Share This Page

Chronicles of corruption

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
The Scranton Times-Tribune

HARRISBURG

As Pennsylvania legislative leaders were being tried, convicted and sent to prison, a corruption scandal unfolding in Luzerne County was mind-boggling in its brazenness and pure greed.

Two corrupt judges, Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, took $2.8 million in kickbacks from a private detention center's builder and owner to send thousands of kids to jail, often for minor infractions. The heartbreaking story is eloquently told in “Kids for Cash,” a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter William Ecenbarger (The New Press, 2012).

Many of those children appeared before Ciavarella, the juvenile court judge, without lawyers. Conahan, as president judge, made sure an old county detention center was shut down.

Federal charges against more than 30 local, county and state officials in the Northeast exposed raw corruption of the sort that resembled a Third-World nation.

The descendants of immigrants who worked for coal barons were participants and victims of a corrupt culture where organized crime ties were common, patronage to this day is rampant; teacher applicants fork over cash to get hired.

In Bonusgate, legislative staffers were paid tax dollars with the blessing of leadership to work on leaders' and other lawmakers' campaigns. The conviction of leaders like former Democratic Whip Mike Veon of Beaver Falls and ex-House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, were based on the use of public resources for campaigns, an accrued benefit to the leaders prosecuted as theft. In Perzel's case, it was computer technology purchased with tax money for campaigns.

In Luzerne County, it was old-fashioned payola — bribes, extortion and organized-crime influence. It's mind-blowing that Conahan met regularly with Northeastern Pennsylvania crime boss Billy D'Elia for breakfast and D'Elia often delivered packets for Conahan to the courthouse.

Were cases being rigged? That wasn't part of this case.

Court officials who attended juvenile proceedings knew what was going on. Few, if any, challenged the judges for fear of reprisals.

One of the worst tragedies concerned a kid named “Charlie.” He desperately wanted a motorbike. His parents bought the one he wanted for $60. The kid was overjoyed.

Two weeks later, the police showed up to inform them the bike was stolen. His parents had no idea.

Charlie faced a felony charge of receiving stolen property. Probation officers told him he didn't need a lawyer.

His hearing before Ciavarella lasted three minutes. He was adjudicated a juvenile delinquent. He was shackled and handcuffed.

Charlie would be locked up for most of the next three years “for a crime he did not commit,” the author writes.

This column can't begin to convey the anguish Ecenbarger describes among juvenile offenders railroaded by Ciavarella.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.