Pennsylvania Supreme Court may be affected by Orie scandal

State Sen. Jane Orie (right) and sister Janine leaving a magistrate's office in Pittsburgh after surrendering in 2010. They face a retrial Feb. 27.
State Sen. Jane Orie (right) and sister Janine leaving a magistrate's office in Pittsburgh after surrendering in 2010. They face a retrial Feb. 27. (KEITH SRAKOCIC / Associated Press)
Posted: January 25, 2012

PITTSBURGH - For close to two years, Western Pennsylvania has been gripped by the scandalous political saga of the Orie sisters: Jane, the state senator; Joan, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice; and Janine, the fiercely loyal sibling.

As the scandal has unfolded - over Bonusgate-like allegations that Jane and Janine made state employees do election chores for Joan on state time - a cynical Pittsburgh public often has seemed as bemused as outraged. The Ories, a well-known family in the North Hills, have angrily called it a "vendetta" and a "mob hit" against them by an ambitious district attorney.

Trish Cloonan, owner of Park Cafe in the North Hills suburb of McCandless, where Jane and Janine Orie live in a large split-level house, said her daughter dressed up as the senator for Halloween in 2010: "Blond hair and a lot of lipstick."

Now, the tone is darkening as this mostly local story threatens to burst into the state Supreme Court with potential impact on the court's credibility and makeup.

Pittsburgh newspapers have reported that Joan Orie Melvin, elected to the Supreme Court as a Republican in November 2009, received a letter identifying her as the target of an Allegheny County grand jury looking into Orie family activities. Stephen Zappala Jr., the district attorney, declined comment.

Legal scholars say a target letter is usually a prelude to indictment. Some good-government and court-watchdog groups already are asking for Orie Melvin to resign or step aside.

Orie Melvin has indicated no plan to quit, but has recused herself from criminal cases out of Allegheny County. She sat on the bench Monday when the court heard oral arguments in a high-profile case dealing with the remapping of state House and Senate districts.

Jim Koval, spokesman for Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, said Castille had no comment on Orie Melvin's status. Castille has said that the usual procedure is for a judge, at any level, to be suspended with pay if charges are filed.

Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University, said Orie Melvin is in the same position as President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate scandal - unindicted coconspirator.

"The last [grand jury] presentment against her sister alleges criminality by her," Ledewitz said. "I think she has to step down. I think the legitimacy of the court is already suffering."

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a legal watchdog group, has called for Orie Melvin to temporarily step down or be suspended.

"We think that justices - and especially Supreme Court justices - should not be permitted to judge others while under the cloud of such a serious investigation," said Lynn Marks, the group's executive director.

A University of Pittsburgh law professor, John M. Burkoff, noted, however, that there has been no court confirmation of Orie Melvin getting a target letter.

"She hasn't been indicted and she hasn't been charged," he said. "If that happens, then I agree she should step down."

For the closely knit Orie clan, the last couple of years have been a horrid soap opera.

Children of a doctor, Jane, Janine, and Joan grew up with six other siblings, all with names starting with "J." Eight of the nine became lawyers or doctors; two became both.

Some have noted that the sisters even look a bit alike, with long hair, pulled back, and bangs.

In April 2010, a grand jury indicted Jane and Janine over the alleged use of Senate resources for political purposes - partly to help Joan win her 2009 Supreme Court race against Democrat Jack Panella. The battle set records for spending on a campaign for a court post.

Jane Orie, in addition, was charged in August with falsifying documents presented in her initial prosecution, which ended in mistrial. Janine was additionally charged last month with ordering the destruction of computer files.

James DePasquale, Janine Orie's lawyer, said he was confident his client would be cleared of all charges. Jane Orie's attorney did not comment.

Although Orie Melvin is not charged, the grand jury alleged Dec. 15 that she permitted campaign activity in her Superior Court office in 2003 while running unsuccessfully for the Supreme Court against Democrat Max Baer.

The jury said that Janine Orie, on paper a secretary, ran Orie Melvin's judicial office with an iron fist and ordered staff members to perform election tasks. The jury quoted staff members as saying they were forced to enter campaign data into state computers, run campaign checks to the bank, write campaign speeches, and work at polls.

One staffer, law clerk Lisa Sasinoski, said she had overheard Orie Melvin, in her chambers, making phone calls to GOP state committee members.

Neither Orie Melvin nor her lawyer could be reached for comment.

Many of these allegations are similar to the recent scandal that brought down several officials in the Bucks County Register of Wills Office.

They also are similar to charges that Gov. Corbett, as attorney general, brought against two top Democrats in the state House - Bill DeWeese and Mike Veon - and one top Republican, former House Speaker John M. Perzel.

Joel Sansone, Veon's attorney, said the charges deal with practices that were long routine in the offices of elected officials - and hardly ever prosecuted.

Sansone sees the Veon and DeWeese investigations as motivated by Corbett's desire to be governor - and the Perzel investigation as cover by Corbett to make sure he targeted a Republican, too.

(Kevin Harley, spokesman for Corbett, dismissed that contention as "ridiculous" and said, "These allegations are investigated by professional prosecutors and agents, and presented before a grand jury, which recommended these charges.")

Sansone agreed with Orie family assertions that politics also motivated Zappala.

"Zappala and the Democrats have to do something, so they turn around and hit as high and as hard as they can," he said. "It's all politics."

Mike Manko, Zappala's spokesman, denied any political motivation and said, "If you read the presentments, you would know that such a statement is false and defamatory."

Some Orie supporters have suggested that Zappala's probe is payback for Jane Orie's opposition in the Senate to some state-approved gaming. Zappala's father, former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Zappala Sr., has been associated with a casino group.

The Zappalas are Italian American, and some Italian Americans took offense when an Orie brother used the term "Mafia hit" to describe the prosecutions.

Ray Zaborney, a Republican political consultant, said that enmity between Zappala family and the Ories is real and deep.

"This is the Hatfields and the McCoys," he said.

In Pittsburgh, the Orie saga seems like a story that has drawn on for a long time. A retrial of charges against Jane and Janine is set for Feb. 27.

Jane Orie's 40th Senate District, north of Pittsburgh, is heavily Republican, and Orie easily won reelection after she was indicted in 2010.

Joan and Janine, neither married, live together in the house where they grew up. Orie Melvin is also in the area; her judicial chambers are in Pittsburgh.

Jim Burn, the Democratic state chairman, said: "Many of the Republicans in that district are quite sympathetic toward the senator."

Indeed, the Associated Press reported Sunday that the judge in Janine and Jane Orie's retrial is being asked by prosecutors to bar district residents from the jury. They said the state senator had sent a letter to some constituents asking for character witnesses.

"The Ories, they've done a lot of great things for the community," said James Cunningham, a West View jewelry store owner. "I think if you are good and straight going into politics, you have to deal with corrupt entities to do whatever you want. . . . You wonder who's right and who's wrong."


Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.

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