When federal prosecutors charged Luzerne County judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan in 2009 with accepting millions of dollars from a new, privately-owned juvenile detention facility where they had harshly sentenced over 3,000 children, everyone in the country seemed to have an opinion on the scandal dubbed “kids for cash,” particularly about the corrupt judiciary.
Robert May, however, did not.
As shocked and dismayed as he was by the news, the Dallas resident had spent years as a producer of award-winning documentaries like “The War Tapes” and “The Fog of War” and celebrated films like “The Station Agent” and learned that there is always more to a story than what lies on the surface, or in this case, what the media was reporting. May dropped the fictional project he was working on at the time with his company SenArt Films and latched onto the story as it unfolded.
“We were there when the scandal hit, and the newspaper accounts were more crazy each day, and radio and television, and it was a very one-dimensional story. I became really curious as to, ‘My God, how could this happen?’ so we said, ‘We need to look into this more.’ We started to do research and basically we said if we can get access to the judges, we would tell the story from both sides,” he recalled in an exclusive interview with The Weekender at R/C Movies 14 in Wilkes-Barre.
“I couldn’t believe it could happen. How is it possible that these guys are so celebrated and then behind a curtain they’re literally selling children? How is that possible?”
Simply titled “Kids for Cash,” it would have been easy for the filmmakers to capitalize on this outrage, but instead, May looked back on his previous work and realized that he needed to put himself in the place of both the victims and the perpetrators to truly understand the complexity of the situation.
“It affected me tremendously. I mean, I just look at things so differently since this film, all of our films, I think, from the very first documentary that we did, which was ‘Stevie,’ which was a tough story… about a kid who was born into a family who didn’t really want him and he was raised by his grandparents and in a foster home. The story starts out bad and ends up worse, and it really affected me being part of that story,” he explained.
“Our whole mission has been to do character-driven stories with point and meaning and to be entertaining, too. ‘Stevie’ wasn’t so much entertaining as it was just pure tragedy, but this film, I think, it’s entertaining because of the scandal – the scandal is alive and well and it was sensational – but it has real victims and real carnage all over the place, and it’s beyond just the kids’ carnage and the families. I think that the way I look at people I just don’t judge the same way anymore. I don’t, whether it be kids or adults.
“I don’t know what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and I have much more respect for that now than I ever did before. I always thought I had empathy, but I think I’ve become more empathetic since this film. I think we all – I think society in general – could use more of a dose of empathy. Only when we’re in a situation do we understand what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes. We’re always so quick to judge others because we think, ‘Well, I’d never do that. That wouldn’t be me. I would do it different.’ How do you know unless you’re in it?”
He dove “in it” rather quickly, gaining the trust of both judges to tell their stories fairly alongside the children they incarcerated, finding that Ciavarella’s background made him quite similar to those whose lives he changed forever.
“I used to think that life was black and white. There’s good, there’s evil, there’s right and wrong, and everybody knows what it is, but the fact is I think we live our lives in gray, all of our lives. I think the line between good and evil is fine and I think that most of us may have a toe over the edge occasionally in the evil part, like ‘Woah!’ and they pull it back, but some people fall right over that line and then they lose complete track of where the line ever was,” he mused.
“Like Ciavarella – he fell over the line, stayed over the line, knew this was wrong, but eventually thought, ‘Well, this is my life now, so I guess it’s not so bad,’ until people say, ‘Woah! What happened to you? What are you doing way over there?’ And now he’s in trouble and this is what happens. But aren’t kids that way too, though? Don’t kids as they’re trying to grow up step over the line and maybe pull their feet back?
“Most people have done something they probably could have been arrested for if anybody knew about it. It could be minor, it could be something not so minor, but we don’t think about that. We want to persecute other people for what they do.”
Uncovering the story
May daydreamed of making films as a kid, but his parents grew up during the Great Depression and were worried about his financial future; he pursued a more “practical” career in engineering but ultimately found it boring. He entered the security business instead and found that his job “managing minutiae” was not unlike that of a film producer, so he founded SenArt in 2000 and found success as a “creative producer” with a knack for capturing stories that resonate with audiences long after they leave the theater.
