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More on the line for Sen. Jane Orie as second trial gets under way

| Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012

Jury selection is scheduled to start Monday for state Sen. Jane Orie's second trial on corruption-related charges, and this time, the stakes are higher, legal experts said.

The longtime North Hills politician faces more serious charges, and the prosecution gained experience from her first trial, which ended in a mistrial, experts said.

Orie, 50, of McCandless, the former Senate majority whip, faces 26 corruption-related charges. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. filed two criminal cases accusing her of using her state-paid office staff to do campaign work. The charges include 16 counts of forgery and perjury that weren't part of her first case.

"If she were to go down on the fraud and perjury, that's much different than charges over 'Who can work on your campaign?' " said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris. "That's a fraud on the system. You can't underestimate how seriously a judge would take that."

Attorneys likely will interview potential jurors as a group and individually. A judge did not exclude residents of Orie's 40th Senatorial District from the jury pool.

Zappala charged the senator in April 2010 with using her staff to do taxpayer-paid campaign work for her and her sister, Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin. He charged their sister, Janine Orie, 57, an aide to Melvin, with similar offenses. Melvin, 55, of Marshall is not charged but is a target of a county grand jury investigation.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning declared a mistrial in March after two days of jury deliberations and 14 days of testimony. He found that Orie's defense attorney submitted forged documents as evidence. Zappala charged the senator in August in relation to those documents.

They show signatures of Orie's former chief of staff, prosecution witness Jamie Pavlot, that appear to be crudely pasted from another document. The forgeries purported to show Pavlot verified and signed that she oversaw certain responsibilities in Orie's Senate office.

The Ories call Zappala's prosecution a political vendetta. His father -- former Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen Zappala -- and sister had ties to the gambling industry, and Jane Orie, an opponent of casino gambling, criticized their involvement. The district attorney has denied any connection.

Orie's attorney, William Costopoulos, and Zappala's spokesman, Mike Manko, declined to comment, citing a gag order in the case.

"The general rule is that a mistrial benefits the government with a second trial. They got a practice run the first time," said veteran defense attorney William Difenderfer, who is not involved with the case. "I think (Orie) has to take the stand (to testify in her defense). She's a senator. People will wonder, 'What's she hiding?' if she doesn't. The best way to win a case is to get up there and sell it yourself. But it's dangerous and risky.

"And by the way, (Assistant District Attorney) Law Claus has a large transcript from the first trial. His cross-examination will be razor-sharp. Everything she said, they'll try to discredit."

If convicted and sentenced to the maximum on every count, Orie could face more than 100 years in prison, but her actual sentence likely would be much less.

In the most recent Capitol corruption verdict, a jury this month found former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, D-Greene County, guilty of five felonies for using his state employees to work on campaigns and keeping a state-paid fundraiser on staff. He faces sentencing in April.

Manning this month granted a request from Janine Orie's attorney, James DePasquale, to try her case separately.

Attorneys expect Jane Orie's trial to last at least three weeks.

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