Pennsylvania Judge Advises Tossing $3.5M Defamation Verdict

August 6, 2009

A $3.5 million defamation verdict against a northeastern Pennsylvania newspaper was tainted by the misconduct of two judges at the center of an unrelated juvenile court corruption case, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Lehigh County Judge William Platt recommended that the state Supreme Court throw out the verdict against The Citizens’ Voice of Wilkes-Barre and order a new trial.

The high court appointed Platt to review the newspaper’s claim that corruption was involved in the handling of the lawsuit filed against it by businessman Thomas Joseph and one of his companies. The newspaper contended the verdict was fixed by reputed mobster William D’Elia and former Luzerne County judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella.

Joseph and direct-mail marketing firm AcuMark Inc. sued the Voice, its parent company and a former reporter over stories related to raids of Joseph’s home and business and D’Elia’s home.

The Supreme Court ordered the review after the judges pleaded guilty earlier this year to federal corruption charges in the juvenile justice scandal. Prosecutors said Ciavarella and Conahan accepted millions of dollars in kickbacks to send youth offenders to privately owned detention centers.

The court said the newspaper only had to show there was “an appearance of impropriety” to establish prejudice in the case. George Croner, an attorney for Joseph, had argued at a hearing last month that the Voice was trying to use the scandal to torpedo the outcome of a case that was fairly decided by Ciavarella and upheld on appeal.

But Platt said the judges’ scheming in the kickbacks case “influenced their conduct and judgments in other Luzerne County cases and could have reasonably influenced their conduct in the Joseph case.”

D’Elia and Conahan met often for breakfast to socialize and discuss pending cases before the court, according to testimony at last month’s hearing. Conahan assured D’Elia of a “positive outcome” in the Joseph case, according to testimony from a businessman who attended some of the meetings.

Joseph was never charged as a result of the raids. His lawsuit claimed the newspaper defamed him by citing anonymous sources who connected him to suspected criminal activity.

Conahan steered the case to Ciavarella, who ruled in Joseph’s favor following a bench trial in 2006. The decision was upheld in September by a three-judge Superior Court panel. The appeals court said the articles were inaccurate and the newspaper failed to follow its own anonymous-sourcing rules.

Ciavarella testified at last month’s hearing that neither Conahan nor D’Elia ever spoke to him about the case. But Platt wrote that Ciavarella’s “demeanor and lack of remorse” had made him was one of the newspaper’s best witnesses.

“His testimony was one of the factors that persuaded me there was and is an appearance of impropriety and a need for a new trial in this case,” the judge wrote.

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