Melvin conviction may reignite talk of reform in Pennsylvania
HARRISBURG — As lawmakers and court officials assess how suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin will leave the bench, others are pondering whether her corruption conviction will stop the pervasive use of tax dollars in Pennsylvania political campaigns.
Melvin, 56, of Marshall, convicted on Thursday on six criminal charges in Allegheny County, joins more than 30 state officials charged with public corruption during the past five years. Most of them, including eight ex-legislative leaders, were convicted.
Jurors found that Melvin and her sister and former staffer, Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless, conspired with a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, to use state-paid employees for political work during Melvin's campaigns for Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009. Jane Orie, 51, convicted separately, is serving 2 1⁄2 to 10 years in the State Correctional Institution in Cambridge Springs, Pa.
“So-called scandals like this can act as springboards to reform aspects of the system,” said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a court watchdog group that advocates appointing rather than electing judges, among other justice system changes.
Some elected officials cut corners and use state money for campaigns because they believe their policies and programs are so important that it's worth it, said Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at St. Vincent College and a former federal prosecutor. He said those officials think that “ ‘for me to continue serving my constituents and continue working on legislation I've worked on, I need to be in office.' ”
In Pennsylvania, Antkowiak said, that has led to a “blurring of the lines” between state and campaign business.
The next steps
Gov. Tom Corbett will nominate someone to replace Melvin if she resigns, is impeached or is removed by a judge at sentencing or by the Court of Judicial Discipline, which has an active complaint. The House will begin impeachment if she doesn't resign, according to a spokesman for Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney.
Melvin's seat would be up for election in November 2015, so her appointed replacement would serve until January 2016.
“(Corbett) will deal with that issue when a vacancy occurs,” spokesman Kevin Harley said of the appointment.
The change might take time. The Senate must confirm whomever Corbett nominates by a two-thirds vote. The Republican governor needs Democratic support to meet that threshhold — something that gives Senate Democrats leverage when negotiating the state budget before June 30.
The Supreme Court continues with six members, three Republicans and three Democrats. As a Republican, Melvin gave the GOP an edge as a potential deciding vote before her suspension in May. Republicans control the Senate, 27-23, but it will take 34 votes to confirm a nominee.
Allegheny County Judge Lester G. Nauhaus could end Melvin's tenure at her yet unscheduled sentencing.
In 1994, Allegheny County Judge W. Terrence O'Brien removed former Justice Rolf Larsen from the Supreme Court as a result of his conspiracy conviction for obtaining a fraudulent prescription. Larsen had a doctor write prescriptions for depression medication to court employees in an effort to keep his illness secret.
Larsen appealed. In October 1994, he was impeached following a Senate trial.
Though Larsen's actions didn't fit the mold of recent corruption, Melvin's did.
‘Embedded' in politics
The use of state resources in campaigns appears to be “embedded in Pennsylvania,” said Jim West, a former federal prosecutor. “Campaign money has always been an issue. Most often the issue is people awarding contracts or hiring people in exchange for campaign funds.”
In Melvin's case, and those of convicted ex-legislative leaders, the issue was using state-paid staff and not campaign money.
Crackdowns on illegal activity often follow high-profile criminal prosecutions — at least for awhile, said West, former acting U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania's Middle District.
“As soon as you take the pressure off, they go back to doing the same thing,” he said.
Former FBI Agent James Wedick said there's no simple way to stamp out corruption.
“We're always going to have a certain amount of politicians who are corrupt,” said Wedick of Sacramento. “There's no one solution. As long as there's money, there are some who will take it.”
State officials insist they have made separating campaigns and state business a priority. A Senate rule approved in 2010 reinforces what's is state law: Campaign activity on Senate work time and use of Senate resources for campaigns is banned.
House Democratic spokesman Bill Patton said in his caucus, “there is not a ban on staff voluntarily doing campaign work on their own time and away from their workplace, but there is a ban (since 2007) on any use of accrued ‘comp time' for campaign work.”
“Ethics rules apply to all members and staff,” said Senate Democratic spokeswoman Stacey Witalec. “They clearly identify activities that are specifically prohibited and define disciplinary procedures for (violators).”
Complete “transparency” on state records and audits can be a deterrent, said Craig Holman, lobbyist for Public Citizen in Washington.
The number of convictions of state officials in a short time span in Pennsylvania is “extraordinarily high,” said Holman. That points to tolerance among too many government officials, he said.
“A lot of credit goes to the prosecutors,” Holman said. “Very soon — probably now — public officials are realizing it is very serious to cross that line.”
Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or email@example.com.