Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The LuLac Edition #1475, Feb. 15th, 2010




Mark Ciavarella pretty much guaranteed a guilty verdict on one of the 49 counts in Federal Court today by admitting he tried to defraud the government by not reporting the full amount of finder’s fees given to him by developer Robert Mericle. The former Judge spent the entire day on the stand today. Ciavarella talked about his middle class upbringing growing up in the East End section of Wilkes Barre. He cataloged his high school and college years saying he worked his way through school and started off in a small office in the old United Penn Bank building.
When asked by his defense attorney Bill Ruzzo what he was doing today, he said he worked as a flower delivery man and was painting rooms in houses for a while. He recently obtained a job with a cleaning company dusting, waxing floors and cleaning offices.
Ciavarella repeatedly insisted he knew little about the PA Child Care construction project in 2002 other than the fact that developer Rob Mericle had promised him a finder's fee. He confessed, "Did I want the public to know I was getting money" from the person building the center? "No. The implication being that it would look bad. Ciavarella outlined his association with Powell and Conahan’s condo when he described a trip to Florida with some friends. At that time he charted Powell’s boat and essentially fell in love with the place. Ciavarella said he returned to Luzerne County and told Conahan that he wanted to retire to Florida, and that's when Conahan offered to bring him in on the Pinnacle condo.
Conahan told him he initially felt the condo was too pricey, and that Powell had offered to help. According to Ciavarella, Conahan told him that Powell said, "You buy it, and I'll rent it for whatever the expenses are." Ciavarella testified he knew nothing about the rental payments or what was on the checks. Powell said the payments were just bogus ways to funnel money to the two disgraced judges. Ciavarella also countered that Conahan did not move next door to him in Mountaintop until November 2004, which he said meant "all the transactions that took place" as described by the prosecution regarding payments to Conahan occurred "in his house in Hazleton." Ciavarella admitted he should have recused himself from any cases regarding Robert Mericle. He said it was on error on his part and he should have told his lawyers.
Ciavarella said he believed the finder's fee from Robert Mericle was legal but did not know how Mericle had handled it on his books, and that he asked Mericle that question. Mericle said he didn't know, and Ciavarella said he asked him to go back to his office and check. Ciavarella said he knew there was an ongoing federal investigation , and that he would be in trouble if the money went to Powell first. Ciavarella said he told this to Mericle.
At one point during the testimony the prosecution replayed an FBI wire tape with the three men. Powell testified the three were mixing up phony stories to tell investigators. Powell noted at the time that he mentioned cash payment
to Ciavarella and Conahan
CIavarella said he was silent because it was the first time he heard about cash payments. "By the time I hear this and by the time I process it, they're onto the next thing. "
A tedious argument of semantics broke out between Ciavarella and the Prosecution. It involved a WBRE TV news report on the need for a new Juvenile Detention Center. For at least 35 minutes Ciavarella and the Prosecutor tried to define whether Ciavarella was acting as a private citizen in pursuing the Detention center or as a Judge. Houser repeatedly pressed Ciavarella, asking if he was doing any of this as a judge, and Ciavarella parsed the question, insisting he "was a judge, but not doing anything in my official capacity as a judge."
Ciavarella repeatedly insisted he did not take any action to get Powell to hire Mericle to build PA Child Care in 2002, the private juvenile detention and treatment center for which CIavarella admits Mericle paid him a "finder's fee."
At one point in the testimony the Prosecution asked why Ciavarella would believe that a finder’s fee was legal when after all Ciavarella was a former Judge and Mericle’s counsel since the builder was 19. “When did you start taking legal advice from Robert Mericle?” asked William Hauser.
When Mericle’s find fee was brought up again, the Prosecution tried to trip up the former Judge on the location of his courtroom, whether it was on floor 2 or 3.
Mericle had testified that he met with Ciavarella and that after the meeting where Mericle told Ciavarella about the finder’s fee, he “went over” to Conahan’s courtroom. The prosecution asked if he went over or up to Conahan’s office.
Thar distinction is important because the Houser noted that would mean Ciavarella learned of the finder's fee when he was assigned to the third floor, not the second floor, which would change the date it happened. It would also show that Ciavarella’s testimony was contradictory.
In a rather humiliating line of questioning, Ciavarella admitted that he was “robbing Peter to pay Paul” to maintain his lifestyle. He told the court that his money went to bills for his children’s schooling as well as other expenses. The Prosecution read off more than 25 credit card payments numbering nearly $300,000 that Ciavarella took care the day before a portion of the finder’s fees hit his bank. The former Judge said that most of the credit cards were cash advances that he used to pay bills. The credit cards were a factor in the case because Ciavarella didn't have money to invest in a Florida condo in 2004. Yet Ciavarella said he knew he would be involved in the condo because Michael Conahan had told him Robert Powell would pay $900,000 in rent for 16 months. After it was paid off they could sell it and get the profits. The Prosecutor asked what type of deal it was where Ciavarella without capital would co own a Condo worth $800,000 after Bob Powell paid more than $900,000 in fees for it? That was a good deal for you said the Prosecutor and not a good one for Powell. Ciavarella replied yes that was true.
I had to sit in the overflow courtroom number 2 because of the large crowd. There was a full contingent of local media, daily courtroom observers, parents of children from Ciavarella’s cases and a cadre of his South Wilkes Barre golf buddies. In the overflow courtroom there is a bit more freedom than when you are in the room with the presiding Judge. When the prosecution started to ask Ciavarella about a loan that Michael Conahan was going to give him for $480,000 the people in the back of the room started to laugh out loud and shake their heads at some of Ciavarella’s explanations. More than a few local attorneys were on hand too. Michael Conahan had proposed paying him $480,000 as "a loan," and that Conahan said he would pay the taxes on the money. "That's why I didn't pay taxes," Ciavarella said. "I might be dumb but I'm not stupid."
Throughout the day long testimony while Ciavarella sat in the hot box, Prosecutor William Hauser fired questions while sometimes taking large drinks of bottled water. Whether the Prosecutor was thirsty or was using it as a device is anyone’s guess.
Judge Kosik prodded the Prosecution after the team had several brief conferences about what question to ask. Ciavarella admitted that he took about $20,000 in campaign funds from his 2005 retention effort most likely violating election laws.
Closing arguments begin tomorrow at 8:30AM and then the jury gets the case. However there is always a possibility that the Defense team might review Ciavarella’s testimony and if they felt it didn’t play out the way they wanted it to, look for a plea before the jury even gets the case. However that depends on whether Judge Kosik accepts the plea. Some observers are saying it will be a quick verdict but it depends on the instructions they get from the Judge. If the Jury has to review every count in totality, then it will take time. Also despite the tax fraud admission, a lot is going to depend on the jury. One courtroom observer told me that a lot of it is going to depend on how jurors view their own credit card bills and whether they have any sympathy for Ciavarella’s plight. The former Judge did his very best to look at the jury when answering every question. He admitted tax fraud but not conspiracy. What kind of connection he made will be answered when the jury renders its verdict.
LuLac is covering the trial for WYLN TV 35.


