1. January 26, 2009
  2. Reaction to the Charges
  3. The Parents
  4. Ciavarella Speaks Out and the Fallout
  5. The Trial
  6. Victim Reaction
  7. Five Years Later...
  8. The Judges
  9. The Judges (2)
  10. Judges (3)
  11. The Other Victims
  12. The Other Victims (2)
  13. The Reforms
  14. The Reforms (2)
  15. The Reforms (3)
  16. The Documentary
  17. A Victim Looks Back
  18. Contributing Authors

The "Kids for Cash" Scandal

Five Years Later

The "Kids for Cash" Scandal
Five Years Later
January 26, 2009

An announcement about the indictment of two judges and the start of a sequence of corruption arrests that rocked the Luzerne County Courthouse and beyond.

"Today this office has filed a two count information charging president judge Mark Ciavarella and former president Michael Conahan."

The feds accused President Judge Mark Ciavarella and former President Judge Michael Conahan of taking $2.6 million from the operators of a juvenile detention facility near Pittston  to keep it in operation and keep juvenile defendants filling the beds there.

It became known as “Kids for Cash”.

"The behavior filed in the charges today represents a flagrant abuse of the public trust of all citizens in Luzerne County and honest taxpayers everywhere."

We started to hear stories of Ciavarella putting kids behind bars for minor crimes.

Parents were thrilled Ciavarella and Conahan agreed to plead guilty.

"I'd like to see what happens to them like what happened to my son.  I'd like to see them put in shackles and taken away, cuz that's what they did to my son."

Ciavarella Speaks Out and the Fallout

Both originally agreed to spend 7 years in prison, but then Ciavarella talked exclusively with Newswatch 16.

"I loved the juvenile court I loved helping those kids.  I would never do anything to hurt a child, that's just not what I do. That's not me.  I was always there for those kids.  I resent the fact that people think I did something improper.  I didn't do anything improper when it came to the care of those kids."

Days after that interview, a federal judge rejected the guilty pleas of Ciavarella and Conahan, saying their behavior didn't really accept guilt.

Conahan went on to plead guilty again, but Ciavarella went to trial in 2011, deciding to fight the charges against him.

A fight that failed.

The Trial

And it was quite a scene outside federal court the day a jury convicted Ciavarella on charges including racketeering and money laundering . He was met by the mom of a boy he sentenced years before.

"Do you remember me, do you remember my son!? He's gone, he shot himself in the heart." 

As Ciavarella left court a guilty man, he still insisted this was never about “kids for cash”.

"Absolutely never took a dime to send a kid to jail. If that was the case, don't you think the government would have put that case on? Never ever happened."

 A judge sent Michael Conahan to federal prison for 17 1/2 years. Ciavarella got 28 years.

Victim Reaction

As he was hauled away in a van to spend decades in prison, the kids he once sent away spoke out.

"Nothing can take back the time that he took away from me."

"It's sad he still can't admit to it, he's still saying everyone's wrong, like he's not admitting to what he did."

"We apologized to him, he didn't care what he said.  No one cares what he says."

Five Years Later...

It has been 5 years since federal prosecutors dropped a bombshell accusing two Luzerne County judges of taking kickbacks.

It was a scandal that rocked not only our area but the nation.

"I'm Mark's friend and he's somebody who I thought of as very intelligent and gave me very good legal advice and very good personal advice and I guess I just thought the whole thing with the money was so creepy, you know? That bothered me. That he had clearly taken money and tried to hide it and it just seemed so uncharacteristic of him."

Kevin Lynn has known Mark Ciavarella for years.

Lynn says when the news broke in late January of 2009, he was sad, but not shocked.

"I wasn't surprised, I knew that something was happening, I knew that there was something percolating beneath the surface, but of course the day I got the call, I got a call from Mark, which I still have on my phone, and I was just heartbroken of course."

At the White House Diner in Forty Fort, owner Mark Hession spent the day talking with customers about the scandal.

In fact, he says it’s still a topic of conversation here.

"It was a lot of chatter, did they or didn't they? And we know some of the people who were involved, we have people who come in here who were friends and a friend of a friend no matter what, but yeah, you wish things were different."

Al Flora was one of Mark Ciavarella's defense attorneys.

He was involved in negotiations before the charges were ever announced.

Flora says at the time, he had no idea how controversial the case was going to be.

