By Dave Lindorff
When I was a Knight-Bagehot journalism fellow at Columbia University back in the late 1970s, one of the guest speakers on our program’s schedule was then SEC Chief of Enforcement (and former CIA chief counsel and now Federal Judge) Stanley Sporkin. I remember during a dinner we fellows had with him, Sporkin was asked how SEC investigators were able to find financial scams. (That was back when the SEC actually did uncover financial scams, or course.)
Sporkin said that people in the enforcement division of the agency would actually sit around and dream up scams. “Then when they figured one out, they would go out and look for it, and usually they’d find people doing it,” he said.
Now a particularly ugly scam has just been uncovered here in Pennsylvania. Up in Wilkes-Barre, the old coal-mining part of the state up in the northeast, two state senior judges have been charged with sending hundreds of kids to two private juvenile detention centers in return for kickbacks from the two centers—kickbacks that allegedly ran to over $2.6 million.
According to an Associated Press report, “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, Western PA Child Care LLC. The judges were charged on Jan. 26 and removed from the bench by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court shortly afterward."
So far, the two companies and their owners have not been charged with any offense, the report says.
Most of the children who were sent into detention, often for months, had one thing in common: they were poor and they were not represented by lawyers. (Many were placed in detention even against the recommendations of their probation officers.)
The two judges, one the president judge of the district and the other a former president judge, are said to have already signed agreements to plead guilty in return for sentences of not more than seven years, which seems a tad on the light side to me for two judges who so outrageously abused the justice system by sending hundreds of kids into detention for minor infractions, like making a MySpace page to ridicule a school assistant principal, or allegedly stealing coins from a parked car. I’d lock these guys up for life—maybe in a juvenile home where the kids could make them pay.
But aside from this particularly disgusting example of judicial corruption, I’m struck by how easy it was, apparently, for judges to get lured into a financial scheme involving providing bodies for a for-profit penal institution.
The nation, these days, is filled with for-profit prisons, not just for holding kids, but for holding adults. Motels have been bought up by giant firms like Corrections Corporation of America and turned into minimum security prisons.
We live in a society where greed knows no bounds, and where justice is just a word when it comes to poor people without resources.
Based upon what Judge Sporkin says the enforcement people at the SEC discovered—that if you think of a scam, some criminal minds certainly have already thought of it and are doing it--I am willing to bet that if two judges in Pennsylvania could be found to have come up with a scam like this to earn themselves big bucks by putting kids away in private institutions for kickbacks, plenty of other judges are doing the same thing, both with kids and with adult prisoners.
So here’s a pitch: If any defense attorneys, probation officers or other people think that they know of cases where this is happening, I want to hear about it. Send your tips and contact info to:
ThisCan’tBeHappening, POB 846, Ambler, PA 19002
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net