Friday, January 24, 2014
The fifth anniversary of the day Luzerne County judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan were charged with corruption is rapidly approaching.
They were charged in a scheme to stock a privately run detention center with juvenile offenders. It was called the "Kids for Cash" scandal. Conahan pleaded guilty. Ciavarella was found guilty by a jury of his peers.
Ciavarella admits to being a tax cheat, but he has always denied he sent kids away in exchange for money. In rejecting a plea agreement, a federal judge said the evidence indicated Ciavarella did indeed jail kids for money, and he would not take responsibility for what he'd done.
So, what do I remember about January 26, 2009?
A photographer and I were sent to the federal building in downtown Scranton early in the morning. We knew something big was happening. We knew who was involved. We needed the official word. It was a waiting game.
My cell phone rang during the federal building stake out. My photographer and I were being moved to the Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre, and Newswatch 16's Jon Meyer would take my place in Scranton. My job was to cover a late morning news conference by president Judge Chester Muroski.
Muroski assembled the media in a courtroom to say steps would be taken to preserve the integrity of the Luzerne County bench. Justice would not be in jeopardy. Muroski did not mention Ciavarella and Conahan by name. He made no reference to the federal charges that were coming.
It presented a real challenge for our noon broadcast. I had to report on Muroski talking about something that hadn't happened yet, with individuals who hadn't been named, and there wasn't much time to map it all out.
There was a quick consultation with management back at the office, but much of the noon broadcast was done on the fly. It was a dangerous time. I'm not one of those "sources say" guys. In a major story like this, you have to be extremely careful to guard the rights of the accused (who hadn't been charged yet) and the victims. I tossed to a "bite" from the Muroski newser, and wrapped what we knew to be true at the time.
In spite of getting the video fed back at the last minute, and things changing by the second, the noon broadcast went smoothly. My phone rang right after I wrapped up. It was a congratulatory phone call from Jon. It made my day.
So what have we learned? Power corrupts. Ciavarella and Conahan were bad men.
Even after five years, there are still a lot of questions. I don't think the county commissioners at the time, who had to sign off on the private detention facility plan, have told the public everything they knew.
And, you knew this part was coming, I will never understand how no one, NO ONE, in the district attorney's office ever uttered a word when thousands of kids were going before Ciavarella without the legal representation they are guaranteed under the United States Constitution.
Ciavarella and Conahan were only the tip of the iceberg.
AT 10:00 AM