Disgraced ‘Kids for Cash’ attorney Robert Powell facing civil suit in federal court

By Jon O’Connell joconnell@civitasmedia.com

July 20, 2014

Former colleagues of the disgraced attorney Robert J. Powell are suing him for allegedly swindling them out of millions of dollars and trashing their reputations.

In a lawsuit filed Friday in federal court, six plaintiffs — Western PA Child Care, PA Child Care, Mid-Atlantic Youth Services, Gladstone Partners and Gregory R. Zappala — allege Powell, his wife and some of their associates took advantage of them in the scandal that has become known as “Kids for Cash.”

According to the complaint, the plaintiffs say Powell “thoroughly corrupted the administration of civil justice,” while building and reigning over his “criminal enterprises.”

The suit seeks restoration of money lost, plus interest, in addition to court fees and any further judgment the court deems appropriate, the complaint says.

The case is to be tried before U.S. Judge Joy Flowers Conti of Pennsylvania’s Western District.

In the 75-page complaint, the plaintiffs say Powell was at the helm of a scheme to hide millions in dirty money that was passed through the detention centers and Zappala’s own accounts masked as “loans” and “finder’s fees.”

The civil suit springboards off the judicial corruption scandal in which former Luzerne County judges Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan were accused by prosecutors of receiving millions from Powell, co-owner of the facilities, and Robert Mericle, builder of the facilities, in exchange for sending Luzerne County juveniles deemed delinquent to the private juvenile detention centers in Pittston Township and Butler County.

In February 2011 Ciavarella was convicted after trial on 12 of 27 counts against him.

Ciavarella is serving a 28-year prison sentence for accepting kickbacks and failing to report “finder’s fees” in connection with the development of the facilities. Ciavarella continues to reject the “kids-for-cash” label, insisting there was no link between cash he received and his decision as juvenile court judge to send children to those facilities.

Conahan pleaded guilty in July 2010 to a racketeering charge and is serving a 17½-year prison sentence.

Mericle pleaded guilty in September 2009 to a charge of withholding information. His sentence was long delayed due to his cooperation in other cases, including that of former state Sen. Raphael Musto, who died of cancer on April 24. The following day, Mericle was sentenced to a one-year federal prison sentence.

Powell pleaded guilty in July 2009 to failing to report a crime related to payments made to the judges. He cooperated with federal authorities and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, completing his sentence last April.

As part of his plea agreement, Powell’s law license has been suspended, and he no longer has interest in the juvenile detention centers.