Pubdate: Thu, 24 Feb 2011
Source: Pike County Courier (PA)
Copyright: 2011 Straus Newspapers
Author: Michael Rubinkam


Grieving Mom Screams at Him on Courthouse Steps

SCRANTON -- Leaving a courtroom where he had just been convicted of
racketeering for taking a $1 million kickback from the builder of the
for-profit lockups, a former juvenile court judge defiantly insisted
he never accepted money for sending large numbers of children to those
detention centers.

Former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella was convicted Friday in
what prosecutors said was a "kids for cash" scheme that ranks among
the biggest courtroom frauds in U.S. history. Ciavarella, 61, left the
bench in disgrace two years ago after he and a second judge, Michael
Conahan, were accused of using juvenile delinquents as pawns in a plot
to get rich. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has dismissed 4,000
juvenile convictions issued by Ciavarella, saying he sentenced young
offenders without regard for their constitutional rights.

Sandy Fonzo is a parent of one of the youths Ciavarella sentenced and
had come to the courthouse for the decision. Fonzo's son was 17 and an
all-star wrestler with a chance at a college scholarship when he
landed in Ciavarella's courtroom on a minor drug paraphernalia charge.
Though the teen, Edward Kenzakoski, had no prior criminal record, he
spent months at the private lockups and a wilderness camp and missed
his senior year of high school.

Kenzakoski emerged an angry, bitter and depressed young man. He
committed suicide last June at the age of 23.

Victory interrupted

The disgraced judge was allowed to remain free pending sentencing.
Ciavarella and his lawyers walked out onto the courthouse steps on a
brilliant, unseasonably warm day and declared victory.

"He never took a kickback, he never took a bribe. ... This is not a
'cash for kids' case, and we hope that someone starts getting the
message," said Ciavarella's attorney, Al Flora, referring to the fact
that jurors had acquitted his client of many of the charges.

Fonzo, who had been standing in the media scrum, lost it and video
cameras recorded her getting in Ciavarella's face.

"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!"

Ciavarella kept his back to Fonzo as she yelled, glancing at her only
when she tapped him on the shoulder. Then he turned his back again and
walked down the steps.

"I don't know that lady," he told reporters. "I don't know what the
facts and circumstances are concerning her son."

Fonzo said Tuesday that she couldn't help but lash

"They were all having a wonderful day and they thought they had a
victory. My son's not here, and (Ciavarella is) on his way out and
it's a beautiful day and he's going to enjoy it with his family," she
recalled. "I just had enough of them and I just couldn't control myself."

The prosecution case

Federal prosecutors accused Ciavarella and Conahan of taking more than
$2 million in bribes from the builder of the PA Child Care and Western
PA Child Care detention centers and extorting hundreds of thousands of
dollars from the facilities' co-owner.

A federal jury in Scranton convicted Ciavarella of 12 counts,
including racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy, but acquitted
him of 27 counts, including extortion. He is likely to get a prison
sentence of more than 12 years, according to prosecutors, who revealed
after the verdicts that a reputed mob boss turned informant helped
them make their case.

Ciavarella maintained the payments were legal and denied that he
incarcerated youths for money.

"Never took a dime to send a kid anywhere. ... Never happened. Never,
ever happened. This case was about extortions and kickbacks, not about
'kids for cash,"' said Ciavarella, who plans to appeal.

Ciavarella and Conahan initially pleaded guilty in February 2009 to
honest services fraud and tax evasion in a deal that called for a
sentence of more than seven years in prison. But their plea deals were
rejected by Senior U.S. District Judge Edward M. Kosik, who ruled they
had failed to accept responsibility for their actions.

A federal grand jury in Harrisburg subsequently indicted the judges on
charges of racketeering, fraud, money laundering, bribery, extortion
and tax offenses. Conahan pleaded guilty to a single racketeering
charge last year and awaits sentencing. Juvenile facility developers
Robert Mericle and Robert Powell pleaded guilty to lesser offenses and
testified against Ciavarella; both await sentencing.

Luzerne County paid Powell's company more than $30 million between
2003 and 2007 to house juveniles at PA Child Care and Western PA Child
Care. The county could have built its own juvenile center for about $9
million, according to testimony.

PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care remain open and continue to
accept juveniles from many Pennsylvania counties, though Luzerne
County no longer sends delinquents to them. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.