After some convincing from his colleagues, “Kids for Cash” became May’s directorial debut, though wearing both hats as producer and director was no easy task, particularly with so many stories to tell. 600 hours of footage was edited down to 102 minutes, resulting in a documentary he would rather refer to as a “non-fiction film” because of its three-act narrative structure.
“I was just there to learn and I think develop a rapport, and our interview process is long. We had 14-hour days, 12 hours of shooting, six hours at a particular place, and three hours on camera or so. We rarely gave anybody a break unless they absolutely needed it because the idea was we’d create this world where they would be talking to me or my producing partner directly. … The idea was to just get them to talk; same thing with the kids – just talk to me, very conversational,” he said, though he didn’t stray from the tough questions.
“I asked them questions I knew people would ask, like, ‘Why did you do this? People think that you literally are evil.’ I wouldn’t say I did because I wasn’t judging them, but I still brought all the tough questions in.”
Ciavarella, who admitted to accepting the money but maintained throughout the film that there was no direct exchange of kids for cash, granted May unprecedented interview access during his trial because of his past film work, refusing other media outlets as the scandal became national news.
“They knew we were real and Ciavarella got to the point where he didn’t trust the media anyway. He wanted to tell his story, and his side of it is that every time he said something, they would only take snippets and use it to sensationalize the story even more, so he became more dubious about that,” May noted.
“It didn’t happen overnight. He said, ‘Look, I’ll talk to you, but I’ll talk to you after it’s over.’ I’m like, ‘No deal because we need to go with you on this journey that you’re about to go on. No one knows where it’s going.’ That took some convincing, but I think they looked at some of the movies we did. They checked out our reputation, the family was involved obviously, and they trusted us with the story. Conahan came on slightly later, but same basic thing. We said, ‘Look, we’re going to tell both sides of the story. Do you want to tell your side or do you want us to tell your side?’”
Considering it all occurred in his own backyard, May felt an obligation to get the story right, and it helped that while he knew of the key players in the story, he did not know them personally or have any bias going in.
“I had a responsibility to make sure we got it right and didn’t take advantage of the area because then I just wouldn’t have done it. I wanted to make sure that it would be an honest portrayal of what happened. The problem is, of course, I didn’t know what happened in the beginning because the only active story was the judge’s story. The kids’ stories were told historically, so we had to juxtapose those stories – an active story and a story that already happened – so I didn’t know where the active story was going to go. There were so many changes, ups and downs, and surprises along the way,” he said, including the fact that Ciavarella and Conahan actually went to trial.
“It took us a while to figure out what was the story because we started following all of the corruption at first and then we started to follow where we thought the bigger story really was, and I think the bigger story… is how we treat kids, how schools treat kids, how we want zero tolerance for somebody else’s kid but not our kid. I believed in zero tolerance before this. I had no idea what it meant. It’s interesting because I was interested in being an engineer, but you ask an engineer what zero tolerance is in their world and they’ll say, ‘There’s no such thing.’
“But why is there for people? Why do we demand it from kids, or adults, for that matter? Why do we do that?”
“Kids for Cash” doesn’t just ask that question of Luzerne County, but of the entire country. Through his research, May discovered that zero tolerance policies enacted in schools since the infamous shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 have actually caused more harm than good. Ciavarella was praised by the community for locking away thousands of children before he was caught receiving kickbacks, which May believes may be the bigger issue here, listing staggering national statistics at the end of the film.
“Nobody knows we arrest that many kids in this country for minor offenses. That’s crazy. Arrest a kid – you think that doesn’t affect them? Is that the right thing to do? What about schools? Schools are the biggest contributor into the juvenile system. Since Columbine alone, Pennsylvania had a 300 percent increase in referrals into the police, yet juvenile crime has been going down for years. Why is that? It’s like we lost our minds, and it isn’t just here. People like to think that Judge Ciavarella just created zero tolerance for his own pocket,” he pointed out.
