The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

April 25, 2014

Builder in youth jail scandal gets a year in prison

Susquehanna Valley — SCRANTON — A builder of for-profit youth detention centers was sentenced today to a year in prison for his role in a notorious juvenile justice scandal in which thousands of young offenders were sent to his facilities by a judge who took money from him.

The builder, Robert Mericle, was also fined $250,000 and ordered to serve 100 hours of community service by a federal judge who increased the sentence recommended by prosecutors, citing the severity of the crime and Mericle’s lies to investigators about what he knew of the judges’ scheme.

Mericle, the last major figure in the so-called “kids for cash” scandal to be sentenced, apologized to the court.

“I’m ashamed to be here. But I put myself here,” he said.

Prosecutors said two judges in northeastern Pennsylvania accepted $2.1 million in illegal payments from Mericle. Former Luzerne County Judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella Jr. plotted to shut down the dilapidated county-run juvenile detention center in 2002 and arrange for the construction of the PA Child Care facility outside Wilkes-Barre and a second lockup in western Pennsylvania.

Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent young people to the for-profit detention centers — often for minor offenses — while he was taking payments from Mericle, a prominent builder and close friend of Ciavarella, and from the facilities’ co-owner, Robert Powell.

Both judges are serving lengthy prison sentences, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out some 4,000 juvenile convictions after the scheme was uncovered.

Sandy Fonzo, whose son committed suicide in 2010 at the age of 23 after bouncing in and out of Ciavarella’s courtroom, said she was pleased with the sentence.

“He’s going to feel what it’s like to lose his family and sleep in a cell like the one he built for our children,” she said.

Mericle had pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony.

Prosecutors had recommended six months, lower than the guideline range of eight to 14 months.

Trying to keep Mericle out of prison, defense lawyers urged U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik to consider their client’s extensive cooperation with the government, his charitable works and the potential damage that a prison sentence would do to his business, one of the largest commercial construction firms in northeastern Pennsylvania.

But Kosik said Mericle deserved a stiffer sentence.

While acknowledging that Mericle had taken full responsibility, “his false information to the government is nothing but corruption,” Kosik said.

Mericle did not break the law by paying the judges, but the judges committed a crime by taking the money, and Kosik said the developer had contributed to a widespread culture of corruption in Luzerne County.

Mericle closed his eyes after the sentence was handed down but otherwise showed no emotion and made no comment as he left court.

His attorney said no decision had been made on whether to appeal the sentence.

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