An Allegheny County grand jury has opened a criminal investigation into State Sen. Jane Clare Orie, R-McCandless, the state senate's third-ranking Republican, and detectives last week seized computers from her district office.
The investigation, confirmed tonight by Jerry McDevitt, who is representing Ms. Orie, apparently began a day before the November election when an intern at the senator's district office in the North Hills complained to the district attorney's office that political calls were being made there on behalf of state Supreme Court nominee Joan Orie Melvin, the senator's sister.
On Friday, detectives executed a search warrant at Ms. Orie's district office at the La Casa Blanca Building on McKnight Road. Earlier in the month, detectives had placed Ms. Orie's office under surveillance, Mr. McDevitt said.
He also complained that, at one juncture, investigators had followed his client to church.
"It was pretty much a computer raid," Mr. McDevitt said. He said detectives seized computers assigned to office staff, several laptops and the office computer server, leaving Ms. Orie's own computer in place.
Sources with first-hand knowledge of the inquiry said the office has received complaints of fundraising and other political calls from the senator's district office. Additionally, a college intern brought complaints of improper political activity.
Last night, Mr. McDevitt, a high-profile criminal defense attorney who successfully fought back a massive indictment against former Coroner Cyril H. Wecht, said the investigation into Ms. Orie is itself a political act.
In angry terms he accused Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. of carrying out an overly-broad and unconstitutional search warrant of the senator's office, and further accused Mr. Zappala of a conflict-of-interest because of Ms. Orie's opposition to an expansion of casino gambling in the state.
He pointed to a story earlier this year in the Post-Gazette that detailed the involvement of Mr. Zappala's father, former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Zappala, in a gaming industry organization.
"Those computers contain among other things, her legislative strategies and plans on how she has been and is dealing with these gaming law issues, including the table game issues at play right now," Mr. McDevitt said.
He added that he plans to "unleash hell in December" over the raid at the senator's office.
"We intend to fight this like hell. This is just wrong on every level. It's frightening in what it says about the way the district attorney plans to run the office," he said.
District attorney's spokesman Mike Manko tonight issued a two- sentence statement on behalf of the office:
"If the attorney for the Senator has confirmed the existence of an investigation by the Allegheny County Investigative Grand Jury, then it is neither necessary nor appropriate for this office to comment further. As for statements about the District Attorney and / or his family, counsel is clearly posturing on behalf of his client."
The investigation into Ms. Orie comes on the heels of a high-profile state-level investigation into allegations of widespread corruption in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. That probe, led by state Attorney General Tom Corbett, a Republican, has ensnared two former speakers of the state House -- Democrat H. William DeWeese of Greene County and Republican John Perzel of Philadelphia.
Additionally, more than 20 other former House members and staff of both parties have been charged with diverting taxpayer dollars and resources to election campaigns, in violation of state law.
The probe into Ms. Orie, however, comes from a county-level grand jury unconnected with Mr. Corbett's probe. While grand jurors in the state cases, known broadly as Bonusgate, have met in Harrisburg and Downtown Pittsburgh, the grand jury investigating Ms. Orie sits in a municipal building in Dormont.