DECEMBER 29, 2009
A third Pennsylvania judge has pleaded guilty to corruption this week, making him one of nearly two dozen officials embroiled in a widespread federal investigation of government and court agencies in a county of former coal mining towns.
Earlier this year two of his Luzerne County bench colleagues (Mark Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan) were each slapped with seven-year prison sentences for operating a multi million-dollar kickback scheme to funnel youth offenders to a private detention center. The disgraced jurists had been federally indicted with dozens of felonies, including racketeering, bribery, extortion, money laundering and federal tax evasion
On the heels of that scandal, Luzerne County Judge Michael Toole has admitted that he colluded with an attorney to fix a court decision and that he failed to report a hefty referral fee from a second lawyer on his taxes. In a not-so-touching federal court statement, the shamed jurist said that he accepts responsibility for his actions with the strength of his faith and the support of his family and friends.
Toole told a federal judge in Scranton that he secretly communicated with an attorney who appeared before him to choose that lawyer’s buddy as an arbitrator in an insurance case. In return, Toole got free use of the attorney’s New Jersey beach house. Toole also admitted that he didn’t declare $30,000 from a separate attorney that he had referred a case to. The judge has been suspended by the state’s Supreme Court, though he continues to get his $161,850 annual salary, and faces jail time at his March sentencing.
Public corruption is so pervasive in Lucerne County, the most populated in northeastern Pennsylvania with about 320,000 residents, that the Justice Department has set up a special web page for the public to keep track and document the various cases and probes. Among the defendants are high-ranking officials with the county’s housing department, several judges, the suspended director of the redevelopment authority and public education officials.
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