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Joan Orie Melvin a target of grand jury

| Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin received formal notification that she is a target of an Allegheny County grand jury that recommended prosecution of her two sisters for using state employees for political work, the Tribune-Review has learned.

Melvin, 55, of Marshall received a subpoena to testify before the grand jury in mid-December, typically the final step before a grand jury recommends charges. It's unclear whether Melvin, a Republican elected to the high court in 2009, appeared before the grand jury.

Melvin and her attorney, J. Alan Johnson, did not return calls.

Mike Manko, a spokesman for county District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., declined to comment. Zappala's office has been investigating the justice for more than a year. He charged two of her sisters, state Sen. Jane Orie, a McCandless Republican, and Janine Orie, an aide to Melvin, in April 2010, accusing them of directing the senator's state-paid staff to perform campaign work.

William Costopoulos, attorney for Jane Orie, said, "It would be inappropriate for me to comment."

Court rules state that a justice who is notified that he or she is the target of a criminal investigation must inform the chief justice within five days. James Koval, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille had no comment. The state Supreme Court oversees the AOPC.

"The normal course of someone who receives a target letter is that either the prosecution doesn't ask the person to testify, or they simply invoke their right against self-incrimination," said Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, who has called on Melvin to resign. "Once a person receives a target letter, the person's lawyer will tell them not to testify."

Jane Orie, 50, and Janine Orie, 57, also of McCandless and a Republican, face a retrial next month. Their first trial ended in a mistrial when Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning ruled that the senator's defense had introduced forged documents. Zappala filed more charges against the senator in August and against Janine Orie last month.

Politics have swirled around the investigation since Zappala's office raided Jane Orie's offices on McKnight Road in December 2009.

Melvin has not been charged with wrongdoing. The Ories call Zappala's prosecution a political vendetta. The prosecutor's father — former Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen Zappala — and sister had ties to the gambling industry and Jane Orie says she is an opponent to legalized gambling, the Ories point out. The district attorney has denied any connection.

Melvin's former law clerk, Lisa Sasinoski, testified on Dec. 29 at Janine Orie's preliminary hearing on the new charges that she did political work on state time, including working the polls on Election Day and writing speeches at the direction of the justice's sister.

Sasinoski has said Melvin fired her in 2003 after she complained about politicking in the office. That same year, Melvin, then a Superior Court judge, lost a Supreme Court election to Max Baer, a Democrat. Sasinoski now works for Baer.

Melvin's name appeared more often in the most recent grand jury presentment than the report's target, Janine Orie. Sasinoski told the grand jury that political and campaign "activities took place within every judicial office of Orie Melvin during the 1991-2003 time period in which (Sasinoski) was employed by Orie Melvin." Sasinoski told the grand jury that she "was also directed by Orie Melvin herself to engage in political activities in the office."

Activist Gene Stilp of Harrisburg filed a judicial conduct complaint against Melvin in 2010 with the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board, claiming the first grand jury presentment against the Ories suggested unethical conduct by the justice. Stilp said he called the disciplinary board on Monday and was told his complaint was "active."

The board referred the Tribune-Review to Chief Counsel Joseph Massa, who said he could "neither confirm nor deny" a complaint or an investigation.

Stilp claimed the presentment provided a "road map" for pursuing a judicial conduct case against Melvin.

Melvin has removed herself from hearing any Allegheny County criminal cases while on the bench. She is paid $195,309 a year.

She worked as the chief magistrate for Pittsburgh before joining Common Pleas Court. She was elected to Superior Court in 1997.

The Supreme Court or the state Court of Judicial Discipline can suspend or remove judges. The Supreme Court removed Justice Rolf Larsen from duty in 1993, and a jury convicted him in Allegheny County on April 9, 1994, of conspiracy for having a state employee buy prescription medications for him for depression.

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