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Ex-judge’s old cases in dispute as trial nears

Ciavarella defense fights to keep mention of certain cases out of upcoming trial.

Attorneys for former Judge Mark Ciavarella filed a motion Thursday seeking to bar prosecutors from presenting evidence relating to several court cases he heard involving Robert Mericle and Robert Powell.

Attorneys Al Flora and William Ruzzo said they’ve been advised the government plans to present statements Ciavarella made in the 2008 legal malpractice case of Bernadette Slusser against a Hazleton law firm, as well as several cases involving Mericle.

The state Superior Court recently overturned the $3.4 million verdict Slusser obtained against the law firm of Laputka, Bayless, Ecker and Cohn after finding Ciavarella should have recused himself based on his relationship with Powell, who represented Slusser. The retrial of the case is pending in Luzerne County Court.

Jeffrey McCarron, attorney for the Laputka firm, had asked Ciavarella during the trial if he had any personal or financial relationship with Powell, which Ciavarella denied. McCarron sought to overturn the verdict after charges were filed against Ciavarella, detailing payments Powell had made to Ciavarella in connection with the PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care juvenile detention centers that Powell co-owned at the time.

Prosecutors also want to present evidence relating to Ciavarella’s handling of five civil cases involving several different companies owned by Mericle. The opposing parties in those cases were Shopping Center Developers LLC, Alliance Fund Services Inc., Preferred Development Corp. and Frank and Theresa Pollock.

Flora and Ruzzo argue none of those cases is relevant to Ciavarella’s trial on corruption charges because there is no evidence that Powell or Mericle bribed Ciavarella into issuing a favorable ruling on their behalf.

The attorneys say prosecutors are seeking to present the evidence in an attempt to convince the jury that Ciavarella was a “person of bad character” because he did not recuse himself.

“This evidence does not prove motive, opportunity, intent, preparation or knowledge. The evidence goes to Mr. Ciavarella’s use of discretion in his former capacity as a judge,” the attorneys say.

Late Thursday evening, Ciavarella’s attorneys filed yet another attempt to limit evidence in his trial, this time involving testimony by any money laundering expert. The motion and accompanying two page support brief asks the judge to order prosecutors to “refrain from eliciting testimony as to the mental state of the defendant, including any design by the defendant to conceal laundering or the source of funds.”

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