Orie defense starts; will she take stand?

| Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011

Sen. Jane Orie's lawyer began her defense against corruption charges with testimony from seven witnesses, but would not say whether the former Republican whip from McCandless will take the stand when the trial resumes Monday.

Like any criminal defendant, Orie has a constitutional right not to incriminate herself, noted John Burkoff, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. But because she's a politician, her constituents might unfairly suspect she is guilty if she doesn't defend herself, Burkoff said.

"Ninety-five percent of the problem is you open yourself up to cross-examination," he said. "The other 5 percent is that you might act in a way that makes the jury nervous about you or question your credibility."

Orie, 49, faces 10 charges. Her sister Janine Orie, 56, an aide to their sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, faces two charges. Both are accused of directing political work on the taxpayers' dime.

Defense attorney William Costopoulos started the defense Friday with a certified public accountant who blasted prosecutors' calculations that taxpayers lost out on $261,684 to $552,395 worth of work from Orie staffers while they performed campaign work on state time.

The prosecution's calculations "virtually failed every accounting standard in existence today," Downtown accountant Kenneth McCrory said.

Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus earlier concluded the government's case with Detective Kevin Flanigan, an accountant from the District Attorney's Office.

Several staffers testified during 11 days of trial about campaign work they said they did. Costopoulos' witnesses included three current or former staffers who said they never saw or did campaign work on state time.

Flanigan based his numbers on the percentage of time each Orie staffer estimated he did campaign work. He multiplied that by the staffers' salaries.

"He made the incorrect assumption that each employee's day was 7 12 hours long. ... Most of the employees testified they worked longer than that," McCrory said. "In this case, the numbers (from the staffers) are vague and from distant memories. They are not only unreliable but they're not objective measurements at all."

Costopoulos called to the stand Stephen MacNett, retired chief counsel to Senate Republicans, who testified that prior to 2010, "under Senate rules there was nothing that prohibited political work in the office," as long as it was done on comp time.

Costopoulos hasn't said whether Jane Orie, a former county prosecutor, will testify.

Troubled politicians often yearn to testify in court, even if their lawyers advise them it could be damaging, said Patrick Thomassey, a defense attorney who has represented public officials.

"The biggest thing is assessing the strength of the commonwealth's case," he said. "If it's not that strong, then you can only hurt yourself by putting your client on the stand. They're so used to public speaking; they want to do something when their name has been besmirched," Thomassey said.

Former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon did not testify during his 2010 public corruption trial. Veon was convicted and is serving six to 14 years at Laurel Highlands State Correctional Institution.

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