COMMENTARY: BETTY ROCCOGRANDI “Kids for cash?” Phrase doesn’t fit crime

June 18th, 2015 12:46 pm

First Posted: 2/14/2014

It was a nifty catch phrase, and it stuck like Super Glue. “Kids for Cash.” But was it really?

Facing 28 years in prison, corrupt former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella never wavered in his contention that this was not a kids-for-cash case.

Trust me, I’m no fan of this disgraceful scourge on the judicial system and enemy of our rightful expectation for fairness and impartiality in the courts, but I agree with him here.

Kids for cash conjures up images of Ciavarella rounding up one juvenile delinquent after another, checking them into the privately owned PA Child Care center and then waiting for his commission checks to arrive at the courthouse.

The truth is Ciavarella and the detestable kingpin of this scandal Michael Conahan already made their killing when pay-to-play developer Robert Mericle rewarded them with $2 million for helping him land the contract to build two privately owned juvenile detention centers. Did the county even need a new center? No, it did not. The state Department of Public Welfare did not condemn our facility as unfit for human habitation. Conahan, the county’s then president judge, did that because he and Ciavarella had a grand plan to line their pockets.

Then to add insult to injury, former county commissioners Greg Skrepenak and Todd Vonderheid rammed through a 20-year, $58 million lease with PA Child Care, one of the centers Mericle built. State officials urged the commissioners to wait until the completion of an audit report with warnings that this company had previously overcharged the county. A reasonable request for sure, but for some mysterious reason, Skrepenak and Vonderheid, an admitted longtime friend of Mericle’s, couldn’t wait and locked the county into an unprecedented lengthy, costly and, arguably, unnecessary, lease.

That one-sided deal did not require PA Child Care to be filled to capacity for the owners to collect their generous rent. In addition, the pact stipulated that the county was responsible for most of the repairs and maintenance, even snow removal and lawn care, for a building it didn’t even own.

A sweetheart deal, to say the least, for the center’s owners, crooked former Hazleton attorney Robert Powell, who paid off the judges and then brazenly claimed they extorted him, and his politically connected partner Gregory Zappala, a son of the former chief justice of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.

How Skrepenak and Vonderheid skated away unscathed after locking the county into this polluted pact, which surely didn’t benefit county taxpayers, is beyond me. If only film producer Robert May would have grilled them for his documentary “Kids for Cash,” maybe we’d have some answers.

Based on all of that, I believe kids for cash is a misnomer. Aside from the windfall from Mericle and Powell, no evidence surfaced afterward that Ciavarella received additional cash payments every time he committed a juvenile to detention.

And thanks to Skrepenak and Vonderheid, Powell and his partner were already collecting enviable rents from Luzerne County, initially $2.9 million a year.

This was an abhorrent plot all right, but it was more a case of unnecessarily closing a county facility and building privately owned ones so a scheming quartet could make a fortune. I do not believe that it was a case whereby kids were sold into slavery, as radio talk show host Steve Corbett puts it.

Even before the new centers were built, Ciavarella ruled his courtroom with an iron fist, doling out punishments that did not fit some of the crimes, actually allowing these vulnerable and scared teens to be handcuffed and shackled like dangerous criminals, as their horrified parents helplessly watched. And, incredibly, he sealed their fates without insisting they be represented by legal counsel even when they waived those precious rights.

The bottom line, though, is that Ciavarella was not charged with the horrendous way he mistreated these “kids,” or, if you will, for exchanging kids for cash. He wanted to scare the living daylights out of them, and he did, big time. In some circles, his excessive tactics were applauded.

This scandal was rooted in greed, corruption and a colossal abuse of power, involving powerful judges on the take, a savvy developer, a corrupt lawyer and likely others who escaped indictments. With a heavy-handed judge like Ciavarella, these juvenile delinquents were going away somewhere.

But just as surely as money is the root of all evil, this diabolical scheme was sure to unravel, and it did once prosecutors uncovered and tried, not kids for cash, but a $2.8 million kickback/racketeering case concocted in our very own halls of justice.