WILKES-BARRE — Robert May’s non-fiction film about the Luzerne County judicial scandal is called “Kids for Cash,” but finding juvenile victims willing to speak on camera wasn’t the filmmaker’s greatest challenge.
“We were not going to make the movie if we did not get access to the judges,” May, a Back Mountain resident, said during a recent visit to The Times Leader to talk about the 102-minute film, which premieres in Northeastern Pennsylvania this week.
The picture juxtaposes the experiences of several teens and their families in the wake of juvenile sentences handed down by disgraced former Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella, against interviews with the judge and his one-time friend and fellow fallen jurist, Michael T. Conahan, as their legal cases were proceeding through federal court.
Four years in the making, the film by May’s New York-based SenArt Films examined the scandal which toppled the judges after federal prosecutors accused them of accepting kickbacks in connection with the construction of private juvenile detention facilities used by the county.
While the words and stories of victimized families take center stage, May’s study of the men at the heart of the scandal brings to the story an element largely missing from media accounts at the time: the judges’ own words, not lawyer-approved soundbites barked at reporters from the courthouse steps.
May admits getting the judges on board took some convincing, especially given his insistence on interviewing them in real time, as the case against them was unfolding, not after the fact.
Ciavarella, wary of the media, “was dubious,” May said. Yet Conahan “was the more difficult one to get to agree.”
The judges also told May that they did not want their lawyers involved.
“Ciavarella made it very clear he was not telling his lawyer,” May said. “They (both) told me they didn’t.”
Efforts to reach Conahan’s attorney, Phillip Gelso, were not immediately successful. Ciavarella attorney, Al Flora Jr., said he could not comment on conversations with his client. Co-counsel William Ruzzo, however, said he had not been aware of the production at the time and “would have told him ‘no.’ ”
As audiences will see, May’s approach paid off. The film features in-depth interviews with both ex-judges, in a variety of settings, as their cases wended through federal court.
Ciavarella, his characteristic defiance still on display in several interviews, ultimately breaks down in tears when discussing the image his grandchildren will have of him. Then there is Conahan, tanned and relaxed in a T-shirt and shorts as he pontificates about his downfall while strolling along a sandy Florida beach.
While the impact of Ciavarella’s “zero-tolerance” stance on juveniles and their families takes center stage, members of the judges’ families also are seen in the documentary as Ciavarella and Conahan moved closer toward prison.
“It was remarkable. I found them to be remarkable young ladies,” May said of working with Ciavarella’s daughters, who were among those to see the documentary during private screenings.
“Their take on the film is not what you might think it is,” May said.
“They still love their father, but they are conflicted. You know, Judge Ciavarella disappointed his family as well as the rest of the community,” May said. “They (the daughters) have incredible empathy for the juveniles and their families.”
During a Nov. 17 “Kids for Cash” screening at a New York City documentary festival, an audible gasp ran through the audience as they watched Ciavarella break down sobbing. That didn’t surprise May.
“Critics so far despise him, but audiences are split around the country,” he said.
Some see a monster. Others are more empathetic.
Sentence too harsh?
And while no one has suggested he be let free, some viewers have questioned whether a 28-year sentence is in line with what Ciavarella did, May said.
There are still those — not least Ciavarella himself — who object to using the term “Kids for Cash” to describe the scandal, maintaining his financial misdeeds and the way he ran his courtroom were separate and distinct. Ciavarella has steadfastly said “he never took a dime” in exchange for sending juveniles anywhere.
“The film is called ‘Kids for Cash’ because that’s what society had made it. You judge. We’re not telling you how to feel,” May said.
But May did offer his thoughts on glimpses of the men’s character and the dynamics of their relationship. Indeed, the film depicts a pair of one-time friends who grew further apart as their cases moved through the system.
In Conahan, May admits seeing an accomplished, ambitious lawyer who moved easily among the worlds of law, politics and finance.
In Ciavarella, May saw a more complex, flawed and vulnerable figure.
There is a scene in the documentary in which the ex-judge describes a youthful incident in which he narrowly escaped legal trouble himself, only to bear the brunt of severe discipline at the hands of his own father.
“When he told that story, he told it with great pride,” May said. “I don’t think he saw the irony.”