Local
10:39 pm
Mon March 26, 2012

Orie Guilty

State Senator Jane Orie has been convicted of 14 theft of services, conflict of interest, and forgery counts, but acquitted of 10 other counts, including perjury and document tampering. Orie declined to comment after the verdict, but appeared to be shaken. Her attorney, William Costopoulos, said after leaving the courtroom: "I can tell you we're disappointed, and there's no positive spin I can put on it."

Deputy District Attorney Lawrence Claus declined to say what kind of sentence he'll seek, but he praised the jury for its hard work.

The jury hearing the case against the McCandless Republican deliberated the charges for five days, including marathon sessions over the weekend. On Saturday, the jury told the judge that the members had reached a "serious impasse" on at least some of the charges. Later, the jury asked if they could return a verdict just on the charges on which they agreed. The judge replied, "yes."

Orie was charged with illegally using her state-funded staff to do political work that benefited herself and her sister, State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, from 2001 through 2009. Melvin isn't charged.

The jury heard 18 days of testimony about the investigation that began in October 2009. That's when a University of Pittsburgh intern complained to District Attorney Stephen Zappala, Jr. that she had seen Senator Orie's staff doing campaign work for Melvin just days before her election to the state's highest court. Witnesses would later testify that the work was directired by the senator's sister, Janine Orie.

Prosecutors contend Senator Orie launched a cover-up almost immediately by sneaking some political documents out of her North Hills office and by removing discarded Melvin poll cards from the trash outside the office.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning declared a mistrial during Orie's first trial last March, saying one document submitted to the jury was so obviously fake that "even Ray Charles" could see it. An examination of the exhibits by a U.S. Secret Service document expert resulted in forgery, perjury and evidence tampering charges in the second trial. Janine Orie was also being tried by the first jury, but the case was severed from Jane Orie's after the mistrial.

More than 20 former and current staff members, including the senator's former chief of staff, Jamie Pavlot, testified during the first trial and again this year that Orie not only ordered the political work but at times even awarded staffers comp time for doing it.

The senator denied that and argued that any work that occurred was authorized by Pavlot.

Orie's conviction Monday means she'll almost certainly be removed from office and will lose her state pension. Five of the counts are felonies; the remainder of the charges are misdemeanors. The 50-year-old Orie will be able to hold on to her senate seat until she is sentenced May 21. She will be on electronic home monitoring until that date.

One legal expert who has followed the trial said Orie's chances of successfully appealing are slim.

"Any serious convictions like this are exactly what the prosecution sought, and the senator is now probably going to jail," University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said. "Convicted of 14 different counts is a lot. It's serious judgment against her."

Orie was elected to the Senate in a 2001 special election to fill an empty seat, and was re-elected in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

Janine Orie is expected to stand trial later this year on charges that she conspired to misuse the senator's staff to campaign for Melvin and on charges that she similarly directed Melvin's former Superior Court staff to work on campaigns in 2003 and 2009. She's fighting the charges.

Melvin was subpoenaed and in December received a letter from the Allegheny County grand jury that recommended charges against Senator Orie and Janine Orie. Melvin and her attorney have repeatedly not telephone calls seeking comment.