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Ex-owner of Pa. youth lockups gets 18 months

By Michael Rubinkam
Associated Press / November 4, 2011

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SCRANTON, Pa.—The former owner of two for-profit juvenile detention facilities was sentenced Friday to 18 months in prison for his role in a kickback scheme that led the state Supreme Court to vacate the convictions of thousands of juveniles who appeared before a now-jailed Pennsylvania judge.

Robert Powell pleaded guilty in 2009 to concealing a felony and an accessory charge in the so-called "kids for cash" scandal.

Powell, 52, testified earlier this year that he was forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to former Luzerne County Judges Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan in return for their support of his two private juvenile detention centers. He said the judges extorted more than $725,000 from him after they shut down the dilapidated county-run detention center and instead sent juveniles to his new lockup outside the city of Wilkes-Barre and to a sister facility in western Pennsylvania.

Powell, whose detention centers raked in millions of dollars as a result of its contract with Luzerne County, did not address the court Friday. In a Nov. 1 letter to U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik, he apologized for his conduct and said he should have reported the judges immediately instead of taking part in their scheme.

"Even though they were in positions of power and influence, I had the ultimate ability to do the right thing and say no. I was wrong for giving in and paying them and will forever bear the burden of having done so," he wrote.

Sentencing guidelines called for a punishment of 27 to 33 months in prison, but Powell was given credit for cooperating with the government.

The high-powered businessman and attorney wore a wire and recorded incriminating conversations with Conahan and Ciavarella, leading Conahan to plead guilty. Powell offered crucial testimony in Ciavarella's February trial and wore a wire against a third judge in an unrelated case. Ciavarella and Conahan are serving lengthy prison sentences.

"Mr. Powell's cooperation was vital to the success of this investigation and the prosecutions that resulted from it," U.S. Attorney Peter Smith said outside court Friday. "Without Mr. Powell's vital cooperation, it might have been a much more difficult, much longer, if not impossible process."

Prosecutors sought a sentence of 12 to 18 months. Powell's attorney, Joseph D'Andrea, said his client deserved an even more lenient sentence -- probation, or at the most 12 months -- because of the "extraordinary assistance" he gave in helping prosecutors make their case.

"Bob found himself being muscled and pressured by two very corrupt and evil men who sat as judges in Luzerne County," D'Andrea told Kosik.

The judge, while recognizing Powell's cooperation, said he had benefited financially from his participation in the "cabal" that ran Luzerne County.

"He could have told the judges to go to hell," Kosik said.

Luzerne County paid Powell's company more than $30 million between 2003 and 2007 to house juveniles at PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care. The county could have built its own juvenile center for about $9 million, according to testimony.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed thousands of Ciavarella's juvenile convictions, saying he ran his courtroom with "complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles," including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea. Prosecutors said Friday there is no evidence that Powell knew about Ciavarella's courtroom conduct or his shoddy treatment of the children who appeared before him.

Powell, who surrendered his law license, said in his letter to Kosik that he lost his house and his ability to earn a living and brought shame on his family.

"I would not wish this on any human being. I have been punished in ways no one could imagine or conceive. I have been financially and professionally ruined," he wrote.

Powell, who has moved with his family to Florida, declined to comment as he left the courthouse Friday. He is required to report to the Federal Bureau of Prisons by Nov. 30.

The builder of the detention centers, Robert Mericle, awaits sentencing for his role in the scandal.

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