Builder settles Pa. 'kids for cash' suit for $17M

AP News
Posted: Dec 16, 2011 7:24 PM
Builder settles Pa. 'kids for cash' suit for $17M

A developer at the center of one of the biggest judicial scandals in U.S. history has agreed to pay more than $17 million to settle a civil lawsuit filed by juveniles who were locked up in youth detention facilities built by his company.

The settlement with Robert K. Mericle and Mericle Construction Inc., based in Wilkes-Barre, in northeast Pennsylvania, was announced Friday by lawyers for the juveniles and their parents.

Federal prosecutors said a pair of judges took illegal payments from Mericle, whom the judges had tapped to build for-profit juvenile detention centers. Mericle pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony and awaits sentencing.

The plaintiffs' federal lawsuit also names former Luzerne County Judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella Jr., the detention centers and others. Those defendants have not settled.

The state Supreme Court overturned thousands of juvenile convictions in the wake of the so-called "kids for cash" scandal, saying Ciavarella routinely trampled on youths' constitutional rights.

Ciavarella maintained his innocence, denying he jailed youths for money, but was convicted at trial. Conahan acknowledged he was "corrupt" and pleaded guilty to racketeering charges. They're both serving long prison sentences.

The settlement, which awaits court approval, affects as many as 2,400 youths who appeared in Ciavarella's courtroom and who were sent to PA Child Care or its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.

Under the agreement, Mericle will pay $17.75 million into a settlement fund, according to a news release. The plaintiffs could get another $1.75 million if Mericle is successful in a lawsuit he filed against his insurance company.

Mericle's attorney, Eric Kraeutler, said in a statement released jointly with plaintiffs' lawyers that he is pleased to bring the suit to a conclusion. Kraeutler declined to comment further Friday.

One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Marsha Levick, of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, said in the statement: "Mr. Mericle and Mericle Construction approached the settlement process in an open and honest way, and we are pleased that this settlement will address the needs of the children affected by this matter."