Paper: $3.5M defamation award fixed by Pa. judge

Newspaper says $3.5 million defamation award fixed by corrupt Pa. judge, wants it overturned

MICHAEL RUBINKAM
AP News

Feb 19, 2009 17:12 EST

A newspaper said Thursday that a $3.5 million defamation award against it was fixed by a corrupt judge with connections to a reputed mobster at the heart of the case.

The extraordinary claim was made by the parent company of The Citizens' Voice in court papers asking the state Supreme Court to overturn the 2006 award by Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella, who recently was convicted in a kickbacks scheme.

The Supreme Court should "vacate a judgment that very likely was a product of a corrupt judicial system," the paper said in a legal filing that signaled the widening fallout from one of the worst judicial corruption scandals in recent U.S. history.

Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges last week after prosecutors said they took $2.6 million in kickbacks to send juveniles to privately owned youth lockups, possibly tainting thousands of convictions. The judges each face more than seven years in prison.

The state Supreme Court has assigned a judge from Berks County, about 85 miles south of Luzerne County, to review Ciavarella's juvenile cases dating back five years.

On Wednesday, a man challenged his 2008 sentence on a federal drug charge because it was partially based on the fact that he had a juvenile conviction years earlier handled by Ciavarella.

In The Citizens' Voice defamation case, Ciavarella awarded damages to a businessman in a lawsuit against the Wilkes-Barre newspaper. The paper had linked the businessman to William D'Elia, the reputed boss of the Bufalino crime family of northeastern Pennsylvania, who was sentenced to prison last year for witness tampering and conspiracy to launder drug money.

Ciavarella awarded $2 million to the businessman, Thomas Joseph, and $1.5 million to one of his companies, Acumark Inc., a direct-mail marketing firm. The state Superior Court upheld the judgment on appeal, ruling that 10 newspaper articles, some of which cited anonymous sources, were inaccurate and "resulted in a falsehood" against Joseph and Acumark.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the daily tabloid said the Superior Court was unaware of the judges' corruption when it upheld the defamation award.

In court documents filed Thursday, the newspaper said it had uncovered evidence that "strongly" suggests the $3.5 million nonjury verdict was "fixed" by Ciavarella and Conahan.

The paper said it had identified a potential witness who "would testify concerning direct connections between D'Elia and Judge Conahan and/or Judge Ciavarella." It didn't reveal the identity of the witness or disclose what the evidence was.

The paper said the judges and Luzerne County's court administrator, who pleaded guilty to embezzlement this week in another corruption case, manipulated policies regarding assignment of court cases to ensure Ciavarella heard the defamation suit.

George Kroner, an attorney for the businessman who won the judgment, criticized the paper's petition as "completely without merit," saying the defamation case had "absolutely nothing" to do with the kickbacks scandal.

An attorney for Ciavarella declined to comment Thursday. Conahan's lawyer did not immediately return a phone message.

Adam Graycar, who leads the Rutgers Institute on Corruption Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said he wasn't surprised the judges' decisions in other cases were coming under attack.

"What this demonstrates so strongly is that judges must have enormous integrity, because otherwise, you can't start to separate it out," he said.

But University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said defendants who appeared before Ciavarella or Conahan must show misconduct in their cases to stand any chance of getting verdicts or judgments overturned.

"You can't just say, 'These are bad judges, therefore everything they did was bad,'" he said.

Source: AP News