Sources Tie Admitted Felons to Pa. Court Scandal
Leo Strupczewski and Hank Grezlak
Michael Conahan never made a secret of his relationship with Robert Kulick.
Even a year ago, the former president judge of Luzerne County and the friend of reputed mob boss William "Billy" D'Elia could be seen chatting in restaurants and bars -- the same public venues where Kulick and D'Elia would meet, a former county judge said.
Now, other sources have confirmed to The Legal Intelligencer, the two admitted felons are cooperating with federal law enforcement officials as they continue their probe into corruption at the courthouse Conahan used to run.
Sources have also confirmed to The Legal Intelligencer that the U.S. Attorney's Office is, in fact, investigating possible case fixing in Luzerne County's uninsured and underinsured motorist cases and has been for some time.
All this information comes on the heels of a petition to the state Supreme Court filed by the owners of a Wilkes-Barre newspaper that alleged Conahan and another former judge, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., were "fixing cases at the behest" of D'Elia. To prove that, the parent company of the Citizens Voice newspaper stated it would provide a witness who would testify to "direct connections between D'Elia and Judge Conahan and/or Judge Ciavarella."
Through conversations with sources and reading obtained documents, The Legal Intelligencer has reason to believe that the witness mentioned in the petition is Kulick.
Kulick pleaded guilty in September 2008 in U.S. Middle District Court to being a felon in possession of a firearm. According to the plea agreement, the maximum penalty for the offense is 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
According to a joint motion to continue sentencing dated Jan. 14, Kulick has been cooperating with law enforcement agencies.
"Both before and after the guilty plea, Kulick has met with several different law enforcement agencies to answer their questions," the motion reads. "To allow sufficient time for the law enforcement agencies to evaluate the information that Kulick has provided, which may be relevant to determining an appropriate sentence in this case, the parties respectfully seek a continuance of the sentencing hearing in this matter for approximately 60 days."
When asked if his client had provided testimony to law enforcement agencies related to the investigation of Conahan and Ciavarella or if Kulick was the witness referred to in the Citizens Voice petition, Kulick's lawyer, Michael Schwartz of Pepper Hamilton, echoed the language of the motion.
"Both before and after his guilty plea, Mr. Kulick has met with law enforcement agencies and answered all of their questions," he said. "It would be inappropriate at this time to comment on these matters pending the sentencing hearing."
Asked about Kulick's alleged relationship with D'Elia, Schwartz said that Kulick had answered law enforcement officials' questions "about all his relationships."
D'Elia has been described in publications as the reputed head of a northeastern Pennsylvania crime family. The Associated Press reported D'Elia pleaded guilty in March 2008 to money-laundering conspiracy and witness tampering charges. He was sentenced in October 2008, according to his lawyer. His attorney, James Swetz, said the charges were one count of money laundering and one count of witness intimidation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Zubrod was involved in the prosecution of both cases. He is also handling the prosecution of Conahan and Ciavarella on charges the two judges received $2.6 million in kickbacks from the builder and owner of two juvenile detention centers.
When asked about a relationship between Kulick and D'Elia, Swetz would only say that the government alleged the two knew each other and that D'Elia threatened to physically harm Kulick as a means of intimidation.
The former Luzerne County judge seems to remember their relationship differently.
Asked if they were friendly, the former judge responded: "There's not any question. I've seen them talk."
Conahan's attorney, Philip Gelso, said he had no comment on the matter.
Several sources have described Conahan and Kulick as friends and said they socialized. Several sources have also said that Kulick and D'Elia were friends and also socialized.
D'Elia and Kulick are mentioned together in an affidavit related to the investigation of D'Elia that was time stamped Oct. 12, 2006. The affidavit, sworn out by a special agent of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a Pennsylvania State Police criminal investigator, in support of "criminal complaint, arrest warrant, and search warrants," describes surveillance of D'Elia and his alleged interactions with a confidential informant.
According to the affidavit, D'Elia allegedly met with the informant on May 12, 2006, during which the informant allegedly gave D'Elia $50,000 in what was supposed to be drug proceeds. D'Elia would then wire the money to an "alien smuggler in the Dominican Republic, who would arrange for two individuals, purportedly the [informant's] nieces, to enter the United States illegally," the affidavit said.
