A former Luzerne County, Pa., president judge used to hold meetings about twice a month with a reputed mob boss and a common friend -- also an admitted felon -- to discuss pending court cases, according to a supplement to a King's Bench petition filed with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Friday. The owners of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.-based newspaper the Citizens' Voice wrote to the court that a friend of William "Billy" D'Elia, Robert Kulick, has detailed his relationship with former Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Conahan and D'Elia. According to the supplement, the three men once met in Conahan's chambers when they were located in the main courthouse to discuss a case in which D'Elia and Kulick "were both interested." That meeting happened prior to a hearing in that case, Kulick alleged. Kulick went on to say that the meetings usually occurred at a restaurant, which was not named, and began with a "general conversation," the supplement claims. They generally happened around breakfast. When talk would steer toward pending cases, D'Elia would leave the table so Kulick and Conahan could talk in private, the supplement claims. Kulick would leave the table when D'Elia and Conahan would talk in private. "If I or someone I knew had an interest in a particular case pending before that court, I would ask Judge Conahan to consider that the party I supported got a 'fair shake,' or a 'second look,'" Kulick claims in a declaration attached to the supplement. "It was my understanding that if the case was not being handled by Judge Conahan himself, he would, on occasion, speak to other judges who were handling the matter in response to my request. At various times, Judge Conahan would confirm that he had either acted on my requests or had arranged for them to be acted on." According to the supplement, Kulick was interviewed by the newspaper's attorneys Tuesday. Through his attorney, D'Elia issued a statement denying Kulick's declaration.
"I in no way was involved with the judges and juvenile detention center and the Thomas Joseph law suit," D'Elia said, according to attorney James Swetz. Asked what his client's statement meant, Swetz said that would require interpretation. He said he was not prepared to do that. "It's his statement and he wanted me to answer any inquiry by releasing that sentence," Swetz said. "To put it mildly, he disagrees with Kulick's declaration." Kulick's attorney, Michael A. Schwartz of Pepper Hamilton, was reluctant to comment on the matter other than to issue a single sentence -- similar to others he has issued in relation to the Luzerne corruption probe. For instance, when asked if his client had approval from the U.S. Attorney's Office to cooperate with the newspaper's lawyers, Schwartz said: "Bob Kulick has fully accepted responsibility for the crime for which he has been charged and he continues to answer questions and cooperate with all law enforcement authorities." Asked whether he or his client approached the newspaper or whether or how the newspaper approached him or his client, Schwartz said he could not comment. Conahan's attorney, Philip Gelso, could not be reached for comment.
The filing, first reported by the Citizens' Voice, confirms what The Legal Intelligencer first reported online Feb. 20 and in print last Monday -- that Kulick was the company's witness. It also supports a claim made by another source to The Legal Intelligencer weeks ago: that another person had told the source he had seen Conahan, Kulick and D'Elia meet at the courthouse to discuss business. The source portrayed the relator of that information as someone other than Kulick. The source who related the story had no knowledge of what the alleged meeting covered. A former Luzerne County judge has also told The Legal Intelligencer that Conahan and Kulick were "friendly" and could be seen chatting in area restaurants and bars. The judge described Kulick's relationship with D'Elia in the same manner.
Other sources said Kulick and D'Elia were cooperating with federal authorities in their ongoing corruption probe at the county courthouse. Both men have pleaded guilty in the last year to criminal charges -- Kulick to possession of a firearm by an admitted felon, D'Elia to money-laundering conspiracy and witness tampering charges in March 2008. President Judge Chester B. Muroski confirmed to The Legal Intelligencer last week that he had been interviewed by the FBI about court administration issues. He allowed the investigators to photocopy documents concerning civil court matters without a subpoena, he said. Sources said other judges were interviewed, but none returned repeated calls for comment. Multiple sources have also relayed rumors to The Legal Intelligencer that other judges are being looked at by federal authorities. Those sources have not said whether the rumors include what the possible focus of the inquiry might be or the number of judges. The newspaper's supplement is the second filing to the state Supreme Court in which it asks the justices to vacate a $3.5 million defamation award issued against the newspaper and reopen discovery in the case.
In Joseph v. Scranton Times, Thomas Joseph, a Luzerne County businessman, argued that articles published by the Citizens' Voice during its coverage of a 2001 federal investigation that targeted D'Elia and his alleged business partners damaged his reputation and business. A 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, worked with William T. Sharkey, the former court administrator who has pleaded guilty to embezzling funds, to steer the case to former President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. for a 10-day nonjury trial, according to the petition. In the petition, the newspaper 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. Joseph's attorneys, George W. Croner and Christina Donato Saler of Kohn Swift & Graf in Philadelphia, filed a strongly worded response to the newspaper's petition on Wednesday, calling the request a "free-for-all fishing expedition." "Turning to a historical metaphor, it is vitally important that the search to root out genuine wrongdoing does not lead courts or litigants to the practices of the Salem Witch Trials, where rumor, gossip and innuendo were substituted for rationality, reflection and deliberation," the attorneys wrote in the reply. Joseph's attorneys also noted the verdict was the subject of a trial at which the defendant newspaper and journalists presented "virtually no evidence supporting the reporting and publication process used with their journalism." The supplement also includes a declaration by attorney J. Timothy Hinton, who searched about 4,600 of the county's disposed cases. Only Joseph v. Scranton Times had a note indicating Conahan and Sharkey were involved in assigning the case, according to the supplement.
"Kulick's Declaration and the Database Records are additional evidence that the corruption in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas infected Joseph v. Scranton Times and likely predetermined its outcome in favor of Thomas A Joseph," the supplement claims. "This additional evidence along with the evidence previously submitted by Petitioners provide ample basis for this Court to vacate the $3.5 million in Joseph's favor or, at a minimum, authorize a period of discovery to be followed by a hearing, if necessary, and briefing on Petitioner's motion to vacate." Conahan and Ciavarella have pleaded guilty to charges they accepted $2.6 million in kickbacks from the owner and builder of a juvenile detention center. The government alleges the judges steered juveniles to the facility. In his declaration, Kulick claimed he met the judges after opening a restaurant -- Olives Mediterranean Restaurant -- in 1999. He had a "social" relationship with Ciavarella, saw him at various events and invited him to his home "from time to time." Kulick claimed he would see Conahan at the same events, but the contact between the two "was considerably more extensive." Kulick arranged the breakfast meetings with Conahan about twice a month until 2007. They stopped after Kulick's wife, Michelle Mattioli-Kulick, received a grand jury subpoena regarding a letter of recommendation Conahan had written for her, Kulick claimed. Mattioli-Kulick was apparently attempting to obtain an offshore, online casino license at the time.