Pulitzer Prize winner William Ecenbarger has written on the Kids for Cash scandal. Photo Credit: philly.com
Pulitzer Prize winner William Ecenbarger has written on the Kids for Cash scandal. Photo Credit: philly.com

King’s College hosted an ethics panel called “Ethics in the Valley: After the Judicial Scandals” in the Burke Auditorium on Tuesday, Jan. 22 to examine the political and social implications of what is known as the “Kids for Cash” judicial scandal that rocked Luzerne County in 2008 and brought the county’s corruption to national attention.

Members of the LuzerneCounty and College communities gathered to address residual concerns that arose from the shocking scandal in which two LuzerneCounty judges were convicted of conspiring with local detention facilities to impose harsh sentences on minors in exchange for millions of dollars in kickbacks.

The four-member panel, organized by the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility, was composed of Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Ecenbarger; Terrie Morgan-Besecker, a veteran journalist who, with three other Times Leader journalists, was recognized in 2009 by the Society of Professional Journalists with the first place investigative reporting award for their work on investigating the scandal; Joseph Cosgrove, an attorney, adjunct professor of political science at King’s College and past president of the Luzerne County Bar Association; and Dr. Margaret Hogan, chairperson of the Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Committee of Luzerne County (A.C.E. Commission).

Each member of the panel spoke for about twenty minutes, highlighting their position in the uncovering, handling and treatment of the scandal. Ecenbarger provided an overview of what happened five years ago based on his book “Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.8 Million Kickback Scheme.”

“The most important attribute that a journalist can have is a sense of outrage,” Ecenbarger said. “Nothing quite outraged me like this story.”

The scandal broke in 2008, when it came to light that two high-seated LuzerneCounty judges—then-President Judge Mark Ciavarella and then-Senior Judge Michael Conahan—had been receiving kickback payments from private juvenile detention facilities for populating the facilities through unlawful judicial processes.

Ciavarella was the primary perpetrator, using his power as presiding judge to force the county to house juvenile offenders in private, newly built facilities instead of the county’s current infrastructure. Ciavarella began to regularly sentence juveniles with no lawyers.

“Kids were given two-minute hearings and taken away in shackles,” Ecenbarger said.

Eventually it was uncovered that the owners of the facilities were paying the judges for violating the legal rights of minors. The judges laundered the money through false rental payments for a condo they owned, while some of the payments were handed to them in cash in FedEx boxes.

Morgan-Besecker had been investigating the judges since 2004. While the Times Leader had looked into excessive sentencing of minors before, there was not enough evidence to act upon.

She described a point at which she began questioning her beliefs about Ciavarella. She said that as a manifestation of the law, a judge should be someone who works to uphold the principles of the law and uses it to protect society’s most vulnerable.

“He’s a judge, for God’s sake – he’s supposed to do the right thing,” Morgan-Besecker said. “This controversy really shook my faith in humanity.”

According to Morgan-Besecker, half of the minors who appeared before Ciavarella did so without lawyers. Ciavarella was legally obligated to inform the children and their families about the repercussions of not having legal representation, but he did not.

Hogan, a distinguished ethicist, is now the chairperson of the Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Commission of Luzerne County. The commission has been tasked with creating an ethical code by which all county employees are required to abide. It is composed of five members: the district attorney, county manager, controller and two citizen members from both major political parties.

Hogan said that she has been met with great resistance from several fronts in Luzerne in trying to marry ethics and the law. She said that some of the controversy is based on people in political office being on the ethics commission, while other critics just do not seem willing to own up to unethical behavior.

“The year I have been involved with the ethics commission here in LuzerneCounty has probably been one of the most difficult enterprises in my life,” Hogan said. “I’m not sure that two years of my hard work will bear fruit. Nonetheless I’m willing to give those two years to the county.”

Hogan used most of her time on the stage to explain the ethics code to the audience. It went into effect on May 24, 2012, and applies to all county officials and employees. The code will be used to “guard the guardians” of LuzerneCounty, a problem that Hogan said mankind has wrestled with since the time of Plato.

Cosgrove said he had a more optimistic view of LuzerneCounty’s restructuring after the scandals. When Ciavarella was removed from his seat, Cosgrove filled in as the county’s top judge from 2010-2012.

Cosgrove discussed America’s rocky relationship with judicial figures since its independence, arguing that Americans have been complaining about them since 1776.

He offered the point that “we the people”—as said in the Declaration of Independence—are partly responsible for the relationship between the judiciary and the public. Ciavarella and Conahan were corrupt, he said, but there were many witnesses and figures that did nothing to stop them.

His argument echoed Ecenbarger’s point that there were many prosecutors, court officials, probation officers and educators who witnessed what the disgraced judges were doing but chose to do nothing. Morgan-Besecker recounted speaking to a lawyer who was aware of Ciavarella’s actions but was too afraid of losing his job to do anything about it.

Cosgrove has hope for LuzerneCounty leaving behind its history of corruption. With increased scrutiny from federal agencies and the A.C.E. Commission, he feels that LuzerneCounty can work toward fairness “on a case-by-case basis, which has already begun in earnest.”