"The day of the plea, that was chaotic, I remember going to the courtroom, the media were all over the place and at that point in time the media were expecting that something was going to happen soon. Ciavarella was fairly calm, I can tell you that. I think he wanted to get the matter behind him."

The people we spoke with all agree on one thing. That day those judges were charged forever changed things here in Luzerne County.

The Other Victims

Linda Ebert and her son William say they saw their family`s dream of running a farm go up in flames.

That dream burned to the ground in 2005 when Linda`s barn near Nuangola was destroyed. The fire so large, it also burned the roof off her house, as well as a Grainery.

And the blaze claimed hundreds of thousands of dollars of farm equipment stored in the barn.

“Over the years we had purchased a combine, a bailer, a corn picker, it was all in new condition because we had housed it.”

Police arrested two juveniles for the arson. They were sent away to a detention center by then Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella and ordered to pay restitution to the Eberts.

“According to me he did everything he was supposed to. He asked them where their lawyer was, child and youth said they didn`t want a lawyer because the children were going to plead guilty and they admitted that they had done it.”

But then after the corruption fall-out sent Ciavarella and then fellow Luzerne County judge Michael Conahan to federal prison, the state Supreme Court vacated Ciavarella`s rulings against more than six thousand juveniles.

That included the two in Linda`s case, who then no longer owed her restitution.

Now those six thousand juveniles are being compensated for being detained.

“Supreme Court says oh we`re going to throw everything out and now the kids get a settlement, I lost a barn, my family lost a barn, we lost something that we loved to do and they`re getting paid to burn down a barn.”

Linda did receive $6,000 in state restitution and got a $10,000 settlement from the juveniles` families. Linda used some of that money to pay legal bills and says the rest doesn't come close to replacing what was lost.“Four hundred thousand for a brand new combine or two hundred thousand for a tractor or bailers or all these other implements.”

Still, Linda and her family have continued to slowly put their dream back together and are attempting to farm their land.

The Reforms

“The culture has changed.”

A year after the arrests of former Luzerne County judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, Judge Thomas Burke was named President Judge of Luzerne County.

“There has been significant improvement all across the board in juvenile justice.”

Judge Burke says Luzerne County juvenile court is far different from what it was in 2003, when Mark Ciavarella began presiding over juvenile court.

Juvenile incarcerations in 2003 by former judge Ciavarella.
Interbranch Commission Statistics: Luzerne County represented less than 3% of the states population. Ciavarella accounted for 22% of total juvenile placements in the state.
In six years, Ciavarella ordered the lockup of an average of 310 children per year.
In the past four years, the average number of juvenile incarcerations dropped to an average of 83 per year.
Under Ciavarella, more than 50% of kids in his court gave up their right to a lawyer because many believed their crimes were too minor to be incarcerated.

That year, Ciavarella ordered 330 juveniles to be incarcerated.

According to a report from the state's Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, Luzerne County represented less than 3% of Pennsylvania`s population. Yet Ciavarella was responsible for 22% of the juvenile placements in the entire state.

In Ciavarella`s six years running juvenile court, he ordered the lockup of an average of 310 kids per year.

In the past four years, that number has dropped to 83 juveniles per year.

“There`s been a lot more attention to training, education, and standards to identify, which individuals would appropriately be sent into placement.”

“It`s unfortunate that we got in this situation.”

In 2012, in the very same courthouse where Conahan and Ciavarella once worked, Governor Corbett signed a bill that guarantees most kids in juvenile court are represented by a lawyer through the entire process.

In the Ciavarella years, more than 50% of kids in his court gave up their right to have a lawyer. Most believed their crimes so minor they'd never be locked up.

Yet hundreds were.

“Had a lawyer been with a child in most of these instances if not all of them, this scandal never would have occurred.”

The US Attorney who supervised the prosecution of Conahan and Ciavarella praised the reforms.

But Peter Smith says there's another reason juvenile justice is now better in Luzerne County.

“Without being too flippant, the main thing that has happened, is that the two responsible individuals have been removed from the system and won`t be back.”

Judge Burke says there is no one change that stands out, but instead a group of measures that holds accountable everyone connected to the juvenile justice system.

“With all the reforms would it be possible for corruption to rear its ugly head again in the court system?  I would say it’s highly unlikely.”

“The danger in any situation where there`s a lot of progress is not let complacency set in.”

