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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Middle District of Pennsylvania

Friday, May 24, 2013

U.S. Court Of Appeals Upholds Ciavarella’s Conviction And Sentence

     A three member panel of the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia has unanimously upheld the conviction and 28 year sentence of the former state court judge Mark Ciavarella.

     Ciavarella was found guilty after an 11 day jury trial in February 2011.  In August 2011 Senior U.S. District Court Judge Edwin M. Kosik sentenced Ciavarella to 336 months (28 years)imprisonment and ordered restitution be paid in the amount of $965,930 to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and $207,861 in restitution related to the tax charges.  The Court of Appeals ruling agreed with the Government’s position in the appeal and upheld all of the charges on which Ciavarella was convicted with the exception of one mail fraud count.

     The Court of Appeals found that one count of the Indictment should be dismissed because the statute of limitation had run on the offense.  However, the Court rejected Ciavarella’s attorneys’ arguments that the trial judge was biased, had made incorrect rulings on evidence and had imposed an unreasonable sentence.

     According to United States Attorney Peter J. Smith the dismissal of the count has no effect on the sentence, restitution or the trial jury’s findings that Ciavarella was guilty of racketeering, conspiracy and mail fraud. 

     Mr. Smith expressed his thanks to the investigators and prosecutors in the case.  He praised Senior Litigation Counsel Gordon Zubrod, who argued the case for the Government on appeal and led the Government’s trial team, as well as the work of the team and the staff of the Scranton FBI and IRS offices.  Smith said all of them did a tremendous job despite complex and challenging legal and factual issues.  He noted that they carried out this project for over five years during the administration of three United States Attorneys. 

     Ciavarella and his co-defendant, Michael Conahan, who also served as President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County, were initially charged in January 2009. The charges were the result of a federal investigation of alleged corruption in the Luzerne County court system. The inquiry began in 2007 and expanded to include county government offices, state legislators, school districts and contractors in Northeastern Pennsylvania.  Conahan pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy in April 2010 and is serving a 17 year sentence.

     The case was investigated by the agents of the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigations and Federal Bureau of Investigation's Scranton office. Overall, 30 local or state government officials and contractors were convicted.

     The judicial scandal, described as the worst in Pennsylvania's history, and the federal prosecutions have had major consequences: Ciavarella and Conahan resigned from the bench in 2009. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania vacated thousands of juvenile convictions in Luzerne County as a result of Ciavarella's conduct as a Juvenile Court Judge. A State Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice recommended changes aimed at safeguarding the constitutional rights of juveniles and improving the oversight and disciplinary process for judges in Pennsylvania. In June 2011, a committee of the American Bar Association reviewed and made recommendations to improve procedures in the state's Judicial Conduct Board. A procedure was established in Luzerne County for compensation of victims of the activities of Ciavarella and Conahan.

     The prosecution was conducted by a team consisting of Senor Litigation Counsel Gordon Zubrod, Assistant United States Attorneys William S. Houser, Michael A. Consiglio, and Amy Phillips, with the assistance of Criminal Division Chief Christian A. Fisanick and Criminal Appeal Chief Stephen Cerutti.

     The federal investigation, the largest and the most sustained political corruption inquiry in the history of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, was initiated under the direction of Former United States Attorney Martin C. Carlson, now a United States Magistrate Judge in the Middle District, and continued under Dennis C. Pfannenschmidt, who succeeded Carlson as court-appointed United States Attorney in 2009.

     Ciavarella and Conahan were originally charged with honest services mail and wire fraud and tax fraud in connection with the use of privately owned juvenile detention facilities. Both defendants agreed to plead guilty. In July 2009, Judge Kosik rejected the proposed plea agreements because the defendants did not appear to accept responsibility for their conduct.

     In September 2009 and September 2010, a Grand Jury returned superseding indictments charging both defendants with racketeering, honest services mail fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery, tax violations and conspiracy. The government also sought the forfeiture of approximately $2.8 million in assets allegedly acquired by the defendants through racketeering and money laundering. In response to the United States Supreme Court's 2010 decision in United States v. Skilling, the 2010 Indictment specifically charged that bribes and kickbacks were paid to the defendants.

     After an 11 day trial in Scranton in February 2011, a jury found Ciavarella guilty on 12 of 39 counts: racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, four counts of honest services mail fraud and four counts of filing false income tax returns. The jury also found that Ciavarella should forfeit $997,600, the sum he received from Robert Mericle, the developer who built the juvenile detention facilities.

Updated April 9, 2015