Records in Orie office seized by Allegheny County DA

| Thursday, Dec. 24, 2009

HARRISBURG -- Authorities seized thousands of computer records last week from a district office of Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie as part of an investigation by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

Orie's lawyer, Jerry McDevitt, on Wednesday denounced the search as "an abuse of the prosecutorial process."

Orie, 48, of McCandless is the third-ranking member of Senate Republican leadership. She could not be reached for comment.

The subject of the investigation is not clear. Mike Manko, spokesman for the prosecutor, would not discuss it.

McDevitt, of the Downtown firm K&L Gates, blasted the seizure as "one of the most political maneuvers by a highly political district attorney" and said it was the first case he knew in which "a local district attorney invaded a state legislator's computer system."

He described the seizure as "the equivalent of 50,000 boxes of records."

"If the attorney for the senator has confirmed the existence of an investigation by the Allegheny County Investigative Grand Jury, then it is neither necessary nor appropriate for this office to comment further," Zappala's office said in a written statement. "As for statements about the District Attorney and/or his family, counsel is clearly posturing on behalf of his client."

McDevitt recently successfully defended former county Coroner Cyril Wecht against federal charges of using his public office for private gain. Last night he called the search of Orie's office invalid and compared it with searches conducted during the Wecht case, when a judge tossed out evidence obtained during unconstitutional searches.

Orie, a former county prosecutor, comes from a prominent North Hills family. Her sister, Joan Orie Melvin, won election in November to the state Supreme Court, returning control of the seven-member court to the Republicans.

McDevitt contends Zappala is pursuing the case because of Melvin's victory over Democrat Jack Panella. The investigation began right after the election, he said.

McDevitt suggested the investigation might be focused on whether there was political activity in Orie's office for her sister.

An intern for Orie complained to the District Attoney's office about alleged campaigning in the office for Melvin.

It's also an attempt to "bludgeon" Orie for her pursuit of changes in gambling laws "because of the Zappala family's interests on gaming issues," McDevitt said. Former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Zappala, the district attorney's father, is chairman of the Pennsylvania Casino Association and the prosecutor's sister, Michele Zappala Peck, has worked for the group.

McDevitt said he filed a Right to Know Law request with Zappala for the prosecutor's office records. "Let's find out whether any political activity is going on in the District Attorney's office," McDevitt said.

Orie grew up the youngest of five girls in a family of nine children. The daughter of Dr. John Orie and the late Jean Orie, she is single and lives with her father. No one answered the door at her McCandless home yesterday.

Staffers at Orie's office in McCandless said the senator was taking vacation time at home with family and would be unavailable for an interview. She has another office in Cranberry.

In Harrisburg, Orie has been outspoken about the need to reform state regulation of Pennsylvania's casino industry and the Turnpike Commission. She played a prominent role in passing legislation to combat domestic violence and child predators.

Orie served as a deputy attorney general from 1993-96. She was a member of the state House from 1997 through 2001, when she defeated Democrat Jim Rooney, grandson of Steelers owner Art Rooney, to win a special election to the Senate.

In May, Orie said she was "shocked and appalled" when the state Attorney General's office charged an aide in her Harrisburg office with propositioning a 15-year-old boy over the Internet. Investigators found animal costumes at the aide's home.

The aide, Alan Berlin of Carlisle, was fired and is awaiting trial in Dauphin County.

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