2010-07-29 / Local & State

Ex-Judge Pleads Guilty In Kids-For- Cash Scheme

By MARYCLAIRE DALE
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

PHILADELPHIA (AP) – A former Pa. judge pleaded guilty Friday to a racketeering conspiracy charge for his role in a kickback scheme that put juveniles, many without lawyers, behind bars for sometimes minor offenses.

Michael Conahan, 58, faces up to 20 years in prison after his plea in Scranton federal court. No sentencing date was set.

Court documents do not indicate if Conahan will testify against the other former Luzerne County judge charged in the case, Mark Ciavarella Jr. Conahan’s lawyer, Philip Gelso, declined to comment Friday.

Prosecutors accuse the pair of taking $2.8 million in kickbacks from two private detention facilities. Conahan, as president judge, shut down a county-owned juvenile center while Ciavarella, the juvenile court judge, filled beds at the for-profit facilities, they charged.

The indictment was part of a sweeping federal probe of corruption in Luzerne County that has so far ensnared more than two dozen people, including a school superintendent and a court administrator.

Ciavarella, 60, routinely shackled children, denied them legal counsel and removed them from their homes during brief plea hearings, juvenile advocates said. Some children were detained for possession of a drug pipe, stealing change from a car and failure to appear as a witness.

Last year, the state Supreme Court vacated the convictions of thousands of juveniles who appeared before Ciavarella from 2003 and 2008. The court concluded that he ran his courtroom with “complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles.”

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