Just Judge Seeks Reinstatement After ‘Kids for Cash’ Corruption
By ERIN MCAULEY
SCRANTON, Pa. (CN) – A former state judge claims in court that two judicial colleagues – who are in prison – conspired with other officials to get her removed from the bench because she was an FBI informant in the “Kids for Cash” courthouse corruption sandal.
In her federal complaint, Ann H. Lokuta claims she was defamed and fired for standing up to former President Judges of the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella, both of whom are in federal prison for taking $2.6 million in kickbacks to send children to profit-making child detention centers.
Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years for racketeering, fraud and conspiracy, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Conahan was sentenced to 171 years. Two businessmen involved with the detention center also were sentenced to prison.
Lokuta sued the two disgraced judges and five other people, claiming their conspiracy made her the “first judge ever removed from the office for something other than criminal misconduct.”
Lokuta was elected as a Luzerne County Judge in 1991, and re-elected for a 10-year term in 2001.
She says in the complaint that while she was on the bench she was “subject to relentless intimidation and retaliation by the President Judges, particularly Conahan, as they controlled the Luzerne County Courthouse as their private domain and crushed anyone who failed to follow their directives.”
Citing a May 27, 2010 report from the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, which was created to investigate the breakdown of the Luzerne County judicial system, Lokuta claims: “‘Conahan wielded tremendous power. He was described by some as ‘the boss’ and he acted like one. He ran the courthouse like a personal sovereignty, placing friends and relatives on the payroll, sealing records at will and personally assigning cases. Conahan was known for a gentlemanly demeanor, but he was a power-broker, and he was feared.'”
Lokuta says: “The public record attests to ‘a climate of fear and intimidation, reprisal and retribution in the Luzerne County Courthouse during the time when… Conahan and … Ciavarella were the president judges.'” (Ellipses in complaint. Citation not specified, but the quotation apparently refers to the Interbranch Commission report.)
Lokuta claims that before the corruption was exposed, she “attempted to develop a record showing Conahan’s and Ciavarella’s illicit influence and control over operations at the Luzerne County Courthouse and over courthouse employees who were beholden to, or fearful of, Conahan and Ciavarella.”
In 2002, Lokuta claims, along with the Luzerne County Controller, she contacted the FBI and gave it damning information.
Also same year, Conahan removed Lokuta from the chambers she had occupied for 10 ten years at the Main Luzerne County Courthouse, and put her in “substandard Penn Place offices located several blocks away … in an effort to remove Lokuta from his workings at the main Courthouse and in an attempt to hamper Lokuta’s investigations,” according to the complaint.
When the county controller suffered a medical disability, Lokuta says, she decided to meet with the FBI to become an informant.
Lokuta claims that in 2003 she tried to file an Emergency Application with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to exercise King’s Bench jurisdiction, and notified the Administration Office of Pennsylvania Courts to try to address the corruption.
Both actions were both dismissed, she says.
She continued to work with an FBI agent, but Conahan found it out and “orchestrated a scheme to discredit Lokuta and have her removed from the bench,” according to the complaint.
“Verification of Conahan’s knowledge of Lokuta’s discussions with the FBI was established in the form of a sealed complaint received by the JCB on or about April 6, 2009, but sealed from public view and thus from use by Lokuta in her defense, by the Court of Judicial Discipline. Massa and Puskas were aware of the sealed complaint filed against Conahan with the JCB [Judicial Conduct Board] and in fact moved to have the same sealed from public view.
“Ultimately, Conahan employed numerous lackeys and minions in his campaign to destroy Lokuta’s credibility and deprive her of her position as a Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas Judge.”
Defendant Joseph A. Massa Jr. was chief counsel of the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board at the time, Lokuta says. She sued him in his personal capacity.
Defendant Francis J. Puskas II was prosecuting attorney for the JCB. He too is sued in his personal capacity.
Lokuta claims in the complaint that her former secretary, Susan Weber, filed a complaint against her in April 2004, which was “advanced by these powerful President Judges” who had appointed Weber.
Weber is not a party to the complaint.
Lokuta claims that at the president judges’ urging “the JCB began an ‘investigation’ of allegations of misconduct against Lokuta.”
She claims that after Weber submitted her complaint, Conahan appointed Weber a court reporter and secretary, “despite her total lack of training as court reporter.”
Lokuta claims that the JCB, led by defendants Massa and Puskas, “first interviewed Conahan, not Weber. [Defendant William T.] Sharkey, Conahan’s first cousin, was present when the JCB interviewed Conahan. In fact, it was Sharkey who leaked the investigation against Lokuta to the press, an action for which Sharkey was never sanctioned by the JCB.”
William Sharkey Sr. was court administrator for Luzerne County. Lokuta sued him in his individual capacity.
Then, Lokuta claims, “A second complaint against Lokuta was put together by Conahan, handed to the JCB, and thereafter filed through Massa under Massa’s auspices.”
