TWICE, ROBERT Mericle failed to tell investigators the whole truth, according to information presented during his plea hearing Wednesday in Scranton.
Apparently, he gets a third try.
The wealthy real estate developer knew something shady was happening with the sizable finder’s fees – basically, six-figure expressions of gratitude – that he paid as the builder of two juvenile detention centers in Pennsylvania, a prosecutor said.
Those centers are at the heart of a public corruption investigation that so far has led to federal charges against five people, including former Luzerne County judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan.
The prosecution outlined Mericle’s role this way: In 2002 Mericle offered to pay Ciavarella a finder’s fee for his prior assistance in helping Mericle obtain the contract to build the PA Child Care facility in Pittston Township. It would have been a legitimate business transaction. The judge requested the money, more than $997,000, be given to Hazleton-area attorney Robert Powell, who co-owned the detention centers.
At some point, however, Mericle became aware the money had been funneled through Powell to Ciavarella and Conahan so that the judges could disguise the source of the income, the prosecution alleges.
When questioned by an Internal Revenue Service agent in November 2007, Mericle did not disclose the money-moving monkey business.
Nor did he divulge the dirty secret the next month, when Mericle appeared before a federal grand jury investigating the juvenile justice scandal.
Interestingly, by then, the developer had sent a separate $1 million payment to Powell in connection with the construction of a Butler County detention center, the prosecutor said.
Now that Mericle, of Jackson Township, has been charged with a felony that carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison, he pledges to be more helpful to investigators.
Mericle pleaded guilty this week to a charge of withholding information on a crime. He remains free pending sentencing.
Based on federal sentencing guidelines, he probably faces no more than 10 months in prison. He might avoid a jail cell entirely and instead serve probation. To accomplish that, however, there’s one thing Mericle needs to do: Fully cooperate.
Let’s hope this community leader gets it right the third time.