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The Melvin sentence: Judges protecting judges

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Saturday, May 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

HARRISBURG

Inmate number KN1888 at the state correctional institution at Retreat must be slamming weights around in anger at the prison gym where he is said to have a “job.”

That inmate would be Howard William DeWeese, otherwise known as Bill DeWeese, whose taxpayer-paid portrait hangs in a Capitol hallway with other past speakers of the state House of Representatives.

DeWeese, a Democrat, is serving a 2½-to-5-year prison sentence after his conviction on felonies for using his legislative staff for campaigns. The five felonies included theft of taxpayers' resources.

Surely, DeWeese is furious at the hypocrisy and injustice of ex-state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican, committing essentially the same crime and getting three years of house arrest. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus, a former defense attorney, last week also required Melvin to mail a letter of apology and photo of herself in handcuffs to every judge in the state.

By Bonusgate standards, Melvin's sentence doesn't even qualify as a slap on the wrist. It seems she was given an outright pass by another jurist. Nauhaus said he saw no reason to spend more tax dollars having Melvin sit in prison.

Her sister, ex-Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, along with DeWeese and six other former legislative leaders, is serving prison time for misusing public resources. Jane Orie's sentence is 2½ to 10 years for using her Senate staff to work on Joan's campaigns for the high court. Jane Orie, sentenced by Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning, no doubt got the stiffer sentence as a result of her effort to cover up her crime by forging documents submitted to the court that put her case in a better light.

Orie apologists suggest Melvin's crime was miniscule compared to the legislative leaders'. It's true. The amount of Joan's theft was $33,000; Jane's was $23,000. DeWeese's exceeded $100,000, prosecutors said, but even that was small compared to other schemes by House Democrats and Republicans.

Would it be considered “a lot” if someone stole $33,000 from a convenience store?

The House Democrats' scheme to award bonuses to staffers for campaign work cost at least $1.4 million of tax money. A House GOP computer scam involved $10 million.

DeWeese deserved prison time because of the leadership positions he held in the House for decades. People who write the laws can't be above them. By Bonusgate standards, Melvin would have received, maybe, a year in prison. Abusing the position she held on the state's highest court warranted punishment behind bars.

Given her restrictions on house arrest, Nauhaus told the Trib's Adam Brandolph, “I don't see how anyone can say this is any different from prison.”

Ah, right. Prison in her five-bedroom Marshall house valued at $555,000.

Nauhaus might not have intended it but he reinforced public perceptions that the judiciary takes care of its own.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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