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‘Kids for Cash’ Informant Can’t Sue Court Officials

(CN) - A former Pennsylvania judge cannot sue court officials who allegedly got her fired for telling the FBI about two now-imprisoned judges' "Kids for Cash" scandal, a federal judge ruled.

Former Luzerne County President Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan pleaded guilty in February 2009 to taking $2.6 million in kickbacks for sending juveniles to profit-making detention centers between 2003 and May 2008.

Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years for racketeering, fraud and conspiracy, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Conahan was sentenced to 171 years.

One of their colleagues, Ann Lokuta, sued them and five others in federal court in February, claiming she was defamed and fired because she was an FBI informant in the case.

Lokuta, who was elected for her second 10-year term in 2001, said their conspiracy made her the "first judge ever removed from the office for something other than criminal misconduct."

While on the bench, Lokuta was allegedly "subject to relentless intimidation and retaliation by the President Judges," who "crushed anyone who failed to follow their directives."

When her former colleagues realized she was working with authorities, they "orchestrated a scheme to discredit Lokuta and have her removed from the bench," according to the complaint.

The Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board's chief counsel, Joseph Massa Jr., and prosecuting attorney Francis Puskas II interviewed Conahan about a complaint filed by Lokuta's former secretary in April 2004, and court administrator William Sharkey Sr. leaked the investigation to the press. All three are named defendants in Lokuta's complaint.

During interviews with the board, Sharkey, along with co-defendants chief court reporter Angela Sallemi and prothonotary Jill Moran, allegedly accused Lokuta of being mentally ill.

Lokuta said Massa and Puskas painted her as an ineffective jurist, processed stale complaints against her and refused to pursue a complaint filed against Conahan.

Ciavarella's criminal trial revealed in 2011 that Conahan gave Sallemi money, had Moran bring him bags of cash and paid a bookkeeper to fudge his accounting entries.

Asserting claims of civil conspiracy and constitutional violations, Lokuta asked the court to reinstate her, let her run for future judicial office, and award her actual and punitive damages plus attorney's fees.

Sharkey, Moran and Sallemi and the Judicial Conduct Board defendants separately moved to dismiss in March. U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo granted the motions Oct. 9, holding that he lacked authority to reinstate Lokuta.

"Lokuta's claims against JCB [Judicial Conduct Board] defendants regarding the processing of stale complaints and pursuing a case against her based on pattern evidence fail because JCB defendants enjoy 'absolute immunity for their conduct in "initiating a prosecution and in presenting the state's case,"'" Caputo wrote, quoting 3rd Circuit precedent.

"Lastly, JCB defendants are entitled to absolute immunity for their alleged failure to investigate or prosecute Conahan because 'prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity for the failure to adequately investigate a case and for the decision to initiate, or decline to initiate, a prosecution.'"

The two-year statute of limitations bars all of Lokuta's relevant claims, the judge ruled.

"Here, moving defendants' alleged overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy occurred before Feb. 5, 2011," Caputo wrote. "Specifically, moving defendants are all alleged to have deprived Lokuta's constitutional rights before and during the judicial conduct proceeding, and, as a result, Lokuta is alleged to have suffered injuries."

However, "the only facts alleged in the complaint that occurred within the limitations period relate to testimony at Ciavarella's trial in February 2011 that revealed the full extent of what had been previously withheld from the public but claimed for years by Lokuta," the judge added. "But, based on the facts set forth in the complaint, it is not plausible that this testimony constituted an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy to retaliate against Lokuta and remove her from judicial office, or that this testimony caused Lokuta's alleged injuries."

Lokuta may not amend her claims against the moving defendants, Caputo ruled.

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