IN HIS NEWLY released Kids for Cash book, author William Ecenbarger holds a mirror up to Northeastern Pennsylvania and allows its residents to get a good look at themselves – or, at least, a broadly painted characterization of their motivations and behaviors.
It's ugly. Culm bank ugly.
And it's generally on target.
The 260-page account of Luzerne County's 2009 judicial corruption scandal, and the sordid events leading up to it, suggests a pervasive cowardice among the general population and a juvenile court inhabited by a go-along-to-get-along confederacy of dunces.
Ecenbarger, a Hershey-based writer and former newsman, recounts the outlandish treatment that young people received in the courtroom of county Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. The condescension. The unconstitutional and hurried hearings. The shackles. And the multimillion-dollar kickback scheme involving a privately owned juvenile detention center that ultimately led to the conviction of Ciavarella and guilty pleas from Judge Michael T. Conahan and two other men.
Readers who followed the case in The Times Leader or other news outlets probably won't detect anything new in Ecenbarger's book (The New Press, $26.95). No jailhouse interviews here. No wives spilling secrets. His compilation, however, offers another much-needed opportunity within this community to explore and discuss what went wrong, why and what still needs to be fixed.
Consider, for instance, these passages on Luzerne County culture:
• There were many ingredients in the Luzerne County judicial scandal – official evil, greed, opportunity, public indifference, secrecy, and place: Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, has a history of corruption, nepotism, and mob-related violence dating back decades … (Page 15).
• There is a very high tolerance for crooked politicians. (Page 22).
• Indictments were dropping like cinder blocks, and there was talk of a ‘culture of corruption.' County officials, school administrators, school board members, and government contractors resigned and pleaded guilty, hoping for leniency. Yet there was a ho-hum attitude on the part of much of the public. This was Northeastern Pennsylvania, after all, and this was how things were done. Politicians helped each other out, gave each other jobs, gave their relatives jobs, and then stayed quiet. (Page 164-165).
These troubles, and other matters raised because of the federal crackdown on corruption here, shouldn't be relegated only months later to formal reports and nonfiction books. As a community, we can't make progress if we shove our faults onto a shelf and fail to address them.
We still have much work to do.