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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

PA Congressman Resorts to Smear Campaign

Rep. Tim Holden falsely claimed in a recent TV ad that his opponent won a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in exchange for campaign contributions to a corrupt judge. In fact, a jury — not the judge — awarded $3 million to lawyer Matt Cartwright’s client in that case. The Holden campaign told us it had no evidence to prove the donation had any influence over the judge during that trial. The campaign pulled the ad after just one day on the air.

This is not the first time that the veteran Democratic congressman has accused his primary opponent, Cartwright, of making improper campaign contributions. In an earlier TV ad, Holden sought to link Cartwright to the infamous “kids-for-cash” scandal that sent two Pennsylvania judges to prison. In that ad, Holden criticized Cartwright for contributions he and his law firm made to judges who accepted kickbacks for sending juveniles to for-profit juvenile detention facilities. Again, the campaign contributions from Cartwright and his law firm were unrelated to the corruption case. It was merely a case of guilt by association.

‘Corruption in Our Courts’

The latest ad — called “Corruption in Our Courts” — is the most savage example of what has been a bruising primary between Holden, a 10-term incumbent, and Cartwright for the Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District.

The ad, which first aired April 18, links separate, unrelated events to conclude that Cartwright has “questionable ethics.” To fully appreciate the flawed logic, you need to watch the video or read the full transcript.

Announcer: This is what corruption in our courts looks like. First, lawyer Matt Cartwright’s law firm gave thousands of dollars to elect Judge Michael Toole. Then, Matt Cartwright tried a case in front of Judge Toole. And, no surprise, Cartwright’s client and Cartwright’s law firm were awarded millions of dollars. Today, Judge Toole is in prison — guilty of making biased rulings in exchange for money. Questionable ethics. And Matt Cartwright wants to be your congressman?

It is true that Cartwright’s law firm made a donation to Toole, but the donation was made in 2003 — four years before Toole presided over the malpractice case.

PAC 205, the political action committee of Munley, Munley & Cartwright, donated to Toole’s campaign twice — in 2003 — contributing $2,500 in April of that year and $1,000 in October. The court case, Kachurak v. Cooper, cited in the TV ad was settled April 30, 2007.

Furthermore, a synopsis of the case on the law firm’s website and a May 1, 2007, article in Wilkes-Barre’s Times Leader both say that a jury — not Toole — awarded Cartwright’s client $3 million.

Now, it’s also true that Toole “is in prison — guilty of making biased rulings in exchange for money.” He is scheduled to be released next year. But the case that sent Toole to prison had nothing to do with Cartwright, his law firm or the $3 million jury award in Kachurak v. Cooper. It didn’t even have anything to do with campaign contributions.

In announcing the guilty plea, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Toole “improperly ruled” in an arbitration case in favor of an attorney who gave Toole “a reward.” Toole’s reward was free use of a beach house that was “worth thousands of dollars,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

On April 8, 2011, Toole was sentenced to 30 months in prison on a charge of corrupt receipt of a reward for official action and on a separate tax fraud matter involving his failure to report a $30,000 referral fee from another attorney. The referral fee also was not related to Cartwright or his law firm. Scranton’s Times-Tribune reported that the “tax charge centered on his failure to report a $30,000 finder’s fee he accepted from attorney Robert J. Powell after Mr. Powell represented a relative of Mr. Toole’s wife in an out-of-county civil lawsuit.”

We asked the Holden campaign for evidence to support the claims in its ad. Holden spokesman Eric Nagy acknowledged the campaign has no proof that the firm’s donation to Toole made any particular impact on Toole’s decisions or somehow influenced the judge. That’s not the point, he said.

“The point is that you have a guy who was donating to judges he was arguing in front of and getting verdicts from,” Nagy said. “The point is the money was given to Toole and that is the reason he was in prison — for taking money and, as a kickback, delivering judgments to people who had donated money to him.”

But, as we noted earlier, Toole’s conviction had nothing to do with campaign donations. And without evidence of quid pro quo, the Holden campaign is merely trafficking in innuendo.

The Times-Tribune reported that Holden pulled the ad from the air just one day after it was first broadcast. Wilkes-Barre’s Citizens’ Voice reported that Holden issued a statement in which he said his campaign would only run positive TV ads for the five remaining days of the campaign, which ends April 24.

Kids for Cash

Holden’s belated promise to run a clean campaign comes after a similarly spurious TV ad that attempted to link Cartwright to Pennsylvania’s infamous kids-for-cash scandal. That scandal involved two judges, Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella Jr., who took millions of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for sending juveniles to for-profit detention centers.

But Cartwright and his firm donated to those judges years before the news of the investigation broke.

The ad starts off by saying, “It’s wrong. Lawyer Matt Cartwright and his firm contributed thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Luzerne County judges who were convicted in the kids-for-cash scandal.”

It’s true that Cartwright and his law firm’s political action committee, PAC 205, donated to the judges’ campaigns in 2003 and 2005. PAC 205 gave $1,000 to Conahan’s campaign in 2003. The organization gave $1,000 to Ciavarella’s campaign (and expensed a $125 dinner) in 2005. Cartwright also gave $375 to Ciavarella’s campaign that year. But the public was unaware of the kids-for-cash scheme until a local newspaper wrote about the investigation in 2008.

It’s easy to accuse someone of guilt by association. How easy? Consider this: In 2004, Holden’s campaign took $1,000 from Barbara Conahan, the wife of one of the judges sent to prison in the kids-for-cash scandal. (The judge’s campaign filings show the same Chestnut Street address as Barbara Conahan’s Federal Election Commission filing.)

Of course, Conahan’s contribution to Holden occurred four years before the public learned of her husband’s role in the kids-for-cash scandal. In fact, it happened one year before Cartwright donated to Ciavarella’s campaign.

What does either contribution prove? Nothing. And that’s our point.

Nagy, the spokesman for Holden, said that in lieu of returning Conahan’s $1,000 donation, something that was no longer possible, the Holden campaign donated $1,000 to a local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Nagy said the contribution was made sometime this year, but did not specify when. The campaign’s pre-primary filing with the FEC shows that the Holden campaign donated $1,000 to the Hillside SPCA (page 275) on April 3 — nearly four years after a local newspaper first reported the scandal.

— Eugene Kiely and Ben Finley, with Dave Bloom