ShareThis Page

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."

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.