of two judges who unwittingly found themselves the recipient of a generous benefactor, unknowing that their acceptance of the ‚??Mericle money‚?Ě was a crime.
As for Powell, his allegations of extortion are ‚??ludicrous,‚?Ě Ruzzo said. The defense will present evidence that will show Powell made up the story as an ‚??excuse to try to get out of trouble he was in with the law,‚?Ě Ruzzo said.
He did not detail what that ‚??trouble‚?Ě was, but alluded to the fact Powell was ‚??awash with cash‚?Ě and he needed a way to ‚??disguise the money he was paid‚?Ě from PA Child Care, the detention facility he co-owned with Gregory Zappala.
It will be up to a jury of six men and six women to decide which story is fact and which is fiction. They‚??ll be guided by a cast of characters who played major roles in Luzerne County government.
In addition to Powell and Mericle, Zubrod said the government intends to call Powell‚??s one-time law partner and former county prothonotary, Jill Moran, who will testify she delivered FedEx boxes full of cash from Powell to Conahan.
Zubrod said Moran made several deliveries, but did not know the boxes contained cash until the last one, when she walked in on Powell stuffing money into the box, Zubrod said. She resigned from office in 2009 under a deal that allowed her to escape charges.
Conahan‚??s former tipstaff, Nick Callen, also unwittingly made some of the deliveries, Zubrod said. Callen remains employed as tipstaff for senior judges.
Zubrod spoke at length about Conahan‚??s role in the alleged scheme but did not indicate if he will testify against Ciavarella. Conahan pleaded guilty last year to one count of racketeering conspiracy, but Zubrod did not mention the plea deal.
The prosecution and defense each spent roughly 45 minutes laying out the foundation of their cases. Several witnesses, including Mericle, also took the stand.
Mericle testified for just 10 minutes before U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik recessed for the day. He is scheduled to resume testifying today.
Ciavarella, 60, is facing a 39-count indictment that charges him with racketeering, honest services fraud, extortion, bribery, money laundering, wire fraud and tax evasion. He intends to testify, Ruzzo said.
Ruzzo indicated the defense will focus on disproving the bribery and extortion charges. He spoke little about the charge of honest services fraud, which alleges Ciavarella committed a crime when he failed to advise juveniles he had a conflict of interest hearing their cases because he had taken money from Mericle and Powell.
‚??This case is not about whether Mark Ciavarella had a conflict of interest or whether he violated the judicial code,‚?Ě Ruzzo said. ‚??This case is about whether the government can prove whether Mr. Ciavarella extorted Robert Powell or took a bribe or kickback from Robert Mericle.‚?Ě
The defense maintains neither Conahan nor Ciavarella knew that their acceptance of the finders fee was a crime. Finders fees are a common practice in real estate transactions, and Mericle assured them he had done it hundreds of times before.
That‚??s a crucial issue, Ruzzo said, because the government must prove the money was illegally earned in order to prove the money laundering charge and other related counts.
‚??If you can‚??t find Mr. Ciavarella extorted Robert Powell and you can‚??t find he got a kickback or bribe from Robert Mericle, you have to acquit him of almost all the charges,‚?Ě Ruzzo said.
Zubrod acknowledged payment of a finder‚??s fee is legal in private business, but it‚??s an entirely different story for a judge to accept such money.
‚??It‚??s illegal for a judge to take money. Every judge knows that,‚?Ě he said.
And that‚??s not all Ciavarella and Conahan did, Zubrod said.
‚??It gets much worse,‚?Ě he said.
Having gotten a taste of wealth thanks to the Mericle money, the ex-judges wanted more.
‚??In 2004, they turned on Robert Powell,‚?Ě Zubrod said.
Ciavarella, armed with documents that showed how much money PA Child Care was getting from the county, demanded Powell share some of his wealth.
Powell objected, but Ciavarella told him he ‚??had no option,‚?Ě Zubrod said.
‚??He was saddled with a $12 million mortgage. If he refused, he would not get any children from Luzerne County,‚?Ě he said.
In addition to paying them, Powell was coerced into helping the judges disguise the source of the money by portraying it as fees he paid to rent a condominium their wives owned in Florida.
But Ruzzo said the defense will prove Powell‚??s claims are ‚??nonsense.‚?Ě
He said the money Powell paid to the judges was precisely for what he said it was for ‚?? rental of their condo and the right to dock his yacht there. ‚??The fact he paid money does not mean he was extorted,‚?Ě Ruzzo said.
Ruzzo also questioned why Powell, if he was being extorted by the judges, maintained his friendship with them during that period. Powell was a frequent visitor at Conahan‚??s home, and also took him on Powell‚??s private jet for a trip to Costa Rica, Ruzzo said.
‚??If I‚??m trying to get away from someone I don‚??t invite them on my private plane,‚?Ě Ruzzo said.