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Justice Joan Orie Melvin's sister faces four additional charges

Jason Cato
| Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011

Allegheny County prosecutors filed new corruption charges on Friday against a sister of state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and painted a picture of a judicial office immersed in partisan politics for almost two decades.

The 29-page grand jury presentment alleges that Janine Orie, 57, of McCandless, an aide to the justice, directed court personnel to work on Orie Melvin's campaigns on state time and that staff lawyers complained to the justice. Court personnel are prohibited from political activities.

The allegations come as Janine Orie and her sister, state Sen. Jane Orie, 49, of McCandless, await a new trial on charges they used the senator's state-paid staff to perform campaign work and submitted forged documents in their defense.

Janine Orie faces four new charges of theft of services, misapplication of entrusted property, tampering with or fabricating physical evidence and criminal solicitation regarding that evidence. She ordered Orie Melvin's staff to perform campaign duties for both sisters at times during elections from 1991 to 2009, according to grand jury testimony. Orie Melvin, 55, of Marshall has not been charged.

Five current and former staffers testified before a state grand jury that they believed orders from Janine Orie to them came from Orie Melvin. John Degener, the justice's chief law clerk, testified that he "had no reason to believe that Orie Melvin did not know of the political and/or campaign activities."

The justice's deputy staff attorney Molly Creenan told the grand jury that she refused to perform political tasks at work and confronted the justice about the illegal campaign work. Former law clerk Lisa Sasinoski, wife of Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kevin Sasinoski and a former prosecutor, testified that she was fired in 2003 after approaching Orie Melvin with similar complaints. She now is a law clerk for Justice Max Baer of Pittsburgh.

Testimony in the grand jury report also claims:

• Orie Melvin ordered a law clerk to research her court opinions in order to foster an endorsement from the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association;

• The justice solicited Republican committee members using her chamber's telephone;

• Janine Orie sent at least three judicial staff members to polling places in Penn Hills and Squirrel Hill to distribute campaign materials for Orie Melvin;

• A week before the 2003 election, Janine Orie ordered Sasinoski to use Orie Melvin expense vouchers to fabricate expense records for Jane Orie to get cash to be used as "street money";

• Staff members prepared campaign materials, including solicitations for contributions and "thank you" letters, using office materials and equipment;

• Janine Orie in 2009 directed Kathy Squires, Orie Melvin's secretary, to delete all campaign files from her work computer.

"My faith will get me through this," Janine Orie said as she left Municipal Court about 8:30 p.m. She was released on her own recognizance.

A message left for Orie Melvin at her Downtown office was not returned.

Jack Orie defended his sisters and attacked Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

"It's a shock. It just seems to be an unrelenting vendetta by the District Attorney's Office to protect his family's gambling interest," said Jack Orie, invoking a previous allegation that prosecutors are targeting his family because Sen. Orie opposed the gambling industry, with which the Zappala family has ties. "For the DA to make these charges, it is a breach of duty, it is immoral, it is illegal."

Mike Manko, spokesman for the District Attorney's Office, said: "The presentment and charges speak for themselves. The comments from the defendant's brother are not worthy of a response."

Zappala's father, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen Zappala, is the head of the Pennsylvania Casino Association, a trade group that represents three casinos, including Rivers Casino on the North Shore.

The district attorney's sister, Michelle Zappala-Peck, worked with Sasinoski on Baer's staff and now is an employee of the Pennsylvania Casino Association.

Zappala Jr., a Democrat, in April 2010 charged Republican Jane Orie and Janine Orie of using the senator's state-paid staff to perform campaign work for Orie Melvin. The senator, a former county and state prosecutor, also is charged with using her staff for her own political benefit. She and Janine Orie have pleaded not guilty.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning declared a mistrial during jury deliberations in March after prosecutors presented evidence that a signature was forged on two documents the defense presented during trial. In September, Zappala charged Jane Orie with 16 additional counts, including forgery and perjury, related to the doctored documents.

A new trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 13.

Prosecutors are trying to implicate Orie Melvin, Jack Orie said. When considered for a possible nomination to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Orie Melvin underwent an extensive FBI background check and "passed with flying colors," he said.

Orie Melvin was appointed a magistrate judge in Pittsburgh in 1985, joined the Common Pleas bench in 1990 and was elected to the state Superior Court in 1997. She was elected to the state Supreme Court in 2009.

Neither Orie Melvin's current employees nor Lisa Sasinoski could be reached for comment.

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