Ex-judge in cash-for-kids conspiracy pleads guilty

A former judge in Northeastern Pennsylvania pleaded guilty Friday to a racketeering conspiracy charge for his role in a kickback scheme that put juvenile defendants, many without lawyers, behind bars for sometimes minor offenses.

Michael Conahan, 58, faces up to 20 years in prison after a plea in Scranton federal court. No sentencing date was set.

Court documents do not indicate whether Conahan will testify against the other former Luzerne County judge charged in the case, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. Conahan's lawyer, Philip Gelso, declined to comment Friday.

Ciavarella has maintained his innocence and plans to go to trial.

Prosecutors accuse the pair of taking $2.8 million in kickbacks from two private detention facilities. Conahan, as president judge, shut down a county-owned juvenile center while Ciavarella, the Juvenile Court judge, filled beds at the for-profit facilities, they charged.

The indictment was part of a sweeping federal probe of corruption in Luzerne County that has ensnared more than two dozen people, including a school superintendent and a court administrator.

Ciavarella, 60, routinely shackled children, denied them legal counsel, and removed them from their homes during brief plea hearings, juvenile advocates said. Some children were detained for possession of drug pipes, stealing change from cars, or failure to appear as witnesses.

Last year, the state Supreme Court vacated the convictions of thousands of juveniles who appeared before Ciavarella between 2003 and 2008. The court concluded that he ran his courtroom with "complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles."

Both ex-judges had tried to plead guilty before. Plea agreements called for 87-month terms for honest-services fraud and tax evasion, but Senior U.S. District Judge Edward M. Kosik rejected the pleas, finding that the pair had failed to accept responsibility.

Ciavarella and Conahan subsequently withdrew their pleas. A federal grand jury then returned a 48-count racketeering indictment against them.