The “investigation” of the second complaint also was done by people under Conahan’s influence, who passed out Massa’s business cards “to anyone who would consider complaining about Lokuta,” according to the complaint.
Lokuta also sued Jill Moran, prothonotary for the Luzerne County Courts. She claims that “Conahan used Moran’s budget to accomplish some of his hiring practices, enabling Conahan to carry out his power control of the Luzerne County Courthouse.”
And, Lokuta adds: “In their interviews with the JCB, Moran, Sharkey, Sallemi, and her court reporter colleagues alleged that Lokuta was mentally ill.”
Defendant Angela Sallemi was a court reporter for Luzerne County. Shortly after Lokuta was removed from the bench, defendant Ciavarella promoted her to chief court reporter, according to the complaint. This completes the list of defendants.
Lokuta claims that she had to spend her own money to rebut the defendants’ claims that she was mentally ill.
“To disprove these courthouse witnesses, and to show she was not suffering from any mental illness, malady or dependency, Lokuta, through the insistence of Puskas, was, at her own expense, tested by a psychiatrist, underwent urine and blood testing for alleged substance abuse, and provided the JCB with an MRI of her brain, which all came back normal,” the complaint states.
“Once the JCB could no longer allege that Lokuta was suffering from a mental or dependency condition, Puskas began pursuing a prosecution of her based on so-called pattern evidence. The pattern evidence was comprised primarily of information obtained through past dismissed complaints, as well as nonverified information.
“Conahan, Massa and Puskas repeatedly denied the possibility of a Conahan-orchestrated conspiracy, denied that there were any allegiances between and among the witnesses against Lokuta and painted Lokuta as a recalcitrant and ineffective jurist, interfering with the administration of justice under Conahan and Ciavarella.”
Lokuta says she continued to work with the FBI as an informant even after she faced a trial before the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board and was removed from the bench.
Finally, Lokuta says: “In February 2011, during the federal corruption criminal trial of Ciavarella, it was revealed that Angela Sallemi, chief of the court reporters at Luzerne County and a key witness against Lokuta during her trial, had received $25,000.00 from Conahan and borrowed another $90,000.00 from Conahan to remodel her home and purchase a Mercedes.”
That’s not all, according to the complaint: “During Ciavarella’s criminal trial it was also revealed that Moran, during her tenure as prothonotary of Luzerne County, delivered bags of cash to Conahan’s judicial chambers as part of Conahan’s corruption scheme concerning the juvenile detention center.
“During the trial against Lokuta, Conahan perjured himself by denying that he had any type of relationship with any of the witnesses who testified against Lokuta, a position championed by the JCB and their counsel.
“During her judicial conduct proceeding, Lokuta made repeated attempts to discover the extent of these relationships, which attempts were repeatedly opposed by Massa and Puskas and prevented by the Court of Judicial Discipline. …
“At Ciavarelli’s trial, Lisa Davidson, bookkeeper for Conahan’s business interests, testified that Conahan instructed her to make false entries in the company’s books to hide the payments into [sic] Conahan and Ciavarella, including the payments to Sallemi.”
To sum it up, Lokuta says in the complaint: “In bad faith, and while withholding evidence from Lokuta and her attorneys, Puskas relentlessly pursued charges against Lokuta based largely on issues of demeanor and allegations of ineffectiveness that, as shown in the public record, facilitated Conahan’s illicit manipulation of the court docket. While acting under color of state law, Puskas based his prosecution of Lokuta on allegations of misconduct orchestrated by Conahan, and introduced testimony – now shown by the public record to be dubious – and obtained and adjudication resulting in Lokuta’s removal from the bench, depriving her of her vested pension, medical benefits and life insurance, and precluding her form holding future judicial office in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. …
“Massa and Puskas were so obsessed with prosecuting Lokuta, that they purposely refused to pursue a complaint that had been filed against Conahan during the Lokuta prosecution, which complaint outlined much of the criminal conduct that ultimately led to federal criminal indictments against Conahan; Massa and Puskas improperly secreted allegations of criminal misconduct against Conahan in order to preserve Conahan’s credibility as a key witness against Lokuta.
“Even after the removal of Lokuta from the bench, and during the time period that Lokuta was required to pursue post-trial remedies, Massa and Puskas continued to harass and violate Lokuta’s rights by processing three stale complaints against her and intentionally withheld by Puskas and Massa, thus forcing Lokuta to defend herself from such vexatious litigation during a time Massa and Puskas knew was critical for Lokuta. All three complaints were ultimately dismissed, but only after Lokuta had to engage the services of counsel to defend against them.”
Lokuta seeks reinstatement, lost wages and benefits, and damages for constitutional violations, civil rights violations, and conspiracy, and the right to run for, and preside, as a judge again.
She is represented by Ronald Santora with Bresset & Santora in Forty Fort, Pa., and George Michak of Harrisburg