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Jane Orie should testify in own defense, legal expert says

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Though some of the details differ, state Sen. Jane Orie's second trial on corruption charges is proceeding much like her first one, raising the likelihood that she will again take the stand in her own defense, a legal expert said on Thursday.

"She really has to testify," said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff. "And she should have some confidence because she did a good job last time."

In fact, Orie's main problem could be overconfidence that would lead to a mistake, either in what she says or how she says it while facing the jurors, he said.

"She has to be careful," Burkoff said.

Orie, 50, a McCandless Republican, is on trial on 26 charges from two cases. She is accused of directing her staff to conduct campaign work on state time. She is also accused of perjury and forgery related to several documents that purport to show her chief of staff's signature. Orie's first case ended in a mistrial after Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said the defense introduced forged documents as part of its case.

Orie denies the allegations and maintains her innocence.

The prosecution rested its case yesterday after 13 days of testimony. William Costopoulus, Orie's attorney, started his defense the same way he did last time: by attacking the state's estimate of how much the staff's campaign work cost taxpayers.

Allegheny County District Attorney Detective Jackelyn Weibel, a certified forensic examiner, testified on Wednesday that Orie effectively stole about $34,000 in services by having her staff perform campaign work on state time. Accountant Kenneth McCrory, who testified for the defense, said Weibel's estimate violates "almost every standard that exists" in accounting.

While Weibel documented the amount staffers were paid, her only basis for how much time they spent doing campaign work is based on their vague recollections of what "percentage" of time they spent doing that work up to 10 years ago, he said.

Burkoff said Orie's previous defense strategy was to acknowledge improprieties happened but that she was not aware of them.

One thing hampering the defense this time, however, is evidence showing that many handwritten notes Orie purportedly wrote to her former chief of staff, Jamie Pavlot, probably were written well after the dates on the documents containing the notes.

The notes were used in the first trial to show that Orie was constantly reminding Pavlot that staffers were not supposed to be doing campaign work on state time.

"What will be interesting is to see how the defense deals with that in their case," Burkoff said.

The prosecution's last witness was Joseph Stephens, a document examiner for the Secret Service. He testified that many of the notes on documents with dates ranging from 2004 to 2007 were all written in the same ink.

"That's typically a sign that they may have been added all at the same time later," Stephens said.




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