Tuesday, December 1, 2009

First ‘cash-for-kids,’ now ‘cash-for-jobs’

First ‘cash-for-kids,’ now ‘cash-for-jobs’

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As if the “cash-for-kids” scandal that has two former Luzerne County judges under indictment on racketeering charges wasn’t enough, now reports of another pay-back scheme are surfacing—this one elsewhere in northeastern Pennsylvania’s coal region, where prospective teachers were forced to shell out up to $5,000 to secure a job.

So far six school board members in the Wilkes-Barre Area School District and the Hanover Area School District have either pleaded guilty or are under indictment on charges that they accepted bribes for hiring teachers and other employees in their districts. In an economy where jobs are hard to come by, this apparently longstanding practice meant that prospective teachers had to either pay board members or look elsewhere for work.

Thomas Baldino, a political science teacher at Wilkes-Barre University for 20 years, and Robert Wolensky, a Luzerne County native who now teaches sociology at the University of Wisconsin, linked this patronage system to the coal companies that once dominated this region. (Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 16)

“The Depression started here early, when the coal companies started laying off the miners in the 1920s,” Wolensky said. “People became desperate for jobs, and the only jobs were with the local governments.”

Patronage, where local politicians hand out jobs to relatives and friends, is a widespread practice. In this case, Baldino said, “Patronage moved into pocket-lining.”

“This is an outgrowth of the fact that every coal company had to have its own town so it could control laws and taxes,” Wolensky said. “These towns survive today, and each is a little fiefdom. ... Many public jobs are expected to be given only after a bribe. If you don’t put the thousand dollars in the envelope, someone else will because they are as desperate as you.”

Meanwhile, former judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conohan face 48 federal racketeering and related charges after receiving $2.8 million from a developer of two privately run juvenile detention facilities in Luzerne County. The two allegedly accepted these kickbacks in exchange for conducting perfunctory hearings that sent thousands of teenagers to these facilities for minor offenses.

On Oct. 29, a Pennsyvania Supreme Court ruling tossed out 6,500 juvenile-court cases tainted by this scheme, after finding that the rights of these young people, including access to lawyers, were systematically trampled. A state commission was also established to investigate what the panel labeled “a conspiracy of silence” among lawyers, court employees and school officials that enabled the judges.

In February 2009 the judges were given 87-month prison sentences after they agreed to plead guilty to honest-services fraud and tax evasion in a deal with prosecutors. However, in October a federal judge rejected the agreement on grounds that the former judges were not fully accepting responsibility for their crimes.

The jurists then switched their pleas to not guilty. They were later indicted. They now await trial on racketeering charges.

Whether they will ever be brought to full justice remains to be seen. On Nov. 20 U.S. District Court Judge A. Richard Caputo ruled that Ciavarella was immune from civil lawsuits in the alleged kickback scheme because much of his conduct occurred inside a courtroom. Currently more than 400 plaintiffs are named in a class-action case seeking monetary damages.

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