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389. Gangster law

Everyone knows it was pretty bad in Luzerne County (Scranton Wilkes-Barre) when the top-heavy courthouse was presided over by Judges Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan, who last February pled guilty to selling children to a private detention facility, but recently were permitted to withdraw their guilty pleas.

In case you missed it,

Prosecutors allege the two judges participated in a scheme in which Conahan, the northeastern Pennsylvania county's former president judge, shut down the county-owned juvenile detention center in 2002 and signed an agreement with PA Child Care L.L.C. to send youth offenders to its new facility near Wilkes-Barre.

Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, sent youths to the detention center and to a sister facility in Western Pennsylvania while he was taking payments, according to prosecutors.

The scandal led the state Supreme Court to overturn hundreds of convictions on grounds that Ciavarella violated the constitutional rights of youths who appeared in his courtroom without lawyers for hearings that lasted just a few minutes. More convictions are under review.

Former PA Child Care owner Robert Powell, a lawyer, pleaded guilty July 1 to paying kickbacks to the judges. Prominent construction company owner Robert K. Mericle, who built the detention centers, pleaded guilty earlier this month to a charge of withholding information of a crime related to the millions of dollars in payments.

But while everyone knows it was pretty bad in northeastern Pennsylvania, it was actually a good deal worse than that.  At a bench conference way back in 1991, Conahan was identified by a federal prosecutor as an "unindicted co-conspirator" - shades of Watergate! - in the prosecution of a man named Ronald Belletiere

According to a transcript of the testimony from April 9, 1991, Hazleton businessman Neal DeAngelo, called as a government witness, had just said he had been tipped by Conahan, “telling me that he had heard my brother’s name mentioned down in city hall there in reference to some drug activity that was going on and he just wanted to advise me of the name being mentioned.”...

Federal authorities had been investigating Conahan for, among other things, his role in arranging a drug deal through Belletiere and the DeAngelos, Mannion acknowledged. Up until that point, the investigation had been secret and Conahan’s case was separate from Belletiere’s, Mannion added.

“I’m sorry, I can tell you frankly that Michael Conahan is an unindicted co-conspirator in this case, and the testimony that this witness will elicit will show that Conahan had involvement in this conspiracy,” Mannion informed Kosik and Sands.

Although he figured prominently in the testimony, Conahan was neither called to the witness stand nor ever charged as a result of the investigation.

The bench conference wasn't publicized, but according to the Wlkes-Barre Times-Leader, the transcript of a subsequent proceeding contained this elaboration:

Neal DeAngelo asked Conahan whether someone was a good source for cocaine. Conahan replied that person was not and said he would provide a “good source” who turned out to be former Hazleton resident Belletiere, Neal DeAngelo testified.

Fast-forward to the new century.  According to the Times-Leader,

Former judge Michael Conahan has not tried to distance himself from convicted felon Ronald Belletiere.

If anything, their bonds seem to have strengthened in the nearly two decades since testimony in federal court linked Conahan to a drug deal in Miami between Belletiere and a trio of Hazleton men.

Belletiere, formerly of Hazleton, received a 55-month prison sentence for his conviction on drug charges in 1991. He received a substantial reduction for his cooperation in two cases, one of them being the investigation of Conahan whom federal investigators labeled an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the drug deal.

Belletiere got a substantial reduction for cooperating in the investigation of his friend Conahan, who wasn't prosecuted because the evidence against him was too thin.  Hmmm.  Almost as if the two buddies had the feds on a line.

As recently as last March, Conahan and Belletiere appeared to be involved in the Jupiter Yacht Club condominium in Florida owned by the Mountain Top company managed by the wives of the former judges. ...

Resident registration forms filed in 2004 with the Jupiter Yacht Club listed “Ron Belletieri” as a permanent guest of both the Conahans and Ciavarellas.

Belletiere wasn't the judges' only underworld connection.  According to the Wilkes-Barre Citizen's Voice (they love their doubled names in Wilkes-Barre), reporting last July:

Reputed mobster William "Big Billy" D'Elia and former Luzerne County president judge Michael T. Conahan were longtime friends who partied together, used courthouse employees as personal couriers and met frequently to talk court cases over ham and cheese omelets at a family restaurant, witnesses testified Wednesday at a hearing over allegations that D'Elia and Conahan conspired to fix a $3.5 million defamation verdict against The Citizens' Voice.

Describing the same hearing, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported:

reputed Bufalino crime boss Billy D'Elia frequently met with Conahan over eggs at a local restaurant to talk about cases, walked unfettered into the courthouse through a private prisoners' entrance, and had a security guard deliver more than 10 large envelopes to Conahan since 2003.

Wikipedia informs us that the Bufalino family is one of the 26 units of the official Cosa Nostra.  (Accept no substitutes!)  Big Billy himself rates his own page, complete with mug shot.  The Allentown Morning Call has more about the family, and Truth, Justice & Peace gives some of the more twisted bits of the backstoryMafia Today lets you track down some details.

The d'Elia angle casts an interesting light on that $3.5 million libel verdict against the Citizen's Voice.  A man named Robert J. Kulick, whom we'll meet again in a couple days,

testified D'Elia claimed to have been assured by Conahan of a "positive outcome" for the plaintiff in the defamation case, Mountain Top businessman Thomas A. Joseph. Joseph, a friend of D'Elia's, claimed he was defamed by the newspaper's coverage of 2001 raids at his home and business and D'Elia's home.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court designated a judge from a less-dirty part of the state to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine if the paper was entitled to a new trial.  The judge said it was.

In short, not only did Conahan and Ciavarella act like gangster capos inside their courtrooms, but they actually were gangsters, even if something other than capos.  Extremely useful tools, perhaps.

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