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Allegheny County DA charges state Supreme Court Justice Melvin

| Friday, May 18, 2012, 9:58 a.m.
Joan Orie Melvin, seen here during her induction ceremony to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Harrisburg in January 2010, was convicted of charges alleging she used state-paid staff for her campaign activities. Tribune-Review file photo

State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin this afternoon broke her silence on an investigation into allegations she used state staff for political work and denied the charges a prosecutor filed against her this morning.

"I'm a woman of faith," Melvin, 56, a Marshall Republican, told reporters gathered outside Pittsburgh Municipal Court, Downtown, following her arraignment on nine charges. "My strong faith in God is the cornerstone of my life. My faith will see me through this."

She said she would defend herself against what she called "politically motivated" charges from Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. She is the third Orie sister to face charges of using state staff for political work.

"Today's a sad day. Actually it's another sad day for me and my family," said Melvin, who was accompanied to court by her brother Jack, an attorney, and her daughter Casey. She pleaded not guilty and was released.

A lengthy grand jury investigation ended this morning with four felonies and five misdemeanors: three counts of theft of services, two counts of conspiracy, one count of solicitation to tamper with or fabricate evidence, two counts of official oppression and one count of misapplication of entrusted property.

"It's somewhat disappointing to hear the same old rhetoric," Lawrence Claus, assistant district attorney, said of Melvin's comments to reporters. "It's disingenuous to call these charges politically motivated. (That argument) was disavowed by a court in earlier proceedings. The commonwealth vigorously denied that. These charges arose out of a grand jury presentment."

The state Supreme Court this afternoon issued an order that relieves Melvin of her duties after her lawyer sent a letter saying she would step aside. The order bars her from participating in any cases "to protect and preserve the integrity of the Unified Judicial System."

William I. Arbuckle III, a State College-based attorney representing Melvin, wrote in a one-page letter to Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille that Melvin was notified of the criminal charges against her this morning. The letter says Melvin is "voluntarily recusing herself from all judicial duties pending resolution of the criminal charges," but she is not resigning from the court.

"While the charges against Justice Melvin will be resolved in court, her arrest should serve as a reminder to public officials that no one is above the law," said Gov. Tom Corbett, a fellow Republican from Shaler.

A 75-page grand jury presentment details allegations that Melvin used her publicly paid staffers in her run for the state Supreme Court.

The presentment focuses on Melvin's use of state staffers for her 2003 and 2009 campaigns.

"It now appears that not only was Justice Orie Melvin directly and knowingly involved in using state paid staffers from both the judicial and legislative branches of the Pennsylvania government in her political campaign activities, but it also appears that she was aided in those endeavors by two accomplices, co-conspirators, and siblings - Janine Mary Orie and Jane Clare Orie," the presentment states.

Melvin instructed Jane Orie's chief of staff, Jamie Pavlot, during a phone call to remove political documents from two boxes of materials that Pavlot had taken from the state senator's office on Nov. 1, 2009, two days after an intern in Orie's office told investigators that she witnesses staff members in Orie's office performing campaign work.

"This is a very huge embarrassment for the Supreme Court because they have not moved forward on prosecuting her themselves through the Judicial Conduct Board," said Gene Stilp, a Harrisburg activist who lodged three complaints against Melvin with the board, the first two years ago.

James Koval, a court spokesman, said the board acts separately from the court.

Stilp said the Supreme Court appoints members. Of 12 members, six are appointed by the high court and six by the governor.

The justice's future has been a focus of attention since a jury in March convicted her sister, Jane Orie, 50, of 14 charges for misusing her state staff for campaign work and knowingly introducing forged documents as evidence during a previous trial. The jury acquitted the senator of two charges of directing staff to do campaign work for Melvin during her 2003 and 2009 judicial campaigns.

Another sister, former Melvin aide Janine Orie, 57, also faces charges that she directed both Melvin's staff and the senator's staff to do political work to benefit the judge. Janine Orie's latest charges came in December and she's awaiting trial.

Janine Orie's attorney, James DePasquale, said he expects prosecutors to seek to combine his client's case with Melvin's- a move he plans to oppose. Her trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 13, but DePasquale said if the two cases are joined, the trial would likely be postponed.

"Janine Orie is nothing more than collateral damage in this," he said.

DePasquale said he thinks Janine Orie will be found not guilty.

"I'm surprised (about Melvin's charges). Based on the evidence I'm aware of I didn't think there was enough. But in a way, I expected it. Logically, if they're saying she's at the center of this, you'd think she'd be indicted," DePasquale said.

Melvin, whom voters elected to the high court in 2009, is the first sitting Supreme Court Justice to be charged with a crime since 1993 when Justice Rolf Larsen was charged with illegally obtaining prescription drugs. A jury convicted him in 1994 of conspiracy for having a state employee buy prescription medications for him for depression.

Melvin received a target letter and a subpoena to testify before the grand jury in mid-December, typically the final step before a grand jury recommends charges. It's unclear whether Melvin ever appeared before the grand jury. It's also unclear when or if she will step down. Critics complained the grand jury investigation and charges against her sisters cast a cloud over court affairs.

Jane Orie is scheduled for sentencing June 4. Janine Orie's trial is scheduled for August 13. Jane and Janine Orie were tried together last year but the case ended in a mistrial in March 2011 when Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning found the senator's defense submitted forged documents. Manning decided to split the cases in February.

Politics have swirled around the investigation since Zappala's office raided Jane Orie's offices on McKnight Road in December 2009.

The Ories call Zappala's prosecution a political vendetta. The prosecutor's father -- former Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen Zappala -- and sister had ties to the gambling industry and Jane Orie says she is an opponent to legalized gambling, the Ories point out. The district attorney has denied any connection.

Melvin removed herself from hearing any Allegheny County criminal cases while on the bench. She is paid $195,309 a year. She worked as the chief magistrate for Pittsburgh before joining Common Pleas Court. She was elected to Superior Court in 1997.

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