According to the affidavit, after D'Elia took the bag of money, "officers followed D'Elia to Robert "Bobby" Kulick's residence."
Later, according to the affidavit, D'Elia told the informant the wire transfer had been completed at a Citizens Bank branch. The affidavit said that in response to a grand jury subpoena, Citizens Bank confirmed the $50,000 wire transfer was sent from a bank account owned by Kulick and his wife, Michelle Mattioli-Kulick.
During a meeting on June 16, 2006, the affidavit said, "D'Elia told the CI [confidential informant] that Bobby Kulick was the person who completed the CI's first $50,000 wire transfer."
Neither Kulick nor his wife have been charged with anything related to the information in the affidavit.
Sources have also claimed there is a letter of reference allegedly authored by Conahan on behalf of Kulick's wife, apparently in the process of obtaining an offshore, online casino license.
While The Legal Intelligencer has not obtained that letter of reference, it has obtained a photocopy of a letter from the Offices of Edward J. Morris in Blue Bell, Pa., whose subject line reads: "Four Deuces Global Services, S.A. Casino License Application."
The letter then reads: "Enclosed are all documents in the above matter as follows." Eleven items are then listed. Item 8 reads: "Reference Letter by Judge Michael T. Conahan."
A call to Morris' office was not returned.
KING'S BENCH PETITION
The Scranton Times LP, owners of the Citizens Voice, filed a petition to the state Supreme Court Thursday, asking them to use their King's Bench powers to vacate a $3.5 million verdict in a defamation suit handled by Ciavarella.
The case involved allegations that the Citizens Voice and one of its reporters published several articles that defamed Thomas Joseph, a Luzerne County businessman, during its coverage of a 2001 federal investigation that targeted D'Elia and his alleged business partners.
Joseph argued the articles, which cited an anonymous source, damaged his reputation and business. The source told the paper that federal officials were investigating Joseph to see whether he used his direct mail and advertising business to launder money for D'Elia and that his taxi and limousine service was used to traffic guns, drugs and prostitutes between the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Lehigh Valley international airports and Atlantic City, N.J., New York City and Philadelphia. Joseph was never charged with any wrongdoing.
Conahan handled the pretrial matters and, despite voiced concerns from the newspaper company, steered the case to Ciavarella for a 10-day non-jury trial, according to the petition.
In the petition, the newspaper company claims that Ciavarella disregarded "substantial evidence connecting Joseph and D'Elia, including search warrants, the affidavits of probable cause, and the Pen Register results showing hundreds of calls between them." Instead, the petition continues, the judge accepted Joseph's testimony that he and D'Elia were "mere acquaintances."
He also discounted the newspaper's reporting because Joseph was never mentioned in a May 2006 indictment of D'Elia and found one of the newspaper's witnesses, Joseph's former wife, to be not credible because she had prior convictions and was granted immunity by a grand jury for her testimony.
Ciavarella awarded Joseph and his businesses $3.5 million in damages.
The newspaper company also alleged that it attempted to move the case to another county, but that attempt was rejected by Conahan. The paper contends in its petition that it has proof that the assignment of the case was not handled on the "rotating basis" established by court protocols, alleging that records from the court administrator's office show Conahan and William T. Sharkey, Conahan's first cousin and former court administrator who has pleaded guilty to embezzling court funds, signed off on the appointment.
The petition urges the justices to review the case and vacate the award, given, among other things, the recent guilty pleas and articles that have appeared in both The Legal Intelligencer and its sister publication, Pennsylvania Law Weekly.
The petition cites a story by Leo Strupczewski and Peter Hall of The Legal Intelligencer that documented long-standing suspicions of case fixing in uninsured and underinsured motorist arbitration cases and rumors that federal investigators were turning their gaze in that direction. The petition also cites a column by Hank Grezlak of The Legal Intelligencer that indicated the investigation into courthouse corruption began as a result of D'Elia talking to authorities.
"The unusual handling of judicial assignments in Joseph v. Scranton Times, the scope and subject of the newspaper articles in question, and a cascade of recent revelations regarding corruption in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas strongly suggest that the $3.5 million non-jury verdict was fixed," the petition states.
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