Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Judge Mark Ciavarella Convicted in Cash for Kids Scandal

If you managed to sit through the film Nothing But Trouble, you may recall Dan Akroyd played a 106 year old small town judge named Alvin Valkenheiser. In the film, Chevy Chase's character runs through a stop sign.  He is brought before Valkenheiser to answer for his egregious crime.  Instead of a standard fine, the judge confiscates his id and imprisons him into a dungeon. We learn the Judge's over the top punishments for minor offenses far exceeded the norm.  Many sentences were torture or death.  No one dared question the judge. Although the movie bombed at the box office, it's premise seemed to really resonate with one Pennsylvania judge.

You may have heard the story of Judge Mark Ciavarella. 
It was a story made for a Charles Dickens novel.  Unfortunately, the judge's story was not a work of fiction. Apparently, the kind judge was accepting millions of dollars in bribes from friends who owned juvenile detention centers.  In return, he would fill the centers by handing down some rather harsh sentences on the poor kids who appeared before him. Although the story is not over, it is coming closer to an end.  The Pennsylvania Judge was found guilty of 12 of 39 counts of racketeering and fraud charges.  He could face up to 157 years in prison.  Following sentencing, he can still make further appeals to the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals.

The former Wilkes Barre "Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick" Man of the Year had pled guilty last year to federal charges of honest services fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion as a result of getting $2.6 million dollars in kickbacks from the owners of two private, for profit juvenile facilities.  Under a plea agreement, Ciaverella could serve up to seven years in prison, pay fines and restitution.  As part of the agreement, the former judge was supposed to accept responsibility for his misdeeds.  

Instead, the judge denied there was any connection between the juvenile sentences he carried out and the kickbacks he received. Not surprisingly, Federal District Court Judge Edwin Kosik rejected the plea agreement.  A motion for reconsideration was denied in August and the following month a federal grand jury returned a 48 count indictment against Ciavarella and his co defendant Judge Conahan.  The 48 count indictment included various fraud, racketeering, money laundering, bribery and federal tax violations.  Ciaverella was found guilty of 12 counts.  He left in the custody of his daughter as he awaits sentencing.

The former judge's actions have sent shock waves in the community. At the court house Sandy Fonzo yelled at Ciaverella.  "My kid's not here anymore!" she screamed. "He's dead! Because of him! He ruined my ... life! I'd like him to go to hell and rot there forever! Do you remember me? Do you remember me? Do you remember my son, an all-star wrestler? He's gone. He shot himself in the heart. You scumbag!" The judge turned his back on the mother and told reporters.  "I don't know that lady, I don't know what the facts and circumstances are concerning her son."

Fonzo's son, 17 year old Edward Kenzakowski spent 17 months in a detention center after the judge sentenced him for possession of drug paraphernalia.  According to Fonzo, the young man had no prior criminal record.  He was a champion wrestler in the midst of a groundbreaking season.  He was never able to recover from the experience.  Between 2003 and 2008, Ciaverella had thousands of juveniles before his bench.  Reportedly, he sent a quarter of these kids to juvenile centers.  The state average was one in ten.  He had a reputation of ignoring requests for leniency from probation officers and prosecutors. Approximately 500 juveniles appeared before the judge without representation.

I was surprised at the harshness of his sentences.  Take the story of Hillary Transue as another example.  Hillary had built a spoof Myspace page mocking her highschool's assistant principal.  An excellent student, Transue had never been in trouble.  The webpage even indicated it was a joke.  Expecting a lecture, the 17 year old instead received a 3 month sentence at a juvenile facility for harassment. 

Another example was 12 year old Eric Stefanski.  Eric took his mom's car for a joy ride and ran over a barrier.  Although nobody was hurt, his mother needed to file a police report to get her insurance company to pay for the damage.  She thought an appearance before the judge would be a good way to put a scare in her kid.  Instead of a scared straight lecture, the judge locked him up for two years.  According to reports, kids were being locked up for offenses like shoplifting a $4 bottle of nutmeg.  The Pennsylvania Court threw out approximately 4000 of his convictions.

I am amazed that this judge was allowed to carry on for so long.  We will keep you updated when a sentence is handed down.  As always, we look forward to your comments.


Ellen Wright said...

Somebody look into this guy's past-I'll bet dollars to doughnuts, he was an abused kid himself. Not excusing-far from it-he needs to be accountable. But there has to be a reason for these actions. This is just over all boundaries.

Anonymous said...

There is an explanation for his actions, it is narcissism and greed. He just didnt care about anybody but himself.