It’s the curious question of Robert Mericle: When does forgiveness begin?
As Sunday’s Times Leader pointed out, Mericle has spent two decades sharing his wealth with worthy causes, a habit that did not stop after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges in 2009. Before that plea, one might wonder if there were any ulterior motives behind the frequent donations, but it was hard to argue with the good Mericle did.
Now it looks as though he’s trying to buy a proverbial get-out-of-jail free card: Plead guilty, pour on the good will while the sentencing hearing hangs in limbo, and hope for probation or house arrest rather than time behind bars.
For anyone else caught in the repugnant “kids-for-cash” scandal, that narrative would be largely accepted by default. Former Luzerne County judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, as well as former attorney Robert Powell, were hardly known for philanthropy.
All invested in large homes, business ventures and Florida vacation spots. Powell also had a jet and a yacht. Big bucks for worthy charities? Not so much.
The trio also seems neck deep in a scandal that Mericle, by comparison, barely has his ankles in. It was Powell who co-owned the private, for-profit juvenile detention facilities at the heart of the crime. He admitted stuffing cash into FedEx boxes for delivery to Conahan; he admitted writing checks for rental of a Florida condo owned by the judges’ wives when he didn’t stay there.
It was Conahan and Ciavarella who actively pushed to close Luzerne County’s juvenile detention center. It was Conahan who nailed the coffin in the center by refusing to send kids there, and it was Ciavarella who sent kids to Powell’s private centers, all while the duo collected millions and laundered it to hide their boon.
Mericle almost looks clean by comparison. His company landed the contract to build the private facilities thanks to Ciavarella and Conahan, and he paid a “finder’s fee” for the help, a common practice, however questionable it is to pay such a fee to sitting judges. His confessed crime? He didn’t tell federal investigators about the payments when first asked.
So it’s easy to buy the argument when Monsignor Joseph Kelly, executive director of Catholic Social Services — an agency doing a great deal of worthy work that has benefited from Mericle’s largess — says forgiveness is part of healing and rehabilitation.
“Here’s a man who has admitted he did wrong,” Kelly told us. “We as a community need to accept the fact that he is asking for forgiveness. And don’t we have a responsibility to accept that and forgive?”
Well, yes, but ….
Mericle’s largess has often provided benefits for himself and his business, as his name popped up on buildings and centers in thanks, a boatload of lifetime free advertising. It often put him in favorable light of people who could later throw business his way. Even his vital assistance in emergency repairs to the Susquehanna River levee in Forty Fort in 2011 was not without it’s value, as he showed potential clients the equipment and manpower the Mericle name can bring to any project with speed.
Mericle’s largess went beyond the philanthropic, as he testified during Ciavarella’s trial that he had been giving Christmas gifts to the judge for years, starting with Cabbage Patch dolls and progressing to $5,000 in cash stuck into a vacation magazine.
Mericle’s largess can almost surely never be enough to wipe out the lives destroyed by Ciavarella’s behavior as juvenile court judge, denying testimony by children frequently appearing without legal representation and handing down harsh sentences to first-time offenders through a zealous application of zero tolerance.
No, Mericle was not in the courtroom. But it’s hard to imagine that his decision to throw millions at the judges did not, at the very least, cloud their ethics, and their actions.
“Scripture tells us we should take a look at the demon in our own eye before we look at the splinter in our neighbor’s eye,” Kelly told us. “Mercy and forgiveness go a lot further to let us be who we are called to be.”
He is right.
But Mericle’s case is so complex, and the line between repentance and manipulation so blurred by his astounding wealth, that most area residents can be forgiven for not being sure where or when forgiveness begins.