A former judge who orchestrated a massive kickback scheme involving for-profit youth detention centers was sentenced Friday to 17 1/2 years in federal prison, closing a major chapter on a scandal that prosecutors said shook Pennsylvania's judicial system "to its very foundation."
Appearing in a federal courtroom in Scranton, former Luzerne County President Judge Michael Conahan, 59, apologized to the incarcerated youths, the legal community and the public for his role in the notorious "kids for cash" case.
"The system is not corrupt," said Conahan. "I was corrupt."
Conahan, a once-powerful man who regularly met for breakfast with the reputed boss of a northeastern Pennsylvania Mafia family, offered a direct apology to the children who spent time in a pair of youth lockups from which he and another former judge derived millions of dollars.
"My actions undermined your faith in the system and contributed to the difficulty in your lives," said Conahan, who pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy last year. "I am sorry you were victimized."
Federal prosecutors said Conahan and former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. took more than $2 million in bribes from the builder of the PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care detention centers and extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the facilities' co-owner.
Ciavarella took the case to trial and was convicted of some of the charges. He was sentenced last month to 28 years in prison.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned about 4,000 juvenile convictions after Ciavarella and Conahan were charged, saying that Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, routinely trampled on youths' constitutional rights in his eagerness to send them to the for-profit jails.
Unlike Ciavarella, who denied jailing youths for money and defiantly attacked the government's case at his sentencing, Conahan accepted responsibility, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Houser acknowledged Friday. But he said Conahan's crimes required a stiff sentence.
"Mr. Conahan abused his power to enrich himself and his friend, Mark Ciavarella," Houser said. "The justice system in Pennsylvania was shaken to its very foundation."
Ciavarella and Conahan initially pleaded guilty in February 2009 to honest services fraud and tax evasion in a deal that would have required them to spend more than seven years in prison. But their plea deals were rejected later that year by U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik, who ruled they had failed to accept responsibility for their actions.
Conahan's attorney, Philip Gelso, told Kosik on Friday that his client was a changed man from two years ago.
Conahan got counseling from a psychologist who helped him face his repressed "lifelong demons," many of them having to do with his father, a funeral director and former mayor of Hazleton, Pa., who dominated his son and made him feel insecure, incompetent and inadequate, Gelso said.
Gelso recounted an episode in which a teenage Conahan was "beaten mercilessly" when he failed to tend to the funeral home's coal stove.
"These factors excuse nothing, but they explain a great deal," Gelso said.
Conahan, who had faced up to 20 years behind bars, had requested a prison term similar to the seven-plus years Kosik rejected two years ago. Gelso said outside the court that Conahan was "bitterly disappointed" by the 17 1/2-year sentence but that it would not be appealed.
"There's a stark contract between Mark Ciavarella and Mike Conahan. Mark Ciavarella fought this tooth and nail. Mark Ciavarella antagonized all of you, antagonized every child, every juvenile," Gelso told reporters. "But Mike Conahan didn't do that. Mike Conahan realized that people need to heal."
In sentencing Conahan, Kosik spoke of the deep-rooted political culture that produced him, one in which corruption is tacitly accepted. The federal government's four-year investigation of public corruption in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties has snared more than 30 people, including state lawmakers, county officials, school board members and others.
In a letter to Kosik, Conahan's sister recalled their father, dealing with a long-ago ethics investigation, couldn't understand why it was wrong to award a contract to a friend. Kosik said Conahan probably felt the same way about the juvenile-center kickbacks: "That everyone would benefit and no one would get hurt."
Investigators disclosed earlier this year that they were led to the judges by reputed mob boss William D'Elia, who became a government informant after his 2006 arrest on charges of witness tampering and conspiracy to launder drug money. He and Conahan regularly met for breakfast.
Kosik recommended that Conahan be placed in a federal prison camp in Florida so he can be close to his family.