Alleged racketeer Mark Ciavarella said when developer Robert Mericle offered him a $1 million finder’s fee related to a for-profit juvenile detention center, he looked at him, thanked him and then thought he died and went to heaven.
He actually said, it was like “manna from heaven.”
And what did the grateful judge do? Why, he did what anyone who just hit the lottery would do. He ran through the hall of the Luzerne County Courthouse and offered half his manna to another judge, Michael Conahan, who’s already admitted to racketeering. What a guy, that Ciavarella.
“I wouldn’t be much of a friend,” he testified Tuesday, if he didn’t cut Conahan in on his good fortune since he “was the individual who made it all happen.” He said Conahan got the investors in place and did all the planning for the new juvie center. Is that even a judge’s job?
When he took the stand Tuesday, Ciavarella admitted to tax evasion and lying about the the source of the finder’s fee “because it wouldn’t look good.” He denied that he took a bribe or extorted Robert Powell, the center’s co-owner – because that REALLY wouldn’t look good.
His lawyers said in opening arguments that if the prosecution cannot prove bribery or extortion, its racketeering case against their client collapses.
Ciavarella said he admitted to tax evasion because, “I did it. You got to admit to what you did (especially when the IRS catches you red-handed) and “fight like hell for what you didn’t do.”
One of the things he didn’t do was accept what he swears was a perfectly legal finder’s fee from Mericle and report the income. Instead he chose to “fight like hell” to hide it. Unfortunately, he got caught.
Ciavarella testified that he asked Mericle whether it was legal for him to accept a finder’s fee. Judge Mericle assured him that it was. Then, not long after, the two proceeded to cover up the ”legal” payment.
Questioned by the prosecution, who have charged the former judge with money laundering, extortion, bribery and racketeering, Ciavarella also explained that he advocated for a new juvenile detention center as Mark Ciavarella, not as Judge Mark Ciavarella.
“I was appearing as a judge, but I wasn’t appearing in my official capacity as a judge,” he said of his appearance in a television news report. If that isn’t right out of the Bill Clinton playbook. It depends upon what the meaning of judge is.
At one point, he called the finder’s fee he received a loan, saying that’s why he didn’t pay any taxes on it.
“I may be dumb, but I’m not stupid,” he said. No, he’s just hoping the jury is.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors have attempted to show that Dumb and Dumber concocted an intricate scheme to enrich themselves by closing the county-owned juvenile detention center and steering delinquents to one that Mericle built and Powell co-owned.
It will be the ultimate irony if Mark Ciavarella goes free because of something the lead prosecutor, of all people, said earlier.
We were stupified then and still are that assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Zubrod had said that the $2.1 million that Mericle paid to Ciavarella were two finder’s fees, “not a bribe or a kickback in any sense.” Whose side was this guy on?
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik allowed defense Attorney Al Flora to tell the jury what Zubrod said. It was only fair that he did. If he didn’t, Flora, who’s going to appeal anyway, would have had a lot of ammunition later on. It sure would have fueled Flora’s contention that Kosik is predjudiced against his client.
On Tuesday, Ciavarella also expected the jury to suspend its disbelief when he testified that he didn’t even insist that Powell or Gregory Zappala, the other owner of the juvie center, hire Mericle to build their center. Then didn’t he take that generous finder’s fee under false pretenses? Mericle should immediately demand a refund.
Mericle probably wants those Cabbage Patch dolls back too after what Ciavarella also said on the stand Tuesday in his own defense.
He said that when he, Conahan and Powell brainstormed in parking lots of a Nuangola rest stop, behind the Crestwood High School and in an abandoned development, they expressed concern about getting Mericle to tell the truth. This is simply too much.
“We’re not going to solve it if he continues to lie. If he continues to lie, we’re all dead in the water,” said Mericle’s long-time chum.
Mericle must be kicking himself that he lied to the IRS, federal agents and a grand jury because he didn’t “want to be the one to lay Mark out,” now that Mark had no problem laying Mericle out. Maybe Ciavarella is miffed because Mericle testified that a nervous Ciavarella told him not to lie, just review the records that could send him to jail. Wink, wink!
One of the best lines coming out of Tuesday’s court session was when assistant U.S. Attorney William Houser asked Ciavarella point blank, “You were a juvenile judge sending juveniles to Robert Powell’s detention center.”
“Yes, sir,” Ciavarella replied.
But later, probably realizing that that didn’t sound so great, he noted that he wasn’t the juvenile court judge on that fateful Christmas Eve in 2001 when Conahan and Powell drove to the site of the future juvenile center with visions of millions of dollars dancing in their heads.
One month later, though, he was. Conahan, then president judge, made sure he was.
- Betty Roccograndi