Orie jury selection to begin Tuesday

| Monday, Feb. 7, 2011

A courtroom battle set to begin Tuesday between state Sen. Jane Orie and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. could have implications for both powerful politicians and affect elected officials across the state, experts say.

What's on the line for Orie, the McCandless Republican charged with theft of services and conflict of interest, is clear: her career after 14 years in Harrisburg and possibly her freedom. Zappala, the Democratic prosecutor for the past 13 years, risks an acquittal that could dog him for some time.

Unless the state Supreme or Superior courts intervene, jury selection is scheduled to start Tuesday in the Allegheny County Courthouse for a trial that has generated fierce accusations from both sides.

"If she's acquitted, she appears vindicated, and she'll continue to argue she was prosecuted for political reasons," said G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst with Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. "If Zappala gets a conviction, that argument dissipates. It's gone."

Orie's attorney, William Costopoulos, and a spokesman for Zappala declined to comment, citing a gag order in the case.

The trial provides the stage for a clash of two of Western Pennsylvania's most powerful political families. Orie, a former county and state prosecutor who started her political career as a state House member from the North Hills, claims Zappala is targeting her for opposition to casino gambling, to which his family has connections.

Zappala, son of retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr., has said Orie "fabricated" claims against him and his family as a smokescreen for her wrongdoing.

Political observers across the state will watch the case not just because of its potential impact in the Senate, but for the precedent it could set, Madonna said.

"One of the fascinating things about this case is whether it will lead other district attorneys to look at violations of that (conflict of interest) statute and move to prosecute lawmakers in their district," Madonna said.

He noted most recent prosecutions involving politicians have come from the state Attorney General's Office. As attorney general, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett indicted numerous current and former lawmakers, and staffers during an investigation that started with bonuses paid to employees for political work.

Orie, 49, stepped down as the Senate's majority whip in April when Zappala charged her with using state-paid legislative staffers to conduct campaign work for her and her sister, Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

Another sister, Janine Orie, 56, an aide to Melvin, faces similar charges. Melvin was not charged but is under grand jury investigation.

"The characters involved in this case are big characters, larger than life, and I'm not just talking about the defendants. I'm including the attorneys," said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff. "They're colorful and able attorneys. It should be an incredible show."

Orie and Costopoulos made a last-minute plea to the Supreme Court last week seeking a delay in the trial and dismissal of the charges on grounds they are unconstitutionally vague and overly broad.

Senate Republicans filed a motion supporting that position, claiming the laws Orie is charged with violating never were intended to allow local prosecutors to pursue criminal charges for campaigning on state time.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning rejected requests to delay the case. He denied a request from prosecutors to pick the jury from outside Allegheny County, although he ruled that no one from Orie's senatorial district can sit on the jury. Orie's district covers traditionally Republican northern Allegheny County and southern Butler County.

Lawyers on both sides anticipate the trial could last up to three weeks, with at least two dozen witnesses for the prosecution and possibly an equal number for the defense. Prosecutors will rely on current and former Orie staffers, including her former chief of staff, Jamie Pavlot.

Costopoulos and Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus, who is prosecuting the case, squared off before in a case against former Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen. Claus at the time was a deputy attorney general.


A jury convicted Larsen in Allegheny County on April 9, 1994, of conspiracy for having a state employee buy prescription medications for him for depression. He was acquitted of other criminal counts.

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