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Judge fixed defamation suit, newspaper alleges

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  1. Libel and Privacy
The judge who issued a $3.5 million libel judgment against a Pennsylvania newspaper has been accused by the paper’s lawyers…

The judge who issued a $3.5 million libel judgment against a Pennsylvania newspaper has been accused by the paper’s lawyers of accepting bribes to favor the plaintiffs, just a week after he stepped down from the bench and pleaded guilty to accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks.

The lawyers for The Citizens’ Voice filed a petition last week asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella’s 2006 ruling against the newspaper in a defamation lawsuit that was brought by a local business man with alleged ties to organized crime.

The plaintiff in the suit, local businessman Thomas Joseph, sued the newspaper after it reported on a criminal investigation into his ties with a reputed head of a local crime family, William D’Elia.

In the petition before the Supreme Court, the newspaper’s lawyers argue that Ciavarella, along with Judge Michael Conahan and court administrator William Sharkey (who is Conahan’s cousin), violated court procedures in order to keep control of any cases involving D’Elia, including the suit against the newspaper.

In a separate case, the two judges pleaded guilty last week to defrauding the public and conspiracy. Prosecutors alleged that they accepted more than $2.6 million in payoffs to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers.

Since entering plea agreements, speculation that the judges had ties to organized crime and may have fixed Joseph’s case have circulated, the petition argues.

“This cascade of revelations has spawned additional rumors and speculation about the integrity – or lack thereof – of the Luzerne County court system in general and of Judges Conahan and Ciavarella in particular,” the petition argues. “Petitioners have identified a potential witness who, on reliable information and to Petitioners’ belief, would testify concerning direct connections between D’Elia and Judge Conahan and/or Judge Ciavarella.”

The Citizens’ Voice wants the Supreme Court to grant jurisdiction in the case so that the newspaper can present more witnesses that could testify about what the judges did in the case. In September, the Superior Court in Pennsylvania upheld Judge Ciavarella’s ruling. The newspaper in December appealed that to the Supreme Court, which has not yet determined if it will take the case.

Kevin Abbott with Reed Smith in Pittsburgh is representing The Citizens’ Voice.