Ex-Judge Faces Jury In Alleged Kickback Scheme

Jurors heard opening statements Tuesday in the case of a former Pennsylvania judge accused of taking bribes in exchange for sentencing juvenile offenders to privately run detention centers. Federal prosecutors claim that Mark Ciavarella accepted payments from the facilities' operators to sentence kids who didn't belong there. Thousands of the judge's convictions were overturned by Pennsylvania's Supreme Court.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

It's been called the biggest legal scandal in Pennsylvania history: a pair of state judges charged with accepting $2.6 million in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for sending thousands of juvenile offenders to two private detention centers. Well, one of those former judges is now on trial in Scranton, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Mark Ciavarella had a reputation for zero tolerance. Many of the defendants who found themselves in his northeast Pennsylvania courtroom came away with similar stories. Susan Mishanski and her son were typical.

Ms. SUSAN MISHANSKI: It was 90 seconds in a courtroom, and Judge Ciavarella scooted him right out the side door in handcuffs and shackles.

ROSE: Mishanski says Ciavarella sentenced her 17 year-old son Kevin to 90 days of detention for a scuffle with another teenager. Neither was seriously injured.

Ms. MISHANSKI: And I'm not saying my son was right for what he did. But it was a minor incident, and he didn't deserve that.

ROSE: Mishanski stood outside the federal court in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Ciavarella is now standing trial for his alleged role in a conspiracy dubbed kids for cash. In opening statements this morning, federal prosecutors said Ciavarella treated his office like a money-making machine.

Along with another ex-judge, Ciavarella is accused of accepting bribes and kickbacks from friends who got government contracts to build a pair of privately-owned detention centers.

And Ciavarella is accused of funneling hundreds of kids as young as 10 years old into detention even when their crimes didn't warrant it. Wilkes-Barre defense lawyer Barry Dyller says his clients couldn't get a fair hearing in Ciavarella's courtroom.

Mr. BARRY DYLLER (Lawyer): At one point, I had a case, and the chief juvenile probation officer came to me as I was waiting for my case to be heard and told me the result. And I looked at her, and I said: Don't you presume my client is innocent? And she looked at me like I had two heads, like it was known that there was a presumption of guilty.

ROSE: Pennsylvania's Supreme Court later cleared the records of hundreds of kids sentenced by Ciavarella. His attorney, Bill Ruzzo, declined our request for an interview.

Ruzzo doesn't deny that Ciavarella took money from the developers, money he failed to report to the IRS. But in court this morning, Ruzzo also said the ex-judge didn't promise anything in return and didn't think he was doing anything illegal. And even Ciavarella's critics admit that his zero-tolerance philosophy predated the alleged bribery by several years.

The state commission that examined the failure of juvenile justice in the kids-for-cash scandal found that the blame extended beyond the two judges who've grabbed most of the attention. Judge James Gibbons was a member of the commission.

Judge JAMES GIBBONS: At the end of the day, people need to stand up and speak up. And that didn't happen here for a lot of years while this was going on in Luzerne County. And that's why I think, in large part, a lot of this was able to occur.

ROSE: Ciavarella's trial is expected to last a week or more, quite a bit longer than the hearing any juvenile offender could have expected in his courtroom.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Scranton, Pennsylvania.

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