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Chronicles of corruption

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Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 8:56 p.m.


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

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