At 7:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm amazed Ciavarella cooked his own goose. WTF. After yesterday I posted on your site reasonable doubt was there. I really thought The Shiv was gonna walk and now this? You gotta be kidding me. Still agree with the other poster, looks like all we did was go around the block. There has been no evidence presented about kids for cash and he never admitted to that, so we spent all this money for nothing. Kosik should have just accepted the previous plea. So what if he gets a couple extra years, it really wasn't worth the time or money. The only folks who made out where news outlets, blog and entertainment based talk radio. For everyone else it was two years of pain.
Still, how dumb could the Shiv be? This is the guy Kevin Lynn claimed was one of the smartest men he had ever met. WOW. He was pretty much home free after Powell was discredited. Now you have to wonder if the Feds are gonna go back after him.

At 9:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nonsense to 7:29 p.m. His goose is plenty cooked. It never was expected that Powell was anything more than a thief among thieves.

At 9:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 'Kids for cash' label may have been great for media headlines but it's tough to prove from a legal standpoint. If you had evidence suggesting that a judge received a payment for sending a specific defendant to jail you would have made your case. But I've never seen anything to support that. True, large numbers of kids were sent to detention. But they were sent to other facilities as well the one in Luzerne County. And, being a larger county, might not one expect to see more kids sent from that location as opposed to other smaller counties?
Accepting money to support the
'need for a new prison' seems a lot more of a substantial charge to me, especially when the money said to have been accepted was unreported.
Calling kids to the stand could have proved be be counterproductive, especially if the jury had any thought that the youth in question might have deserved some punishment for whatever his or her crime might have been. Good work on the coverage Dave!
David DeCosmo

At 11:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uh-huh-huh, thats my builder, talkin 'bout my builder, And I love him -- hes a Robert mericle….,
(Ooh, ooh) he's a Robert Mericle.


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