Robert Powell, 51, of Rice Township, is expected to be the prosecution’s star witness as he is the common link that ties Mark Ciavarella to all the charges.
A prominent attorney, Powell was good friends with Michael Conahan and Ciavarella before he turned state’s witness in 2008. He agreed to wear a wire to record conversations he had with the judges over a several-month period in 2008.
Prosecutors contend those recordings and other evidence will show how Ciavarella conspired with Conahan to take various judicial actions that benefited Powell and Mericle in exchange for money.
According to prosecutors, Conahan first forced the closure of the county-run juvenile detention center by removing funding from the county budget. Allegedly, he then signed a secret placement agreement that guaranteed PA Child Care, located in Pittston Township, $1.3 million annually.
Once the facilities were built, Ciavarella, the county’s longtime juvenile judge, allegedly ensured the centers maintained a high occupancy rate. He allegedly incarcerated youths for minor offenses, pressured juvenile probation officers to recommend detaining youths even when they believed it was not warranted and routinely permitted juveniles to appear before him without an attorney.
The government is expected to parade a host of witnesses from the probation department, including Sandra Brulo, to support that allegation.
Brulo served as director of forensic services until she was charged in February 2009 with falsifying a juvenile’s record. In an affidavit provided in an unrelated case, Brulo alleged she was continually pressured to keep admissions up at PA Child Care.
When admissions dropped at one point, she allegedly received a call from an angry Conahan, demanding she “ramp up” admissions.
A key area of dispute lies in whether Powell was an active participant in the alleged scheme, or whether he was extorted into paying the judges.
Powell pleaded guilty in July 2009 to failing to report a crime and being an accessory after the fact to tax evasion allegedly committed by the judges. But a court document filed in connection with his guilty plea painted him more as a victim than a participant in the crime.
The document, known as a statement of offense conduct, is utilized by a judge to help determine an appropriate sentence. It detailed how Ciavarella, beginning in 2002, allegedly told Powell he was “making a lot of money” off the centers and that he had to “pay for the privilege.”
Ciavarella and Conahan then allegedly pressured Powell into allowing them to funnel payments he and Mericle made through a company owned by Powell to companies owned by Conahan.
Allegedly, the funds were disguised, in part, as rental payments for Powell’s use of a Florida condominium owned by the judges’ wives to make it appear as though the money was legitimately earned.
While certain evidence is damning, the prosecution doesn’t have a “slam dunk” case based on the evidence that’s been revealed so far.
For one, Powell’s credibility will certainly be attacked by the defense. Pre-trial filings made by the prosecution revealed Powell did not go to prosecutors until after he learned Conahan and Ciavarella were under investigation.
Powell was also permitted to plead guilty to charges that are far less serious than those lodged against Ciavarella, which will also impact his credibility.
To allow Powell to escape with pleading to failure to report a crime is a very, very favorable plea for a co-defendant in a conspiracy like this.
And while the prosecution’s theory of the case provides evidence of extortion, the bribery charge is far less certain.
The government’s witness is saying he wasn’t bribed, but he was extorted. From a defense perspective, that difference is critical. Specifically, it would be important to inquire if the lawyer voluntarily made payments to the judges at first, then at some point the bribery turned into extortion because, although he continued making payments, he was not doing it voluntarily.
Ciavarella has adamantly denied he demanded or accepted bribes from Powell, calling him an “outright liar” in an interview with members of the media in 2009.
Over the years the ex-jurist also repeatedly insisted his incarceration of juveniles was based solely on his belief it was in their best interest. He maintained that philosophy worked, pointing to studies that showed the recidivism rate for Luzerne County juveniles was low.
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