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Melvin's former aide resumes testimony; judge rejects mistrial

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James Knox | Tribune-Review
State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin enters the Allegheny County Courthouse on Jan. 25. A jury convicted her of corruption on Feb. 21.
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By Bobby Kerlik and Adam Brandolph
Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, 10:28 a.m.

Defense attorneys for suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin attacked the credibility of her former chief law clerk on Monday, accusing her of giving false information to the jury and grilling her on when she talked to prosecutors about her former boss.

Key prosecution witness Lisa Sasinoski, 55, of O'Hara told jurors she was “mistaken” when she testified on Friday that a handwritten directive from Melvin was political.

Under questioning from Melvin's attorney, Patrick Casey, and after being shown supporting documents, Sasinoski said Monday the note was related to a professional development conference sponsored by the Pennsylvania Bar Association. She thought it was a political questionnaire from a special interest group when Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus asked her about it.

“This is a letter from the judge to me, like so many others directing me to answer questions,” Sasinoski said.

On the seventh day of Melvin's corruption trial before Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus, Sasinoski spoke more about political work she says Melvin made her do.

On cross-examination, Casey suggested that Sasinoski talked to prosecutors after receiving an immunity deal.

“I did not contact anyone with respect to this,” Sasinoski said. “When they contacted me, because they already found incriminating evidence, I hired an attorney.”

Melvin, 56, of Marshall and her sister, Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless are charged with using the justice's Superior Court employees and equipment for her run for the high court in 2003 and 2009. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Nauhaus denied a request for a mistrial as Melvin's attorneys accused Claus of intentionally eliciting false testimony from Sasinoski about the note. Nauhaus instructed the jury that Sasinoski testified inaccurately about the note and it had nothing to do with politics.

Claus said he made a mistake when he didn't show Sasinoski paperwork indicating the questionnaire was connected to a conference on “Professional Development at the Women in Profession Conference,” for which Melvin was a panel member.

Sasinoski, a lawyer and the wife of Common Pleas Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski, testified she went to work for Justice Max Baer two weeks after Melvin fired her in 2003. Baer beat Melvin in the 2003 Supreme Court race.

Casey did not question her extensively about working for Baer, her husband's 1999 campaign for judge or her testimony about doing political work for Melvin on state time.

“The defense is probably thinking that the less time Lisa Sasinoski is on the stand, the better,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff, who is following the case. “It seems to me they think they were given an opportunity because of the mistake and she had to admit it was a mistake. Sometimes it's better to stop while you're ahead.”

Villanova University law professor Anne Poulin said the defense can argue, “ ‘Look, she's saying whatever the prosecution wants her to say, and here's an example of that.' That's a pretty sharp attack on credibility.”

Another former clerk, Molly Creenan, 42, of Dormont is expected to resume her testimony on Tuesday. Creenan testified that Melvin and Orie didn't speak to her for weeks in 2009 after she confronted Melvin about using judicial staff and office equipment to run for Supreme Court.

“I told her I had concerns. I told her what happened in 2003 could not happen in 2009,” Creenan said.

Creenan said she suggested Orie take a leave of absence to work on the campaign and reminded her boss of investigations into legislators who gave out illegal bonuses in 2007 and former state Rep. Jeff Habay, a Shaler Republican who in 2006 was convicted of public corruption.

“I told her if there was ever an investigation into our office, I would tell the truth,” she said.

Bobby Kerlik and Adam Brandolph are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Kerlik can be reached at 412-320-7886 or Brandolph can be reached at 412-391-0927 or

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