When attorney Nanda Palissery learned that Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Toole unexpectedly postponed all of his November cases and decided to take a vacation for a few weeks, it drew his attention.
“I had hoped it was just a personal issue and not a professional one,” Palissery said. Those hopes were dashed Wednesday when he and the public learned that Toole had reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors that could land him in prison for up to 23 years.
The vacation request came at a time when rumors were running rampant in the courthouse that Toole would be the next person indicted in the county corruption probe. But those who knew Toole said they didn’t buy into the gossip.
“It certainly surprised me. … I heard the rumors, but I didn’t believe them. Not until today (Wednesday),” attorney Michael Butera said.
Toole, 49, of Wilkes-Barre, is charged with honest services fraud and filing a false income tax return. Though the plea agreement requires him to resign from office within 10 days of the acceptance of the guilty plea, Luzerne County President Judge Chester B. Muroski has removed Toole from judicial responsibilities effective immediately.
“I’m really surprised by these charges,” said Palissery, who ran against Toole in 2003 for a seat on the bench. “It’s very sad to see another member of the bench involved in this ongoing corruption scandal.”
Toole’s plea agreement follows corruption charges filed earlier this year by federal prosecutors against judges Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella. Both men were removed from the bench and await trial.
Attorney Conrad Falvello summed up the announcement simply.
“Another kick in the gut for all of us,” Falvello said.
Toole becomes the 20th person charged with criminal conduct since late January of this year in an on-going investigation targeting public corruption in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Those charged include judges, county and school officials and local businessmen, among others.
“It’s appalling that we have to deal with this on an almost daily basis. If it’s not the courts, it’s the administration that has continuously let us down,” said Luzerne County Commissioner Chairwoman Maryanne Petrilla.
The allegation that Toole improperly influenced a case takes the judicial scandal to “a new level,” she said.
“First there was the juvenile injustice. Now it’s case fixing that will be looked at. When is it going to stop?” Petrilla asked.
The court documents that spell out Toole’s alleged crimes indicated that an attorney had a role in the uninsured motorist scheme that got the judge into trouble. That has angered some local attorneys.
“It’s not just judges but lawyers included, too,” said Butera, who urged the public not to paint all lawyers in the county with a broad brush.
One elected official in Harrisburg also voiced dismay at the latest charges.
“It is shocking and discouraging that so many individuals in positions of great responsibility violated the public trust for personal gain. Every new revelation of wrongdoing reinforces the need to change the culture in the courthouse, and the need to adopt reforms to prevent such massive corruption from happening in our community ever again,” said state Sen. Lisa Baker. Baker, R-Lehman Township, sits on a state commission investigating the juvenile court corruption scandal in the county.
Muroski declined to comment on Toole as a judge or a friend other than to say he was “completely disappointed by what’s happened with my colleagues.”
Butera said it’s getting to be that those who work in the courthouse view a good day as one where nobody gets indicted.
“Hopefully, this will be an end to it and the court and members of the bar will be able to restore the public’s trust in the legal system,” Butera said. Like others interviewed for this story, Butera expressed disbelief and sadness over Toole’s involvement in any wrongdoing.
County Commissioner Greg Skrepenak would not say a bad word about the disgraced judge, calling Toole a “smart guy and hard worker.”
“He’s a good person. I’m not about to jump on the bandwagon and criticize him,” Skrepenak said. “His family – I know them as good people.”
Toole’s father, Patrick Toole, is a senior judge in the county and has been on the bench for three decades.