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Orie denies dictating political work on the taxpayer dime

| Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sen. Jane Orie attempted to refute 12 days of testimony in her corruption trial by explaining to an Allegheny County jury yesterday that she did not order staffers to do campaign chores on state time and trusted her chief of staff to make sure no one did.

"No campaign work is to be done on state time," Orie testified, reading from a memo to her chief of staff Jamie Pavlot, who testified for the prosecution last week. "No comp time will be given back for campaign work."

"I trusted Jamie fully that she would enforce (my directives) and comply with them," she told the jury.

The McCandless Republican took the stand in her own defense -- a move some attorneys considered risky -- during the 13th day of testimony in her trial. Wearing a cross around her neck and American flag pin on her lapel, she frequently looked to the jury as she explained that staffers had little to do with fundraisers and campaigning.

Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus will begin his cross-examination today. The two worked together previously in the state Attorney General's Office.

Orie spoke calmly and in measured tones, describing herself not as a micromanager but as a hardworking public servant who spent most of her time in Harrisburg and left the daily business of running the Senate offices to Pavlot.

"I'm in Harrisburg dealing with pay raises, pensions, the city of Pittsburgh. My focus is on policy -- that's why I have a chief of staff," Orie testified. "Some view me as a workaholic. I work very hard, and I love what I do."

Orie and her attorney, William Costopoulos, focused her testimony on a series of memos and notes from Orie to Pavlot over several years in which the senator repeatedly gave instructions that no political work was to be done on the taxpayers' dime.

Pavlot, who was granted immunity, testified that she didn't remember any of the memos and that Orie regularly ordered political chores be done. Several former staffers testified against Orie.

Orie talked about one instance in 2001 when an employee got five hours of comp time for working the polls on Election Day.

"How does she get comp time for Election Day• I have been very clear -- no comp time for political work," Orie read from a memo.

Another memo in 2007 read, "We need to be vigilant about campaign work outside of the office! You are in charge -- want rules followed!! Please put all staff on notice -- use upstairs -- comp time!!"

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. charged Orie, 49, in April with 10 counts for ordering her staff to do political work on her campaigns and those of her sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin. Janine Orie, 56, an aide to Melvin, has been charged; Melvin has not.

Orie has said she is being targeted for her opposition to gaming, an industry to which Zappala's father and sister have ties. Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning ruled that argument cannot be made at trial, although Orie testified that "for the past four years, I've been the lead legislator for gaming reform."

Orie described the hectic morning of Oct. 30, 2009, when University of Pittsburgh intern Jennifer Knapp Rioja quit and filed a complaint with Zappala's office. Orie said she hadn't been in the office for three months prior to that week because of a state budget impasse.

Later that day, Pavlot told her a second intern was involved in sending anti-abortion letters to convents on Melvin's letterhead.

"Jamie was in tears and said, 'Boss, you're going to kill me,' " Orie testified. "I went ballistic in the office."

The senator's testimony followed 61 character witnesses, many of whom rode Downtown on a chartered bus from the North Hills, who told the jury Orie has a stellar reputation in the community.

Costopoulos put 11 witnesses on the stand in an attempt to bolster her image to the jury. The remaining 50 stood up in the packed courtroom, took the oath, announced their names and occupations and agreed that Orie has an impeccable reputation.

The witnesses included a priest, war veterans, retirees, community activists, business owners, union leaders and homemakers.

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