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Sen. Jane Orie's fate could rest in hands of scientists

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By The Associated Press
Monday, March 7, 2011
 

A mistrial prompted by forged defense documents introduced during the public corruption case of state Sen. Jane Orie wasn't the first allegation of efforts to tamper with the paper trail in the case.

The McCandless Republican remains charged with having a bogus letter typed to Catholic nuns to cover up allegations that her state-funded staff did political campaign work for her sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin in 2009, and hiding or destroying other politically related papers.

University of Pittsburgh law Professor John Burkoff and other experts say the future of the corruption case against Orie -- and perhaps her future as a public figure and an attorney -- could hinge on the opinions of scientists.

Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning declared the mistrial Thursday, saying jurors who heard three weeks of evidence had been "poisoned" by two forged documents introduced during the senator's testimony.

The documents were used to undercut the key witness, Orie's former chief of staff Jamie Pavlot, who testified that she did not remember seeing documents suggesting that Orie directed her to forbid campaigning on state time.

Susan Abbey, a Dallas handwriting and document expert who examined one Orie document for The Associated Press, called it "one of the worst cut-and-paste jobs I've ever seen."

Because evidentiary documents "speak for themselves," Abbey said their authenticity is paramount.

"If it's fraudulently created or, you know, manipulated in some way, it can purport to say one thing when it actually says another," Abbey said.

Manning called the documents "deceitful, dishonest, despicable" and "a crime," although the judge acknowledged that it might never be determined who committed that crime and how. Because all parties and attorneys in the case remain under a gag order imposed last year, they can't say how defense documents already in evidence will be examined.

Manning has ordered that they remain in court custody, and Deputy District Attorney Law Claus told the judge that he wanted unspecified "experts" to examine them.

Orie's defense attorney, William Costopoulos, denied any wrongdoing and contested Manning's conclusion that the documents were forged. If the documents are forged, he said, no evidence exists as to who did it. Orie said the documents were pulled from Pavlot's personnel files, but they were in defense custody until the senator testified about them.

Twists and turns

It's not just what the senator said in some of the defense documents to be examined. When she said it could be crucial to the second look some documents are expected to receive from experts such as Abbey and Albert Lyter, a forensic chemist and ink specialist who worked for what was then the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from 1975 to 1981.

Lyter, now an expert witness with a private practice in Raleigh, helped the ATF develop its voluntary ink "tagging" program in the mid-1970s. The program, continued in various forms until about 2005, was simple: Ink manufacturers agreed to add identifying chemicals to "date" or "tag" the year the ink was made.

J. Todd Moses, an investigator for District Attorney Stephen Zappala, was involved in a case using the ink "tagging" program.

Moses' father, Joseph Moses, was convicted on federal charges in 1996 for allegedly taking kickbacks from a cement contractor while the elder Moses was Allegheny County maintenance director. Senior Superior Court Judge Robert Colville, Zappala's predecessor, was DA at the time.

Before Joseph Moses was convicted of taking the kickbacks, his defense introduced documents showing he had signed over hundreds of shares of a failing business to his son, Todd, and a daughter. Moses' attorney introduced the documents to counter claims by federal prosecutors that Joe Moses needed the kickbacks to cover money he lost in the business.

Barrier to analysis

The stock transfer documents were dated in 1989. An IRS expert testified they were fraudulent because the chemical tag showed the ink used to sign the documents wasn't made until 1991. No criminal charges resulted from the documents.

Lyter said a similar analysis could be used to authenticate or debunk several handwritten directives that Orie said she gave Pavlot to prohibit campaign work on state time. In general, Orie testified to writing the directives on dated faxes, letters or printouts of e-mails.

Lyter said U.S. ink companies stopped tagging in 2005, although experts can sometimes determine when an ink was made because manufacturers track the dates when they change ink formulas. But before 2005, about half the ink in pens used by most Americans was made by a handful of companies that still used chemical tags. That means if investigators chose to examine documents Orie testified she wrote before then, there's about a 50 percent chance the ink would contain a chemical tag, Lyter said.

If tests show, for example, that ink Orie used to write an order to Pavlot on a 2002 e-mail wasn't manufactured until a later year, Burkoff said, the senator would have essentially implicated herself by her prior testimony.

"If that happens, it's game over," Burkoff said.

 

 
 


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