Abuse of Authority Ruins Lives


This morning, I watched Robert May’s Cash for Kids in which the documentarian chronicles the recent history of two federal judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan. Through their positions of power in Pennsylvania, these two authority figures managed to build a private, for-profit youth detention centre and then fill it with allegedly corrupted and delinquent youth. There is no better depiction of what corruption and greed can do to devastate families and lives. If you haven’t seen the film, do so: my focus is the legal aspects of the film, but the most important stories are those of the victims and their families – stories that must be told through their own voices.

The lesser of the two judges, Conahan, was eventually found guilty of using his “budgetary discretion” as the President Judge of Luzerne County (while he was still a sitting judge) to stop funding the public detention centre, and then have newly remanded youth sent to the private jail that he and his business partners developed. That job was left to Ciavarella.

President Judge Ciavarella presided over thousands of cases in the criminal youth court, incarcerating children in the new facility that corruption and greed built. For his share of ensuring the new facility would burgeon with ample recalcitrant and obstinate children, he was modestly remunerated in excess of $1 million. Hence, the terminology Cash for Kids. But, don’t fret: the project-builder provided Ciavarella with a “finder’s fee” which in no way can be misconstrued as bribing a public official. 

Ciavarella’s interviews in the film are astounding in the immutable sense of how financial corruption absolutely corrupts. For example, when Ciavarella discusses the bribery aspect of the federal charges with filmmaker May, the former believes his actions amounted to an ethical violation at most:

I had two choices: I could take the money and report it and if I wasn’t going to report it, don’t take it. … Did I think it was a crime? No. Did I know I was committing an ethical violation? Absolutely.  And the dark side is, I wasn’t strong enough, ethically, to not do that. 

Remember, this is a federal judge. He went to law school. His life’s work has been to judge and adjudicate using criminal codes. And Ciavarella was working with another federal judge that preceded him as the President Judge of Luzerne County. Unbeknownst to Ciavarella, 1996’s and 2005’s get-tough-on-crime candidate for this particular federal judgeship, the FBI believed his actions were illegal: as he explains it, he was merely getting a “finder’s fee” for helping establish the youth detention centre, and Conahan suggests this transaction “is a normal course of business.” Sure it is. During the course of a mafia shakedown. 

Let’s deconstruct Ciavarella’s seasoned and reasoned approach: he knew it was unethical for a sitting judge to accept money from a secondary source other than his employer (the state) without disclosing it and further using his authoritative position to fill the halls of his “friend’s” private facility with incarcerated children, but his keen legal mind could not make the infinitesimally-small logical-leap that this might be considered illegal. Too bad Ciavarella wasn’t surrounded with legal books and other judge-y paraphernalia, friends and lawyers, the internet and a copy of The Godfather I, II, or III, or he would have had his “eureka” moment and side-stepped this embarrassing debacle – the circumstances of which were wholly thrust upon him. 

(“Hey, Mikey. What we’re doing might be a little dicey on the ethical side, but it’s not illegal. Pass me that racket so we can bounce this ball of unethically-obtained money back and forth in the basement of this fine Italian restaurant. Oh, a new shipment of boys will be arriving tomorrow: have your guys ready for the pick-up after making that drop in the art district. And other mafia stereotypes. Capish?”)

It gets worse. Every year, Ciavarella would visit all of the schools in his county and lecture kids on staying on the straight-and-narrow. Then, if they broke the law, he would ask them in court and under oath if they had heard his speech. Apparently, the school assembly was their warning – the proverbial shot-over-the-bow – that Ciavarella used to justify harsh sentences and remand for children as young as twelve and thirteen years old. We’ve all been to school assemblies. And we’ve all fallen asleep in them. Just imagine listening to a judge drone on and on about a system you never thought you would appear before to explain some egregious criminal act like buying a stolen bicycle. Children are not career criminals masterminding their next plot to high-jack an armoured truck.

What’s worse, Ciavarella’s court also created a waiver system by which parents could waive their children’s rights to an attorney in hopes that the judge would give a lighter sentence to their child. Remember this is happening to these parents in real-time; parents that are often mis-informed and unaware of the legal ramifications of their choices, scared for their child, and seeking the path of least resistance. That is, a parent likely understands the words on the paper that they’re reading and signing, but they don’t necessarily understand the intricacies involved in signing away those rights. Don’t worry, though, the legal system has plently of redundancies and opportunities for the naive to get a do-over. Oh, wait …

When May asked Ciavarella about his court’s actions and its inexplicably high statistic of parents waiving their children’s right to legal counsel when compared to other counties throughout the state, he countered with this impregnable admission: “I never denied a kid the right to an attorney. I shouldn’t say that. Once I did.” That’s right. He openly admitted to denying a child his or her constitutionally-protected right to counsel. But that’s only one kid. Spoiler alert: almost 2,500 of Ciavarella’s cases were ultimately overturned and the young offenders’ records expunged. 

Finally, May does film a number of scenes regarding Ciavarella’s continuing justifications for his involvement in this scheme. As of 2009, according to the Pennsylvania Code for judicial salaries, a President Judge made an annual base salary of $181,349, excluding benefit coverage and other ancillary perks that accompany a prestigious position. For argument’s sake, even if we assume Ciavarella made twenty percent less than this salary over the course of his active career (1996-2009), he would have been making $145,079 per year for a total of almost $1.9 million over thirteen years. 

While awaiting his sentencing hearing already found guilty of several offenses by a jury of his peers, May questioned Ciavarella’s motives. Still believing in his personal innocence and justifying his disastrous decisions, Ciavarella opined:

It wasn’t like we lived this grandiose life. Most of the money that I received I used to send my kids to school, pay off some debt, and here I am – I’m sixty years old today – and I have nothing. I’m living with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law … I’ve struggled with why I took this money … I don’t necessarily know if it was greed … I think it was more a sense of financial security. 

Good to know: if a person is seeking financial security, ipso facto, they cannot be greedy. Greedy people, by their very nature, would never use illegally-obtained money to send their children to an ivy-league school or pay off past debts. No, greedy people only use illicit funds to live the “grandiose” lifestyle; a lifestyle completely out of grasp for a federal judge making approximately $150,000 a year. 

Above all else, this speaks to how out of touch Ciavarella had become – his inability to see that his family was already living the American Dream without his extracurricular activities. Apparently, it’s the only justification Ciavarella required to actively participate in racketeering and fraud. He still believed he was Conahan’s lackey. Conned. A judge-turned-patsy by his close-turncoat-friend. And his hope was that the rest of us, even if his jury of peers did not, would still believe it. It’s this abuse of authority – that Ciavarella is somehow beyond reproach – that set thousands of lives upon a different trajectory that included PTSD, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and destroyed relationships. Greed destroys lives. It’s heart-breaking. 

We will never know how these affected children and their families would have turned out if they had not ended up before the corrupted Ciavarella, but we do know that his actions and decisions were anything but judicious and blind. The legal problems aside, Ciavarella’s story is a cautionary tale of how close we all are to being corrupted; of wanting more and doing the unthinkable to get it. And, the uniquely-human ability to justify those actions even in the face of overwhelming and damning evidence.

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