Former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin didn't get off easy. She got off wacky.
Convicted of illegally using state workers to do her campaign work, Orie Melvin was sentenced Tuesday to three years of house arrest, two years of probation, $55,000 in fines and -- here's the wacky bit -- sending handwritten apologies to every judge in Pennsylvania.
Her apology must be written on the back of a photo of herself in handcuffs, taken Tuesday by the county photographer. The cost of making and mailing the 500-plus copies is on her.
Judge Lester Nauhaus, an old defense attorney and no shrinking violet, handed down the sentence. He'd clearly given this a lot of thought. Some ripped him for grandstanding or being too light on her, but I loved it.
The punishment seemed merciful, yet just. The photo extravaganza offers a needed dose of humility for a felon who harmed a bunch of her employees but whose family still portrays her as the victim.
I bought Judge Nauhaus's explanation: "I've always believed that prisons are for dangerous people ... [and] cost the taxpayers a fortune." Nonetheless there must be thousands of not-so-dangerous people doing time in Pennsylvania prisons. How would I feel about this if I were one of them?
Well, I talked with one Wednesday morning. Former House Speaker Bill DeWeese has been in prison for more than a year for a corruption conviction similar to that of Orie Melvin and her sister Janine Orie. (Janine Orie was sentenced to a year of house arrest, two years of probation plus written apologies -- sans the photo op -- to family members and to the staff she illegally directed to campaign work.)
Though locked behind seven rows of razor wire overlooking the Susquehanna River, DeWeese heard of the Orie Melvin sentence from his lawyer. In his trademark loquacious style, DeWeese said of the judge's decision:
"I would commend Judge Nauhaus for exhibiting judicial balance and personal courage. His hard commentary on the events notwithstanding, he realized that it did not inure to society's advantage to incarcerate the justice inside the gritty and sometimes savage reality of a state slammer.''
There had just been a fight in the next cell block, DeWeese said, between inmates who'd rolled up batteries inside socks so they could wail on each other. He doesn't wish that on anyone, even if he is serving 21/2 to five years while these Orie sisters chill on their sofas and visit church.
A third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, is serving 21/2 to 10 years in prison for using her staff for her own and Orie Melvin's campaigns. But she's in a different category. As Judge Nauhaus pointed out, she "committed fraud against the court.'' She was convicted last year of forging documents to cover up how she used her staff for her own and Orie Melvin's campaigns.
Clearly the judge is hoping for deterrence here. He hasn't had much luck with that thus far. He sentenced former state Rep. Jeff Habay, another North Hills Republican, to some jail time in 2007 for this kind of stuff. The rep with the sudden bad rep pleaded no contest to multiple charges, including forcing his staffers to spend government time digging up dirt on his rivals.
Habay's incarceration, and that of various state legislators in the Bonusgate scandal, obviously didn't make much impression on the Orie sisters. Perhaps this statewide humiliation will.
I've heard complaints that this bizarre sentence shifted the attention to Judge Nauhaus and so he is as guilty of arrogance as the Ories. But that attention will eventually shift back. Years from now, if anyone asks what that ol' state Supreme Court justice whatshername got for illegal campaigning, many will be ready with this answer:
Former Justice Joan Orie Melvin had to virtually prostrate herself before her peers (with the help of a beleaguered U.S. Postal Service, which hasn't had such a windfall since last Christmas). She had to send out more autographed photos than most Steelers, She had to send out the most humiliating apology since Tiger Woods'.
Not that she has any right to complain, mind you. Picking up a pen beats being sent to one.brianoneill
Brian O'Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947