“They [Judges Conahan and Ciavarella] sold their oath of office to the highest bidders and engaged in an ongoing scheme to defraud the public.”
-- Darren Roberts
Chief, Scranton office
Federal Bureau of Investigation

Judicial Conduct Complaint Was Filed Against Conahan in 2006
September 9, 2009

A detailed complaint was filed against former Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Conahan with the Judicial Conduct Board in 2006, alleging wide-spread corruption including case-fixing, mob ties and the improper placement of juveniles in a privately owned juvenile detention facility.

The same anonymous complaint was also sent to and received by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg around the same time in the fall of 2006, sources have confirmed to The Legal.

Publicly, there is no evidence the JCB did anything with the complaint.

Because it was sent to the board in 2006, that means the JCB was told of numerous allegations against Conahan years before the government formally accused him and fellow former Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. of federal fraud and conspiracy.

The complaint lays out a number of allegations the federal government has already made against the judges or that sources have made to The Legal. It portrays a culture of rampant case-fixing in both civil and criminal cases, providing specific names of attorneys and cases, as well as case numbers.

More importantly, given that it was filed in late 2006 — more than two years before Conahan and Ciavarella were accused by the government of taking $2.6 million from attorney Robert Powell, co-owner of PA Child Care, and Robert Mericle, the facility's builder — it lays out the close relationship between the former judges and Powell, including trips to a condominium in Florida and the use of Powell's yacht, "Reel Justice."

The complaint also ties them to the increased placement of juveniles at PA Child Care.

"Attorney Robert Powell is co-owner of [PA Child Care]. When Judge Conahan became president judge, he assigned Judge Ciavarella to Juvenile Court, while in the past, Juvenile responsibilities were shared among Judge [Chester B.] Muroski and at times, Judge [Ann H.] Lokuta," the complaint alleges. "A stringent pattern of placement in the Powell owned facility can be readily revealed by reviewing Judge Ciavarella's placements. In the past, the other judges placed in a variety of facilities ... ."

The complaint also alleges that Conahan and a local attorney regularly met with reputed mob boss William "Billy" D'Elia, something that witnesses have testified to in open court and other sources have told The Legal in the past.

The existence of the complaint and its timing raises serious questions about what the JCB did with the complaint, whether its board members were aware of it, and why the JCB allowed the two former judges to testify against former Luzerne County Judge Ann H. Lokuta in the board's case against her.

Joseph Massa, chief counsel for the board, said he could not comment. Because complaints filed with the board are confidential, he said, the board is prohibited from acknowledging whether it has received a particular complaint or whether it has investigated it.

Massa did say that the JCB is not a criminal investigation unit and that it, in theory, might refer a matter to federal authorities.

A former Commonwealth Court judge and former member of the Court of Judicial Discipline, Robert L. Byer, said after reviewing the complaint that the serious nature of some of the allegations warranted an investigation by the board.

"I think the board should have investigated," said Byer, now an appellate lawyer with Duane Morris.

In light of subsequent events, he said, if the board did conduct an investigation, "the public has a legitimate right to know what that investigation entailed."

Lokuta's attorney, Ronald V. Santora, made the first public mention of a complaint against Conahan during a hearing before the Court of Judicial Discipline in May. At that time, he told the court the complaint alleged Conahan was involved in a case-fixing scheme and raised questions about the judge's ties to PA Child Care.

After being shown the complaint received by The Legal, Santora confirmed that it was the same one he had been referring to at the hearing.

"This is the very document I was waving during the May 13 hearing," Santora said.

When asked who might have filed the complaint, several sources speculated that Lokuta had written it. Lokuta denied authoring the complaint.

Asked who had, Lokuta replied: "One of my staffers." She declined to name the person.

The complaint is one of at least two that were filed against Conahan during his judicial career. Sources have also told The Legal that a complaint was also filed in the 1990s. Nothing public ever came of that complaint, either.

Calls to most people who served as members of the JCB in 2006 — including Patrick Judge Sr., the board's chairman at the time, and Superior Court Judge Jack A. Panella — were not returned.

According to the Citizens' Voice newspaper, Judge and Conahan have shared investments in Florida real estate and a Forty Fort, Pa., ambulance company. The newspaper made the ties through state financial disclosure forms.

Pittsburgh attorney Edwin L. Klett, who also served on the board at the time, said he could not answer any questions and referred the matter to the JCB's "staff."

"I'd like to be cooperative, but we're under strict restrictions about having conversations outside of the conduct board itself," Klett said.

One knowledgeable source who had battled previously with the former judges and who was shown the complaint said that in light of the details, whoever wrote the complaint had to have had access to information from the county comptroller's office and the court administrator's office.

Similar to what other sources told The Legal for a story in late July, the complaint alleges that Conahan ruled the courthouse with an iron fist and used his cousin, former court administrator William T. Sharkey, to manipulate case assignments and guarantee that cases involving litigants or lawyers with ties to the judges were tried in front of them.

As a result of the ongoing corruption probe, Sharkey has pleaded guilty to embezzling forfeited gambling proceeds entrusted to the court.

According to the complaint, Conahan and Ciavarella often heard cases involving attorneys or litigants whom they had personal or business relationships with and failed to disclose those ties to opposing counsel.

Such allegations were backed by Lehigh County President Judge William H. Platt, who was specially appointed by the state Supreme Court to review a defamation suit handled by Ciavarella in 2006.

Though Ciavarella, who testified during a July hearing for that case, portrayed the county's case assignment system as "neutral and detached," Platt found that was not the case.

In his recommendation to the justices to overturn the defamation verdict awarded by Ciavarella, Platt wrote that case assignments were made "according to the subjective discretion of the court administrator acting upon direction from the President Judge."

"Civil cases in Luzerne County were not assigned randomly as required by the local court rules, but selectively according to factors known only to the court administrator," Platt wrote.

Lokuta, who is currently waiting for a ruling from the Court of Judicial Discipline on whether new evidence can be introduced in her case, has petitioned the high court to assume jurisdiction over the matter or appoint a special master, as it has done in two other Luzerne County cases since Conahan and Ciavarella conditionally accepted plea agreements, although the two former judges have since withdrawn their guilty pleas.

Lokuta has consistently put forth a conspiracy theory that Conahan and Ciavarella were responsible for orchestrating her removal from the bench in retaliation for questioning their alleged criminal activities and reporting concerns to federal investigators. Before the state Supreme Court granted her a new hearing on evidentiary issues, the JCB described Lokuta's efforts as an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach and lobbied for the justices to strike several portions of her argument.

Copyright 2009, Incisive Media US Properties, LLC

From: Hank Grezlak and Leo Strupczewski, "Judicial Complaint Was Filed Against Conahan in 2006," The Legal Intelligencer, September 9, 2009, http://www.thelegalintelligencer.com.  Reprinted from http://www.law.com/jsp/pa/PubArticlePA.jsp?hubtype=TopStories&id=1202433666605, accessed 10/02/09.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.