Judge invokes seldom-used law: Orie must pay back taxpayers for her legal defense

Former State Sen. Jane C. Orie
Former State Sen. Jane C. Orie (GENE J. PUSKAR / Associated Press, file)
Posted: July 05, 2012

For the first time, a judge has ordered a Pennsylvania politician convicted of corruption to pay back to taxpayers the money put up for legal defense.

A state law has been on the books since 1996 that requires the payback of taxpayer-underwritten defense by any politician found guilty. But it had never been enforced.

Since then, numerous politicians - from former Philadelphia State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo to House Speaker John M. Perzel, both now in prison - have received public money to cover a substantial part of their legal bills.

In the last four years alone, federal and state prosecutors have won convictions against 25 elected politicians and aides, many of whom have had legal expenses paid.

In Fumo's case, for instance, taxpayers paid $1.2 million to his initial defense lawyer until he was indicted. After that, Fumo tapped his campaign fund for an additional $1.1 million in legal fees.

In Tuesday's ruling, former State Sen. Jane C. Orie of the Pittsburgh area was ordered to reimburse the state treasury for $110,000 paid to two law firms and an expert witness in her effort to stave off her conviction on charges of using her state employees to do campaign work and of forgery in a cover-up.

She must also pay an additional $70,000 in restitution, a sum mainly representing a tripling of the value of the illegal campaign work by her staff.

After the ruling in Allegheny County Court, Stephen A. Zappala Jr., the district attorney who dusted off the statute to use against Orie, issued a statement condemning the failure of others to go after the money.

"These fees are routinely paid," Zappala said, "and the citizens of this commonwealth are twice victimized upon conviction of corrupt politicians."

Orie, 50, a Republican, resigned from the Senate in May, two months after she was convicted of five felony and nine misdemeanor counts.

She accused Zappala, a Democrat, of prosecuting her for political reasons. Two sisters, including Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, are awaiting trial on similar campaign-related criminal charges.

Last month, Judge Jeffrey A. Manning sentenced Jane Orie to 21/2 to 10 years in state prison. He then imprisoned her immediately while he decided what kind of financial penalty to impose.

In his 14-page financial opinion Tuesday, Manning was blunt in establishing a route for the state treasury to get its money. He ordered Orie to immediately forfeit $89,000 in pension contributions.

He said she should pay the remaining $91,000 at a rate of $500 per month upon parole. At that rate, it would take her 15 years to pay off the debt.

Finally, Manning also said Orie would have to pay the cost of her own prosecution. The cost of this has not yet been determined.

Orie's lawyer, William C. Costopoulos, could not be reached Tuesday for comment. In court last month, he called the prosecution's financial pursuit of Orie "mean-spirited" and complained that the invoking of the payback law was unprecedented.

At that June 4 hearing, Manning seemed unmoved by the argument.

"I don't know that I am creating new law," he said from the bench. "I am only saying that the fact that other prosecutors did not seek this kind of prosecution doesn't necessarily mean that it is inappropriate."

Under long-standing policy in the legislature, public money is used to pay the legal bills of elected officials and aides for cases related to their government roles until the date they are officially charged with crimes.

After a furor about $440,000 in state funds used to hire defense lawyers for then-Attorney General Ernest D. Preate Jr. before his 1995 guilty plea for corruption, the legislature the next year approved the law to require payback by any politician found guilty.

Lawyers for the state Senate told Manning that a total of about $1.2 million was spent in public money to law firms hired in response to the investigation launched by Zappala.

Of that money, the lawyers asserted, only $110,000 was spent directly to represent Orie. The remainder, they said, was used to represent the Senate's interests, not hers.

The Senate lawyers said it would be improper to have her pay the money spent on the Senate's behalf.

Most of the $1.1 million spent on the Senate's behalf went to the Conrad O'Brien firm of Philadelphia and West Chester. According to the firm's filings in court, the money paid for such services as:

Getting back items "unlawfully seized" during a search of Orie's district Senate office. The materials were GOP caucus material, "not Sen. Orie's personal property," filings said.

Fighting in court with prosecutors over the seizure of "legislatively privileged" material in Senate documents.

Reviewing thousands of pages of documents, in paper and electronic form, before turning them over to the prosecution in response to subpoenas.

Representing 20 Republican aides who were caught up in the grand-jury investigation.

Prosecutors had argued that Orie should owe as much as $780,000 for the work put in by her staff on campaigns between 2001 and 2009. The figure includes the trebling called for under the law.

But Manning said that figure was based on questionable assumptions, and instead, he imposed his lower figure of about $70,000.

While Orie has been imprisoned, her sister, Justice Orie Melvin, awaits trial on charges of using public staff for campaign work during two bids for a seat on the high court.

The other indicted sister, Janine Orie, who worked as a top aide to Orie Melvin, has been charged with allegedly conspiring to use Sen. Orie's staff to also illegally campaign on Orie Melvin's behalf. Her trial is next month.

Sen. Orie was acquitted on the charges related to this campaigning.

Contact Craig R. McCoy

at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

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