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Evidence against Orie hangs over Melvin

| Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Many of the witnesses who helped convict state Sen. Jane Orie of corruption this week testified about political work for her sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

"I'd be looking over my shoulder if I were (Melvin)," said Gerald Shuster, a University of Pittsburgh professor of political communication.

Melvin, 55, of Marshall received a letter in December informing her she is the target of a grand jury investigation. Guilty verdicts in 14 of the 24 charges against her sister on Monday add momentum against Melvin, experts said.

"I don't think it's good news at all," said Pitt law professor John Burkoff. "(Prosecutors) now know they can convince a jury that this kind of conduct is criminal and is serious."

Neither Melvin nor her attorney returned calls for comment on Tuesday.

An Allegheny County jury convicted Orie, 50, of McCandless of misusing her state staff for campaign work and knowingly introducing forged documents as evidence during a previous trial. The jury acquitted the senator on two charges of directing staff to do campaign work for Melvin during her 2003 and 2009 judicial campaigns.

Orie's attorney said the acquittals exonerate the justice. An attorney for another sister, Janine Orie, who worked for Melvin and faces a separate trial, said there is not enough evidence to charge Melvin.

"I don't speak for Joan Orie Melvin, but based on what I've seen I can see no basis for indicting Joan Orie Melvin," said James DePasquale, who represents Janine Orie.

But jurors who listened to three weeks of testimony discounted that. Edward Galloway of Forest Hills, who served as the foreman, said jurors doubted how much Jane Orie's district office employees could influence a statewide race. The impact seemed too small to warrant a conviction on those charges, he said, but that doesn't mean the jury decided Melvin wasn't involved.

"You shouldn't read into the fact that those are not-guilties out of protecting her, or suggesting that she wasn't involved," he said.

"As far as the fundraising that (Melvin) did and the backing she had, there was no way to find the senator guilty (on those charges) because the judge had established a lot of that on her own," said Juror No. 11, Deborah Milowski of the South Side. "There was reasonable doubt."

Prosecution witnesses implicated both Melvin and Janine Orie in ordering staffers to do political work. Prosecutors have more testimony in store.

In the most recent grand jury report against Janine Orie, Melvin's name appeared more often than the report's target, and painted a picture of a judicial office immersed in partisan politics for almost two decades. The witnesses in that report included Melvin's former law clerk, Lisa Sasinoski, who said she did political work on state time, including working the polls on Election Day and writing speeches at the direction of Janine Orie.

A trial date has not been set for Janine Orie.

Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus, the lead prosecutor in the senator's corruption case, presented several witnesses who said they did work to benefit Melvin's campaigns:

-- Orie's former chief of staff, Jamie Pavlot, said that orders from Janine Orie on behalf of the justice were to be considered orders from the senator herself. Pavlot also testified that after a Pitt intern complained to authorities, the senator and Melvin both directed her to get political files out of Orie's North Hills office. Orie denied that, and her attorney attacked Pavlot for suddenly remembering the conversation for the first time midway through the trial.

-- Former Orie staffer Jason Davidek testified he drove Melvin on 20 trips to political functions across the state in 2003. Orie's defense presented a $300 check from Melvin's campaign to show he was properly paid for trips.

-- Former Orie staffer Josh Dott testified he drove Melvin to a political event in 2009 and received legislative comp time for it.

-- The intern, Jennifer Knapp Rioja, testified that she was asked to stuff envelopes by Pavlot in October 2009 with Melvin's political letterhead that were to be delivered to area convents, urging them to vote for Melvin. Orie said Pavlot used the wrong letterhead.

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