“We had lots of schools, including some locally, that said, ‘Listen, we had no idea what happens to these kids. All we knew is they weren’t in school anymore.’”
This broken system has resulted in irreparable damage, he concluded, so as the movie sees a wider release, including in Northeastern Pennsylvania this week, he hopes that it will lead to active change.
“I was in Boston the other night at a screening. It was a sold-out group, and the emotion from some of the people in the room – there were some judges there, too. A lot of law enforcement, judges, judiciary have seen this film. We screened in Washington, D.C., I don’t know how many times now leading up to it, and when I hear people talk about it, I’m like, ‘Geez, I had something to do with that.’ It’s kind of cool to do something that I love and maybe this film can actually do some good as well, which I think feels great.”
Even after Ciavarella and Conahan shamed the area, the 56-year-old filmmaker still feels a sense of local pride, raising his own children here and working towards a better future for them.
“I felt a responsibility to make sure that the story was told honestly so I could still live here and to be proud of it, which I am. There’s controversial things in the movie. Locally, I don’t know what people are going to think of all the stories, but I stand behind them all,” May enthused.
“People say, ‘Why do you live in Luzerne County?’ Well, have you ever been there? ‘No.’ Well, it’s a beautiful area. It really is a beautiful area, and there are some good schools. There’s some not-so-good schools, but there’s some great schools here, too, and it is a great place to raise a family. The community has to tolerate more people that are coming in from other areas.
“I don’t plan to go anywhere. I plan to still stay here.”
‘Kids for cash’ scandal timeline
By Sara Pokorny
Weekender Staff Writer
Early 2007: The Juvenile Law Center receives requests of assistance from the families of several youths sentenced by Luzerne County judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan.
April 2008: The Juvenile Law Center petitions the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, seeking relief for alleged violation of the youth’s civil rights. This was initially denied, but reconsidered in January 2009 when corruption charges against the judges surfaced.
1999: Ciavarella is red-flagged by a Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center after discovering that a 13-year-old boy was detained without being read his rights and had appeared in court without a lawyer. When the case became public, Ciavarella promised the public that every minor in his courtroom would have a lawyer.
Feb. 11, 2009: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court appoints a special master to review all juvenile cases handled by Ciavarella.
March 2009: Sandra Brulo, the former deputy director of forensic services for the Luzerne County Juvenile Probation Office, pleads guilty to federal obstruction of justice.
May 2009: The Luzerne County Juvenile Task Force, the goal of which is to assist in the reformation of the system, is created.
July 1, 2009: Robert Powell, an attorney and co-owner of the two juvenile detention facilities at the heart of the scandal, pleads to failing to report a felony and being an accessory to tax evasion conspiracy in connection with $770,000 in kickbacks he paid to Ciavarella and Conahan in exchange for facilitating the development of his facilities.
Sept. 3, 2009: Robert Mericle, the real estate developer who built the two juvenile detention facilities, pleads guilty to failing to disclose a felony for not revealing to a grand jury that he had paid $2.1 million to Ciavarella and Conahan as a finder’s fee.
Sept. 9, 2009: A federal grand jury in Harrisburg returns a 48-count indictment against Ciavarella and Conahan that includes racketeering, fraud, money laundering, extortion, bribery, and federal tax violations.
Oct. 2009: The Supreme Court expunges criminal records of 2,401 juveniles handled by the two former judges.
July 2010: Conahan enters a revised guilty plea to one count of racketeering conspiracy.
Feb. 18, 2011: Ciavarella is convicted on 12 of 39 counts he faced.
Aug. 11, 2011: Ciavarella is sentenced to 28 years in federal prison.
Sept. 23, 2011: Conahan is sentenced to 17-and-a-half years in federal prison.
July 25, 2013: Ciavarella’s appeal of his conviction to the Third Circuit is rejected.
Jan. 27, 2014: The U.S. Solicitor General’s Office files a brief opposing a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court by Ciavarella.
Jan 25, 2014: A settlement is approved and another one is pending, setting aside a combined $20 million for juveniles and their parents and guardians involved in the scandal.