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'Despicable' fraud leads to Orie mistrial

| Friday, March 4, 2011

An Allegheny County judge on Thursday brought a shocking end to state Sen. Jane Orie's corruption trial by declaring a mistrial after agreeing with prosecutors that the McCandless Republican's lawyer submitted fraudulent documents to the jury.

"It's deceitful, dishonest, despicable, and it's a crime," Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said about signatures on defense documents that he said appeared to be doctored or cut and pasted.

Orie, 49, and her sister, Janine Orie, 56, will likely face a retrial on accusations that they ordered the senator's staff to do campaign work, after prosecutors investigate the signatures, Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus told the judge.

"I think you ought to look in your own house for the culprit," Manning told defense attorney William Costopoulos. Manning told Costopoulos he was not accusing him of anything "because I know you too well."

The Ories could not comment because the judge refused to lift a gag order in the case. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala's office issued a statement that only acknowledged the mistrial.

"I've never seen anything like this. I think it's incredible, and it's shocking," said John Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who has been following the trial. "To try to find anything like this, you can't look to past trials, you have to look to movies."

If it turns out Manning erred in ordering the mistrial, the Ories could not be tried again on the same charges because the rules of double jeopardy would apply, he said. Defense attorneys objected to Manning's mistrial ruling.

Costopoulos accused the district attorney's office of intentionally seeking a mistrial because of an imminent acquittal. The jury had entered a second day of deliberations after hearing 14 days of testimony.

Jurors left the courthouse without commenting. Sheriff's deputies escorted them back to the hotel where they had been sequestered the night before. Outside, several said they had not taken a straw poll on guilt or innocence.

"For three weeks, all we did was sit and listen," juror Kate J. Westermann, 59, of Penn Hills said when reached at home. She said she had not formed an opinion about the Ories' guilt or innocence. "We never discussed anything, and there was so much information for us to digest. So we just wanted to take some time to start talking about the case and the impressions that each of us formed."

The fraud issue exploded late in the morning and halted deliberations when Claus told Manning, "I submit evidence of fraud upon the court."

Claus pointed to the signatures of Orie's former Chief of Staff Jamie Pavlot -- the key prosecution witness -- on defense documents that purport to show Pavlot verified and signed that she oversaw certain responsibilities in the office.

"Ray Charles could see these signatures are doctored!" Manning yelled, after viewing the signatures on overhead projector. "It's blatant to me."

Jane Orie faces 10 charges on accusations she ordered her staff to work on her own campaigns as well as those of her sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin. Janine Orie faces two charges on accusations she ordered the senator's staff to work on Melvin's campaign. Janine Orie works for Melvin.

Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, issued a joint statement supporting their colleague.

"Although we are disappointed this matter was not resolved by this jury favorably, we continue to support Senator Orie throughout this process."

Claus did not specifically ask for a mistrial, instead asking that Manning instruct the jury that forged documents were submitted to them. Ories' attorneys objected.

"There's not one shred evidence of wrongdoing by the defense, none. If the commonwealth has any evidence of wrongdoing, they should bring criminal charges," Costopoulos said. "We all know why this happening now."

Since the Ories were charged in April, their family and lawyers have charged Zappala was prosecuting them for political reasons, which he denies. Zappala is a Democrat and his family has ties to the gambling industry, which Jane Orie has fought to regulate.

"If you want to build a defense based on that, you certainly can," Westermann said. "But I didn't get that impression. I think if a person is going to do those sorts of things, then you have to take your chances."

The documents in question surfaced during the cross-examination of Pavlot. When Jane Orie took the stand, she testified that she recognized the documents and Pavlot's signature.

Claus said prosecutors did not have access to the documents until Orie's testimony on Monday. He questioned Orie on the stand about apparent discrepancies. Orie said the files were locked in Pavlot's desk.

"I did not alter or create or change any of these documents," Orie testified.

Yesterday, handwriting analyst George Papadopoulos testified that one of the Pavlot signatures in question was copied to another page, and that the signature on a third page was a fraud.

"The second one is a copy," Papadopoulos testified. "Somehow the paper was cut or whatever."

Al Lindsay, a Butler attorney and former federal prosecutor, said the prosecution's 11th-hour accusation of forged documents made for "a very unusual circumstance" facing the judge.

"It's the type of thing that when someone submits a fabrication to the court, that's probably more serious than the original charges," Lindsay said.

Staff writers Jeremy Boren, Tony LaRussa and Brad Bumsted contributed to this report.

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