Kids for Cash

Posted on November 10, 2010

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If history has taught us any lessons, those lessons often reflect that history repeats itself.

Let’s take a look at cottage privatization projects of the Judicial Branch, such as the PA Child Care “Kids for Cash” scandal and how this parallels what is happening with California’s custody evaluators, minor counsel, conflict of interests contracts, software projects and construction projects and judicial immunity and quasi-judicial immunity within California’s judicial Branch.

In 2002, Luzerne County Pennsylvania Presiding Judge Michael Conahan utilized his judicial discretion and authority to virtually shut down the county owned Luzerne, County juvenile justice facility by removing judicial branch funding for it and entering into a binding agreement on behalf of the court with attorney Robert Powell and Robert Mericle for them to construct and operate two private juvenile detention facilities.

For 8 million dollars Powell and Mericle would build a facility that the county and courts would then lease back from the private entities for 58 million dollars, while paying kickbacks of $2.8 million dollars back to Judge Mark Ciaverella and Judge Michael Conahan through numerous intermediaries and shell transactions, while generating an additional $4 million dollars to PA Child Care from the State of Pennsylvania in unnecessary placement fees that were paid for children improperly sentenced in the kids for cash scheme.

An investigation into improper sentencing in Luzerne County began early in 2007 as a result of requests for assistance from several youths received by the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. Lawyers from the law center determined that several hundred cases were tried without the defendants receiving proper counsel. In April 2008, the Juvenile Law Center petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeking relief for alleged violation of the youths’ civil rights. The application of relief was later denied, then reconsidered in January 2009 only after federal charges of corruption against the judges surfaced.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service also investigated the two judges while probing practices in Luzerne County after another judge started cooperating with the FBI and detailing the kids for cash scandal in the courts which led to the federal charges.

In 2008 the judges were formally charged by the U.S. Attorneys office. The judges characterized the payments as innocent placement fees earned that they were somehow entitled to.  But eventually they would both agree to plead guilty, yet continue to make public statements denying their roles in the kids for cash scandal. This caused the federal judge Edwin Kosik to bring this to their attention and reject their plea agreements, whereby they withdrew their plea bargains and opted for trial.

As of today, former judge Michael Conahan has pled guilty in a plea agreement with federal prosecutors and has agreed to testify against judge Mark Ciavarella in an upcoming trial. Both men remain free on a million dollars of bail and both men are fighting civil suits against them citing their judicial immunity for official acts. In essence, while thousands of juveniles were wrongfully convicted and denied due process and sentenced to time in these for profit juvenile facilities, these two gentlemen have yet to spend a day behind bars and are claiming judicial immunity for ruining the lives of thousands of children.

We have seemingly made a cottage industry out of custody evaluators in certain locales that have impaired conflicts of interest with the bench, where it is clear that some of these evaluators, if they worked for county entities or the courts, would be making somewhere around a hundred grand a year. Instead, they pull down in excess of a million dollars a year each and make the proper political donations and referral fees to permit this money to wash back through the system. This does not happen in every court – only some of them.

Because of their power over family custody matters, they’re permitted to recommend to the courts an environment that perpetuates both their existence and their billings. They are, for all intents and purposes, special masters over our children’s lives and ultimately, the finances over the parties involved, for if you don’t wish to pay to play in the $475.00 per hour game of custody evaluation, then you will eventually either lose your children or you will lose your assets when they later come collecting on the strife and conflict they often create.  

Just like the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied that there was any problem with the juvenile sentencing in Luzerne County, ruling to bury the complaint of the Philadelphia based Juvenile law center, the AOC and Judicial Council work to bury the dirt within California’s judicial branch, denying there are any issues in Marin and now San Diego County or that there are any issues with their software or construction programs, programs that are high on the list of the most susceptible to fraud, waste, abuse and public corruption . And yet, we indemnify everyone involved. We look the other way because it’s not our job to deal with the issues. We tell ourselves that the responsibility lies elsewhere, yet we provide no mechanisms for redress or solving the issues. Instead, we persecute and sometimes prosecute those who fail to tow the party line and grant judicial immunity or quasi-judicial immunity to wrongdoers or plea wrongdoers out with shake of the naughty finger or file suit against them for pennies when they owe us millions.  

I believe I mentioned that if history has taught us any lessons, it is that history repeats itself.

In San Diego, Dr. Emad Tadros is fighting an up hill battle against custody evaluator Stephen Doyne. It appears by all outward appearances, that many of Dr. Stephen Doyne’s credentials are fraudulent. And yet because he was the influential determinant in the lives of so many children and was not required to obey the same rules of the court that he actually was paid to teach other custody evaluators, he has been able to get by the court system for many years as a respected member of the legal community. Indeed, he drummed up lots of high conflict business, making himself and those who worked with him very wealthy with donations, referral fees and legal fees when he went to collect his pound of flesh from litigants.

Where, exactly is the line where justice starts?

And now, the AOC and Judicial Council itself are under fire for extravagant spending on questionable software projects and sole source, overpriced construction projects. They have agreed to enter into a public private partnership on the Long Beach courthouse under terms that are unclear to all involved. They agree to allow private contractors to manage our facilities under cost-plus contracts that boggle the imagination, paying them both direct management fees for projects they manage and then later allowing them to collect performance based compensation management fees as the cost-plus element. The incentives are clearly not to split the savings derived from such an arrangement but to allow the sole source bidder to bid rig the projects with inflated estimates and then allowing them to bid shop the work after we award them the job as to maximize profits. This occurs because we do not accept the lowest qualified bidder in the Judicial Branch. We have no laws to protect us from unscrupulous contractors. We have no investigative arm or mechanisms to probe this unique kind of fraud that takes specialists to investigate. And yet we turn our backs on courthouses that are projected to cost as much as $1,900.00 per square foot and don’t ask the hard questions of the AOC like why they published these outlandish figures on their website well in advance of getting a single bid, something that has never before happened in the history of government construction projects across the United States. 

Is this the AOC’s guide to fleecing the taxpayer?

It doesn’t matter, it’s someone elses problem we tell ourselves.

If we are to discuss reforms to these systems for the benefit of all Californians then we need to take a good hard look at all of the AOC and Judicial Branch’s privatization efforts and how much all of this privatization is costing us and how we might be able to actually allow the courts or the counties to make a few dollars by providing many of these services ourselves, instead of the farming out of nearly everything and having no standards of accountability.