Producer Robert May was working on a fictional film about corruption and greed when his attention was hijacked by a real-life judicial shocker in his own community.
May, the force behind a handful of acclaimed movies including "The Station Agent" with Michelle Williams and the Oscar-winning "Fog Of War," quickly abandoned his original project to turn his cameras on the story that was unfolding around his home in Dallas, Luzerne County.
The result is "Kids For Cash," a documentary about two Luzerne County judges who were convicted of selling teens up the river for their own financial gain.
"I remember when the scandal broke, I thought, 'What is going on here?' I was really taken aback by the whole idea of this happening to these celebrated judges, guys I'd probably voted for," recalls May, who makes his directorial debut with the movie. "None of it computed to me. It was very shocking."
May wasn't the only one who was shocked. The scandal made national headlines and snagged the attention of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who featured a segment about the judges in his 2009 film "Capitalism: A Love Story," a look at corporate greed.
May, through his SenArt Films, spent more than four years making "Kids For Cash," which examines the case from the day the scandal broke in 2008 until the conviction and sentencing of the judges. The film just opened in Philadelphia, Wilkes-Barre and Scranton and is rolling out to more theaters.
The story begins in 1996 in the wake of the Columbine school shooting. Mark Ciavarella was elected judge in Luzerne County with a promise to keep unruly kids in line. On his watch, more than 3,000 children were imprisoned for crimes as minor as creating a fake Myspace page, mistakenly buying a stolen scooter, shoplifting DVDs and engaging in a schoolyard brawl.
A number of parents dared to question the draconian judgments being handed out by Ciavarella. The Philly-based Juvenile Law Center began an investigation and uncovered payments made to Ciavarella and fellow judge Michael Conahan by Robert Mericle, the builder of two private, for-profit juvenile facilities. The judges, it turned out, had received more than $2.8 million in bribes for helping fill the centers with kids.
When "Kids For Cash" premiered at the Doc NYC festival in late 2013, it garnered rave reviews. The Hollywood Reporter called the film "riveting," describing it as "a real-life thriller that rivals the most dramatic fiction in terms of emotional impact." Variety, meanwhile, heralded the film as "deeply shocking and continually surprising," as well as a "scathing critique of America's juvenile justice system, the privatization of penal institutions, and the whole notion of 'zero tolerance.'"
May, 56, says directing "Kids For Cash" changed his life. "I judge my own kids differently now," says the father of two teenagers. "I don't assume they have ill intent, or that they're trying to annoy me. They're learning.
"And I'm a lot more dubious about the prosecution system. I'm a lot less judgmental about kids and adults, in fact. Until you can put yourself in someone else's shoes, how do you know what it's like to be in those shoes? I think we all need to have a lot more empathy."
While the kids' stories form the emotional heart of the movie, the film is at its most fascinating when Conahan and, particularly, Ciavarella are on camera. Getting the judges to participate in the documentary was a real coup for May, who, early on, was convinced the film would be richer if both sides of the story were included.
"It was portrayed [in the media] as a one-dimensional story," says May. "I thought if we could tell the tale from the side of both the villains and the victims, it would be like something right out of Charles Dickens. It would be one of these crazy, dark stories that you couldn't believe was happening.
"And the deeper we got, the more layers we pulled back, the more astonished I became at how easily [this kind of corruption] can happen."
May says it was tricky getting in touch with the judges but once he was able to make contact, he easily convinced them to participate.
"It was really simple," he notes. "I basically said, 'I want to tell both sides of the story. I assume you have a story and didn't just wake up one day deciding to sell children for money.' It was about gaining their trust."
Throughout the filming, Ciavarella, who is serving 28 years in federal prison for wire fraud, tax evasion, and honest services fraud, maintains his innocence. While he admits receiving the bribe (or "finder's fee" as he calls it), he insists he never imprisoned youngsters in exchange for cash.
Still, despite his protestations and crocodile tears, Ciavarella comes off as guilty as sin.
"Sometimes, he'd say it wasn't about greed and then he'd say he was greedy," says May. "But it was greed. What else is it? If he was going to take the money, he should have quit being a judge and gone back to being a lawyer. It was a classic case of greed, of wanting to have your cake and eat it too."
Conahan is serving 17 years.