Former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella claims the State Employee Retirement System has violated his civil rights by delaying resolution of his appeal of its decision to deny him pension benefits.
In an action filed with the state Commonwealth Court last month, Ciavarella’s attorney, Al Flora, said the ex-jurist is being unfairly denied funds that he could use to pay legal fees associated with his pending trial on corruption charges.
Flora contends the inaction by the SERS board of directors has violated Ciavarella’s right to due process. He asks the Commonwealth Court to intervene and order SERS to hold an evidentiary hearing and issue a decision within 60 days.
In a response, an attorney for SERS says the agency is acting as quickly as possible. Any delays were caused by Ciavarella, who has filed several modifications to his appeal.
Ciavarella is awaiting trial in federal court on charges that he and former judge Michael Conahan accepted $2.8 million as part of a scheme to wrongly incarcerate juveniles at a detention center owned by their one-time friend, attorney Robert Powell.
Ciavarella’s access to his retirement fund has become an issue in the criminal case because he claims he cannot afford to pay his attorneys. Attorney William Ruzzo, Flora’s co-counsel in the case, has asked the court to appoint both of them, which means the legal fees would be paid by the federal government.
The battle over the pension stems from Ciavarella’s guilty plea in February 2009 to charges of honest services fraud in connection with the juvenile justice scandal. Ciavarella later withdrew the plea, but SERS contends he is still not entitled to the funds.
SERS has also refused to release roughly $250,000 in contributions he made to the fund based on a more than $4.3 million lien the state Department of Public Welfare filed seeking to recoup costs related to the incarceration of juveniles.
At a pretrial hearing in August, U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik urged Flora to take court action to resolve the pension dispute so that Kosik could decide whether to grant the request to appoint counsel for Ciavarella.
Flora filed a petition with Commonwealth Court in September. In the petition, he notes that more than a year has passed since Ciavarella first filed his appeal, yet the board has yet to hold a hearing.
“The Retirement Board’s inaction, while a tacit approval of the encumbering of assets without due process, also effectively operates to deprive Ciavarella of assets that he could use to pay for (his) defense . . . and thereby deny Ciavarella his Sixth Amendment right to counsel,” the petition says.
In a response, SERS attorney Paul Stahlnecker said Ciavarella has caused the delays by his repeated attempts to amend and supplement his appeal. The case has been assigned to Commonwealth Court Judge Keith B. Quigley, who scheduled a hearing on the matter for Jan. 12.