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Witness: Orie office in 'frantic mode' after activities reported

| Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

The North Hills office of state Sen. Jane Orie was in "frantic mode" and the senator sent a flurry of text messages to staffers after a University of Pittsburgh intern reported politicking on state time to law enforcement, a former staffer told a jury yesterday.

Josh Dott testified on the eighth day of Orie's corruption trial that when he arrived at work the morning of Oct. 30, 2009, he could tell immediately that something was wrong. That was the morning intern Jennifer Knapp Rioja quit and went to the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office to file a complaint, sparking the investigation.

"After Jen left, the office was in frantic mode," Dott testified. "I got in about 8:45 a.m., and I could tell something was wrong."

Dott is expected to resume his testimony today, to be followed by the prosecution's star witness, Orie's former chief of staff, Jamie Pavlot. Prosecutors granted both immunity from prosecution.

Prosecutors showed records of several text messages Orie sent Dott in the aftermath of Rioja's departure. Orie referred to Rioja and another staffer, Charlie Young, as "nutty."

"Josh, just avoid Charlie ... do not take his calls ... stop talking about ... please avoid ... these two are nutty," Orie texted to Dott. "Promise ... he is up to no good ... just avoid ... they have nothing ... you did nothing wrong."

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. accused Orie, 49, the former Republican whip, in April of ordering her taxpayer-funded staff to work on her own campaigns as well as those of her sister, Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin. Janine Orie, 56, of McCandless, who worked for Melvin, is charged. Melvin, 54, of Marshall, is not.

Dott testified that Pavlot instructed him that day to place an Orie campaign sign in the office above her district office to make it look like a campaign office. Dott came in the office the following Sunday at Pavlot's request to help move boxes out of the office and draft a letter to Rioja saying there was no politicking.

By then, however, investigators from the district attorney's office had the building under surveillance. Dott testified that Pavlot saw camera flashes while they moved the boxes. He then saw a car drive away.

Dott estimated that by September 2009, leading up to the November election, he was spending at least 25 percent of his workday on Melvin's campaign. She was involved in a close race with Democrat Jack Panella.

Jane Orie contends she is being targeted because of her opposition to the state's casino industry, to which Zappala's family has ties. An attempt by Janine Orie's attorney, James DePasquale, to bring politics into the case yesterday drew a sharp rebuke from Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning.

DePasquale was questioning Dott about the advice he had gotten from his attorney, Charles Porter, about whether to cooperate with the district attorney's office.

Zappala and Porter are former law partners.

But before DePasquale could finish his question, Manning cut him off.

"You are not going there," Manning said after sending the jury on a break. "If you go there, we'll be picking another jury."

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