A $3.5 million defamation verdict against The Citizens’ Voice. newspaper will be reviewed because of the role in the case played by two former judges at the center of a juvenile justice scandal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled.
The high court appointed Lehigh County Judge William H. Platt to examine the Wilkes-Barre newspaper’s claim that corruption was involved in the handling of the lawsuit against it by businessman Thomas A. Joseph and one of his companies.
In a two-page order, the Supreme Court said its decision was based on the fact the newspaper offered new evidence, “which raises a colorable claim that the irregular assignment and trial of this case were tainted by the involvement of former Judges Michael T. Conahan and (Mark A.) Ciavarella.”
Ciavarella and Conahan, former Luzerne County Common Pleas judges, are awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to federal fraud charges in what prosecutors described as a scheme to collect kickbacks from private juvenile detention centers.
Platt was directed to hold a hearing as soon as possible and then issue a report with his recommendation about whether a new trial is warranted.
Joseph and direct-mail marketing firm AcuMark Inc. won the verdict against The Citizens’ Voice, parent company The Scranton Times LP, Scranton subsidiary The Times Partners and former reporter Edward Lewis over Voice stories related to raids of Joseph’s home and business by state and federal agents.
Joseph was not charged as a result of the searches, and his lawsuit claimed the newspaper defamed him by citing anonymous sources who connected him to suspected criminal activity.
George Croner, an attorney for Joseph and AcuMark, said Tuesday he had “no doubt” the stories defamed Joseph.
“They said he ran drugs, guns and prostitutes out of his airport transportation business and claimed it was part and parcel of a federal investigation,” Croner said. “They had no sources other than quote-unquote confidential sources. I mean come on — did they defame my guy? I have no doubt about that, absolutely none.”
Ciavarella issued the $3.5 million verdict after 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.
The Citizens’ Voice has filed with the court a Feb. 24 declaration by Wilkes-Barre restaurateur Robert J. Kulick that a friend from childhood, reputed mobster William D’Elia, told him he discussed Joseph’s defamation case with Conahan before the verdict.
D’Elia’s home was searched the same day as Joseph’s home. D’Elia is serving nine years for federal money laundering and witness tampering convictions.
Through a lawyer, D’Elia told The Citizens’ Voice in late February that he was “in no way” involved with the judges or the Joseph lawsuit.
The newspaper’s lawyers said they have uncovered a computer notation within Luzerne County court records that suggests Conahan helped steer the Joseph case to Ciavarella.
“We were told it would be a random assignment, and lo and behold, we examined the court administrator’s database, and Conahan told (former court administrator William T.) Sharkey to appoint Ciavarella in this case,” said Tim Hinton, the newspaper’s lawyer.
The newspaper maintained in a court filing that Ciavarella’s rulings on credibility and evidence were “decidedly one-sided in favor of Joseph.”
But Croner said some rulings in the case went against his clients and noted the decision was upheld on appeal.
“I’m concerned that what’s going to happen here is that a judgment fairly won at trial, fairly preserved on appeal, is going to be thrown out without reason because it does happen that the guy who sat as judge at that time did a lot of bad things in other cases,” he said.
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A copy of the court order is available online.
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