SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) - A former northeastern Pennsylvania judge admitted Tuesday that he was deep in debt and living beyond his means when he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the builder of two privately owned juvenile detention centers, but he insisted the payments were legal "finder's fees" and not bribes as the federal government has alleged.
Ex-Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella took the witness stand at his federal racketeering trial and tried to stem the damage from a week of testimony that he took more than $2 million in illegal kickbacks from the builder of the juvenile lockups and extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the facilities' co-owner - a scandal known as "kids for cash" that resulted in the dismissal of thousands of juvenile convictions.
At times, he seemed like a witness for the prosecution.
Ciavarella, 61, admitted that he filed false tax returns related to the payments. He also admitted that he plotted with former Judge Michael Conahan to defraud the federal government of the taxes they owed - and that he took steps to conceal the payments because he knew they would look bad to the public.
"I made the wrong decision and I paid dearly for that," Ciavarella told jurors at the federal courthouse in Scranton. "And that's OK because I have to suffer the consequences of my decision."
Prosecutors allege the judges shut down the decrepit county-run juvenile detention center in 2002 and arranged for the construction of the PA Child Care facility outside Wilkes-Barre. Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, stocked the private jail with young offenders whose crimes were often minor. Many of the teens had never been in trouble before, and some were locked up even after probation officers recommended against it.
Ciavarella, who has denied any link between the payments he received and the youths he sent to the facility, said he viewed the money as legitimate.
He said the builder, Robert Mericle, offered to pay him a "finder's fee" because Ciavarella had introduced him to Robert Powell, the developer and co-owner of PA Child Care. He said he took Mericle at his word that the payment was legal. Ciavarella said he thanked Mericle and considered the payment "manna from heaven."
That's because he needed the money.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Houser used cross examination to portray Ciavarella as a man swimming in debt and looking for a way out. When Ciavarella received a $330,000 payment from Mericle in late January 2003 - the first of what would be three hefty payments from the builder related to the construction and expansion of PA Child Care and a sister facility in the western part of the state - the judge immediately sent two dozen checks to creditors, primarily credit card companies.
Ciavarella also repaid a $150,000 loan from Barbara Conahan, Judge Conahan's wife. In all, he eliminated $311,000 in debt from the proceeds of the money he got from Mericle.
"We were living beyond our means," he acknowledged.
Houser said the debt showed Ciavarella had a clear "motive for the crime."
The former judge testified clearly and confidently as he responded to questions from his own attorneys Tuesday morning, rejecting the government's allegations that he took bribes from Mericle and extorted money from Powell, a high-powered attorney.
He said Powell couldn't be touched.
"You didn't demand anything from Bobby Powell," Ciavarella said. "He had an ego bigger than this room. . There was absolutely nothing I could do to hurt Mr. Powell financially."
Powell has said that he was forced to pay $590,000 to a company controlled by the judges and another $143,000 in cash to Conahan. The judges allegedly disguised the payments as rental income from a Florida condo owned by their wives. Powell testified that Conahan and Ciavarella pressured him to make payments, going so far as to request more money even as a federal investigation was under way.
Ciavarella called Powell's testimony "ludicrous and ridiculous."
He insisted Powell's payments were rent, and had nothing to do with the juvenile detention centers. He said Conahan told him that Powell had agreed to pay $15,000 a month for 60 months for use of the condo - a total of nearly $1 million. He testified that Conahan made those arrangements, not him.
Houser was incredulous. He asked Ciavarella why Powell - a wealthy, successful businessman and personal injury lawyer - would agree to pay nearly $1 million in rent on a condo that the judges' wives had purchased for only $785,000, and for which Powell would receive no ownership interest.
"That's what Powell wanted," Ciavarella insisted.
He said Powell didn't want to own the condo because his wife would then have a claim on it - a reference to earlier testimony by a defense witness that Powell was having an affair and planned to get a divorce. Powell's attorney has denied the allegation.
Houser also pointed out the Pennsylvania Constitution forbids judges from accepting payment of any kind, other than salary, "for the performance of any judicial duty." Ciavarella responded that he wasn't acting in his official capacity as judge when he put Mericle in touch with Powell, but as an elected official trying to do right by the county's troubled youth.
But he said he knew how the enormous sums he got from Mericle and Powell would be perceived.
"I didn't want the publicity and I didn't want the scrutiny. That's what I was trying to avoid," he said. "I did the wrong thing."
Houser was merciless, grilling Ciavarella for more than three hours and getting one damaging admission after another.
Almost as an aside, Ciavarella acknowledged that he pocketed $15,000 to $20,000 in cash from a golf tournament fundraiser held in 2005 as part of his judicial retention campaign. He said he kept the cash in the house, used it for personal expenses such as dinners out, and failed to list it on his campaign finance report.
The defense expects to rest its case Wednesday. Closing arguments will follow.
Conahan, the other judge, has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and awaits sentencing.