After the recent series of articles and editorials regarding Robert Mericle and the federal corruption cases that nabbed him, former attorney Robert Powell and former county judges Mark Ciavarella and Mike Conahan, I got a call from a reader with a beef.
It really bugs him, he said, that in all the talk of the “kids-for-cash” scandal involving the four men and the private, for-profit juvenile detention center known as PA Child Care, no one mentions the infamous, $58 million lease; as in, the 2004 decision by former county commissioners Greg Skrepenak and Todd Vonderheid to ink a 20 year, $58 million lease with PA Child Care.
“I think if you don’t have the lease, you don’t have the kids-for-cash scandal,” the caller said.
Well, you can’t really prove a negative, but the theory tantalizes.
PA Child Care opened in 2003, built by Mericle and co-owned by Powell and Gregory Zappala. Skrep and Todd agreed to the lease in 2004, guaranteeing long-term profitability. That profitability, in turn, made it possible for Powell to pay hundreds of thousands to Ciavarella and Conahan in checks for rental of a Florida condo and marina slip for his yacht, payments Powell insisted in court testimony were really just kickbacks in disguise.
If you want to push the theory deeper, consider a fuller time line:
July 2001, Powell and Zappala send Luzerne County a proposal to build a juvie center and lease it to the county for $37 million over 30 years.
September 2001, Powell and Zappala proceed with plans for the facility even though commissioners said they would continue using the county-owned facility.
October 2002, Conahan, then president judge, announces county judges will stop sending kids to the county facility because it is too rundown. The state inspects the facility a month later and says it’s good to go. Ciavarella criticizes the state’s claim.
December 2002, county commissioner majority members approve the court’s budget, which defunds the county juvie center completely. The court returns the center’s license to the state. Shazzam! It’s closed.
February 2003, PA Child Care opens, County commissioners agree to send kids there until a new county facility is built. A month later, Powell and Zappala offer to sell the PA Child Care building to the county for $14 million tops, but commissioners say it’s only worth $7 million and change.
February 2004, county court denies the county’s request to build a new juvie center on county-owned land.
October 2004, Skrep and Todd, new majority commissioners since January, announce plans to lease PA Child Care. A state welfare auditor advises them an audit is being conducted on the facility and speeds up the audit. In November, Skrep and Todd approve the lease anyway.
The sequence after that would look like a Keystone Korruption farce, if it weren’t all true. Firebrand County Controller Steve Flood got hold of a copy of the preliminary audit and leaked it to The Times Leader just as Conahan was approving a request by Powell and Zappala to seal the whole thing in court to protect “trade secrets.” The audit damned the lease as a “bad deal,” the state cut reimbursement payments for kids sent there, and the county got out of it in June 2008. Soon after, feds started rounding up Conahan, Ciavarella, Powell and Skrep on corruption charges.
The theory falls apart with Skrep’s crime, though. He pleaded guilty to accepting a $5,000 reduction in closing costs on his home for helping a contractor get a tax break through a tax forgiveness program.
But there’s a coda. In 2011, attorneys representing juveniles in a lawsuit over alleged illegal incarceration filed legal arguments against dismissing Skrep from their case. They cited circumstantial evidence they said showed Skrep was involved in the whole scheme, including a quote from Conahan to Powell when Powell was wearing a wire.
Conahan talked about a golf outing he had with Mericle. At one point, Conahan claims Mericle turned to him “and goes, well, tell him (Powell) he has me (Mericle) to thank for that lease.”
It’s a tenuous connection between Mericle’s payments to the judges and the county’s lease of the center, an ambiguously worded alleged conversation recounted by a crook to a snitch.
But add it to the large pile of fortuitous events and timing surrounding PA Child Care, and it’s easy to see why someone would consider the the infamous lease the true linchpin in the kids for cash scandal.
Mark Guydish is a reporter for The Times Leader. He can reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.