2009-07-09 / Local & State

Pa. Paper Asks Judge To Throw Out $3.5M Verdict

By Michael Rubinkam ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) - They'd meet often for breakfast - the judge, the mob boss and the businessman - to socialize and discuss pending cases before the court.

Reputed mobster William D'Elia took particular interest in a defamation lawsuit filed by his associate, Thomas Joseph, against The Citizens' Voice newspaper in Wilkes-Barre. So D'Elia talked about the lawsuit with his friend, Luzerne County President Judge Michael Conahan - who assured D'Elia of a "positive outcome,'' according to the businessman, Robert Kulick.

Kulick testified Wednesday at a hearing ordered by the state Supreme Court to review the newspaper's claim that the $3.5 million defamation verdict against it was fixed by D'Elia, Conahan and former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella.

The high court ordered the review after the judges pleaded guilty earlier this year to federal corruption charges in an unrelated case. Prosecutors said Ciavarella and Conahan accepted millions of dollars in kickbacks to send youth offenders to privately owned detention centers. They await sentencing.

The Supreme Court appointed Lehigh County Judge William Platt to review the Voice's claims and make recommendations. The newspaper asked Platt on Wednesday to recommend that the Supreme Court either order a new trial or dismiss Joseph's lawsuit altogether.

But Joseph's attorney, George Croner, told Platt that the Voice is trying to use the juvenile justice scandal to torpedo the outcome of a case that was fairly decided by Ciavarella and upheld on appeal.

"A gift fell in their lap,'' he said. "They're

opportunistically seeking to exploit the terrible situation in

Luzerne County.'' Croner also said the newspaper can't prove the judges had a financial interest in the outcome of the Joseph case. Thus, he said, the verdict should stand.

In its order, however, the Supreme Court said that even "an appearance of impropriety'' is enough to establish prejudice.

A security guard testified Wednesday that she hand-delivered between 10 and 20 large envelopes from D'Elia to Conahan. Patty Benzi said she didn't know what was in the sealed envelopes but that the deliveries took place over a span of three years beginning in 2003.

Benzi told reporters she wasn't curious about the contents of the envelopes, nor did she question why she was asked to shuttle them from D'Elia to Conahan.

Croner questioned whether the envelopes had anything to do with the defamation case.

He also sought to undermine Kulick's credibility by pointing out that Kulick has pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced in August on a federal weapons charge.

Kulick, who did 10 months in prison in the 1980s for tax evasion, acknowledged that he hoped Wednesday's testimony - and his cooperation with the federal government in other matters - will help him get a reduced sentence.

But he insisted he was telling the truth.

"Billy has spoken with our friend Mike Conahan and according to Billy, he was assured there was going to be a positive outcome'' in the Joseph case, Kulick said.

D'Elia was subpoenaed to testify, but he was excused after indicating through his attorney that he would assert his Fifth Amendment right against selfincrimination. D'Elia, who is serving nine years for federal money laundering and witness tampering convictions, has denied that he had anything to do with Joseph's lawsuit.

Also taking the Fifth were Conahan and former Court Administrator William Sharkey.

Joseph and direct-mail marketing firm AcuMark Inc. sued the Voice, its parent company and a former reporter over stories related to raids of Joseph's home and business and D'Elia's home.

Joseph was never charged as a result of the searches. His lawsuit claimed the newspaper defamed him by citing anonymous sources who connected him to suspected criminal activity.

Conahan steered the case to Ciavarella, who ruled in Joseph's favor following a bench trial in 2006. The decision was upheld in September by a three-judge Superior Court panel. The appeals court said the articles were inaccurate and the newspaper failed to follow its own anonymoussourcing rules.

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