- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) | For the first time since a jaw-dropping scandal involving crooked judges and troubled children, voters in northeast Pennsylvania are getting a chance to assert themselves at the ballot box — and, perhaps, to start fixing the problems that have turned this former hub of coal mining into a hothouse of corruption.

On Tuesday, residents of Wilkes-Barre and the surrounding area will choose among 17 candidates running for two open spots on the shorthanded Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas, where two judges recently pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks, a third was kicked out for misconduct in a separate case, and the FBI has been looking into allegations of case-fixing.

All of the judicial candidates say they want to restore trust and confidence in the court system. But they’re fighting strong currents of voter cynicism; the widespread belief here is that politicians treat local government as a spoils system for friends, family and supporters.

“When you go out [on the campaign trail], the absolutely overpowering message is they’ve completely lost trust,” said candidate Michael Blazick, 35, who has won the endorsement of both daily newspapers in Wilkes-Barre. “There’s been a meltdown in the public’s confidence in the judicial system. They think all judges are corrupt, and anyone seeking a judgeship must have ulterior motives.”

While the attitude is frustrating, Mr. Blazick said, “you can’t fault the public for feeling that way.”

Indeed, Luzerne County has endured one political scandal after another.

First came “kids for cash,” a story that reverberated nationwide as a pair of judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, were charged in January with taking $2.6 million in kickbacks to stock private detention centers with young offenders. They pleaded guilty to fraud and face seven years in prison.

Then a top court official admitted he embezzled tens of thousands of dollars, and another pleaded guilty to tampering with court files. Then came an FBI appeal for the public’s help in rooting out corruption in the hiring of public school teachers — followed by charges against two Luzerne County school officials.

More public officials are expected to go down before the FBI and federal prosecutors end their probe in Luzerne County, about 100 miles north of Philadelphia.

“Somebody’s always on the take,” said Jim Bussacco, 84, one recent Saturday while in his backyard near Wilkes-Barre. “Greed is the motivating factor. Everybody wants the buck. Politicians have too many family members working in county jobs, school jobs.”

Beyond selecting candidates for judge, voters Tuesday also will decide whether they want to take a first tentative step toward scrapping the county’s current form of government — which reformers say has bred decades of corruption — in favor of a home-rule charter designed to reduce the opportunities for graft.

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