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Melvin's former law clerk takes stand against the justice

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Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 10:34 a.m.
 

Being the chief law clerk for Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin was more than just a job for Lisa Sasinoski.

The former Allegheny County assistant district attorney, who is married to Common Pleas Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski, spent 13 years at Melvin's side writing opinions, supervising others and helping Melvin in her 2003 bid for a seat on the state Supreme Court.

On Friday, the sixth day of Melvin's public corruption trial, Sasinoski, 55, of O'Hara turned from a “trusted employee” to the state's star witness, describing political work she did.

“I'm ashamed of it. I'm embarrassed that I ever got involved,” she said. “I felt obligated to because you were an employee so it was like a team. Everyone in the office just worked together.”

Melvin, 56, of Marshall and her sister, Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless are charged with using the justice's then-Superior Court employees and employees of another sister, former Sen. Jane Orie, to run for the high court in 2003 and 2009. Both pleaded not guilty. The trial before Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus started Jan. 25 and is expected to last three more weeks.

A jury in March convicted Jane Orie of 14 counts of corruption. Melvin has been suspended from the high court since May 18.

Sasinoski, now a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Max Baer — Melvin's opponent in 2003 — spent four hours on the witness stand telling jurors how she stuffed envelopes, filled out endorsement questionnaires, updated Melvin's biography, traveled with Melvin to political events and spent an estimated 25 to 35 percent of her time on campaign-related activities, all while juggling her official duties in chambers.

“Did you have any qualms about doing political work in the judicial office?” Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus asked.

“Yes, I did, because we were not allowed to,” Sasinoski said.

On one occasion in 2003, a judicial staffer was entering campaign donor information in a spreadsheet on her work computer when she hit the wrong button and lost two days of work. The employee called Sasinoski, who contacted Linda Ollio, the court's local computer IT employee. Ollio found the file, but told Sasinoski she wouldn't restore the document because it was labeled “campaign.”

“She said, ‘I can't be political, I can't allow you to be political and you can't use a court computer to be political,'” Sasinoski said. Ollio is expected to testify later in the trial.

On another occasion shortly before the 2003 election, Sasinoski said Janine Orie told her to duplicate campaign expense reports claiming the senator had traveled with them. The campaign reimbursed Janine Orie, who returned cash to Melvin. The “street money” was used to pay people for driving others to the polls, Sasinoski said.

Fed up and “almost shaking,” Sasinoski said she met her husband for lunch and told him what had transpired.

“He said, ‘Are you crazy? If it doesn't mean enough that you have a law license or it doesn't mean enough that I have a career, I wonder what the kids are going to think when they see your picture in the paper in handcuffs?'” she said.

A few weeks later, on Dec. 8, Sasinoski said she confronted her longtime boss.

“I said this has to stop. ... Judge Melvin looked at me and said, ‘Stop? We've got to kick it up a notch.'”

Sasinoski was fired two days later.

Her testimony will continue on Monday.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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