The Documentary

One of the biggest scandals to ever rock Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania is now the subject of a documentary film and the movie “Kids for Cash” made its world premiere in November of 2014 in New York City.

People were lined up outside the theater in Manhattan for the sold out debut, which came as part of New York’s documentary film festival.

The film looks at the scandal that landed former Luzerne County judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella behind bars.

It was a 4-year project by film-maker, Robert May, who lives in Luzerne County.

“But there are voices from two sides in this story. We tell a very unbiased portrayal as you will see. Because we tell the story from both the villain’s and the victims’ point of view, juxtapose the two stories and then you decide,” said May.

On February 6, 2014, more than 500 people gathered for the local premiere of “Kids for Cash” at Movies 14 in Wilkes-Barre just about a half mile from the courthouse where the scandal unfolded.

Many of the people who went to see the film were somehow touched by the real-life “Kids for Cash” scandal. Journalists, attorneys, advocates, parents and even some of the kids themselves showed up, their sometimes heartbreaking stories immortalized on the silver screen.

“You trust the system that justice is going to occur in that room, and your child disappears in handcuffs and gone from your life with no explanation,” said Laurene Transue, a parent.

Filmmaker Robert May, who lives in Luzerne County, has won awards for some of his previous documentary work. However, “Kids for Cash” is the first time he produced a movie about a drama that unfolded in his own hometown.

“It’s an exciting time, but I think it’s an exciting time for a new chapter for Luzerne County, that’s how I really feel about it,” said May.

May’s movie shows the scandal from its very beginning.

He talks with some of the kids who were thrown into detention.

We hear from their parents who were at first disillusioned, then outraged by the treatment they received in juvenile court.

The strongest segments are the interviews with the judges themselves.

May spoke with a reserved Michael Conahan at the now infamous Florida condominium that was at the center of the feds case against them.

Mark Ciavarella speaks freely, defiant until the end that he never jailed a kid for cash.

May even interviewed Ciavarella on the morning before he was sentenced to prison. The ex-judge broke down in tears at one point, worried that his grandchildren would consider him to be a “scumbucket.”

Folks at the premiere were obviously moved by its powerful story.

“It’s absolutely powerful, and it has the power to create the change we need here and around the country,” said Sandy Fonzo, a parent.

Reporter: “You got to hear from Mark Ciavarella in the movie, what do you think of him now?” Amanda Lorah, who is featured in the film: “Nothing different, I don’t like him. I don’t think I’ll ever like him. I don’t think he’s sorry, and as far as him saying he didn’t do anything wrong, we all know he did.”

A Victim Looks Back

It’s been several years since Hillary Transue spent three weeks in a juvenile detention camp, but the memories are still fresh.

“Even for three weeks, I’ll never forget those three weeks for the rest of my life,” Transue said.

Transue was sent to the camp by Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella.   She had made a Myspace page making fun of her assistant principal at Crestwood High School, a crime she didn’t think of as much of a crime.

“We had to all sit around and write a short essay on why we deserved to be in jail, and so I wrote an essay on why I felt I didn’t deserve to be in jail.”

Transue says when she wrote that essay she was reprimanded

She was just 14 years old at the time. But Transue didn’t have a lawyer in court and she quickly realized many of the kids at juvenile camp hadn’t had attorneys either.

That’s when Transue and her mother took the issue to the Juvenile Law Center.

Eventually the records of Transue and thousands of other juveniles were cleared.

Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan are now serving lengthy sentences in federal prison.

“There’s been some vindication, and at times, I feel closure, but I think then a press release comes out or a movie premieres and I have to relive it again,” Transue said.

After leaving the camp,  Transue says she went through a rough period but now feels she’s overcome what happened and is working on master’s degree in creative writing at Wilkes University.

She says the attention she’s gotten from the Kids For Cash documentary has been bittersweet.

Now she says she just wants to focus on being normal.

“I was only there for three weeks. Kids were put into the system for years and years, and they may never get over it. I’ll never forget it but I’ve moved on.”


"Kids for Cash Recap": Jon Meyer
"The Judges": Sarah Buynovsky
"The Other Victims": Peggy Lee
"The Reforms": Dave Bohman
"The Documentary": Scott Schaffer
"A Victim Looks Back": Lara Greenberg
"Kids for Cash: Five Years Later" Design: Shawn Dunn