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Scranton, PA., courthouse Thursday.|
SCRANTON, Pennsylvania — Two Pennsylvania judges charged with taking more than $2 million in kickbacks to send youth offenders to privately run detention centers pleaded guilty to fraud Thursday in one of the most stunning cases of judicial corruption on record.
Prosecutors allege Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan took $2.6 million in payoffs to put juvenile offenders in lockups run by PA Child Care LLC and a sister company, possibly tainting the convictions of thousands of juvenile offenders.
The judges pleaded guilty in federal court in Scranton to honest services fraud and tax fraud. Their plea agreements call for sentences of more than seven years in prison. They were permitted to remain free pending sentencing.
The gray-haired jurists said little at Thursday's hearing, and declined to comment to reporters afterward.
Prosecutors described a scheme in which Conahan, the former president judge of Luzerne County, shut down the county-owned juvenile detention center in 2002 and signed an agreement with PA Child Care LLC to send youth offenders to its new facility outside Wilkes-Barre.
Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths to the detention center while he was taking payments, prosecutors said.
For years, youth advocacy groups complained that Ciavarella was overly harsh and ran roughshod over youngsters' constitutional rights. Ciavarella sent a quarter of his juvenile defendants to detention centers from 2002 to 2006, compared with a statewide rate of one in 10.
Among the offenders were teenagers who were locked up for months for stealing loose change from cars, writing a prank note and possessing drug paraphernalia. Many had never been in trouble before, and some were imprisoned even after probation officers recommended against it. Many of the children didn't have attorneys.
Ciavarella has specifically denied sending kids to jail for cash, and had indicated he would not go through with the guilty plea if the government offered that as evidence.
The judges were charged Jan. 26 and subsequently removed from the bench by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The high court on Wednesday appointed a senior judge to review cases handled by Ciavarella dating back to 2003.
Meanwhile, in Mississippi, a judge known for successfully prosecuting a white supremacist decades after a civil rights-era killing pleaded not guilty Thursday to five federal charges in an unrelated judicial bribery scheme that has snared some of the state's wealthiest attorneys.
Mississippi Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter was influenced with a promise that former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott would help him get appointed to the federal bench, according to an eight-page indictment unsealed Thursday. Lott has not been accused of wrongdoing.
DeLaughter, a judge in Hinds County, which includes Jackson, is charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and obstruction. His arraignment in U.S. District Court in Oxford came just two days after Lott's brother-in-law, noted anti-tobacco attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, pleaded guilty to mail fraud charges.
DeLaughter presided over a bitter dispute among Scruggs and other lawyers over millions of dollars in fees from asbestos litigation.
Scruggs, a chief architect of the multibillion-dollar tobacco settlements of the 1990s, has admitted he was involved in a scheme to entice DeLaughter to rule in his favor by promising he'd be appointed to the federal bench. Lott talked to DeLaughter but ultimately recommended someone else for the job.