The Pennsylvania Senate Republican Caucus paid $1.2 million in legal fees relating to alleged criminal activity by Jane Orie prior to her being criminally charged in April 2010.
Those fees were paid during the investigation leading up to the return of a grand jury presentment on charges that she misused her legislative office to help run election campaigns for herself and her sister, now Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.
According to Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, as per Senate rules, all payments stopped when the Allegheny County District Attorney's office filed charges.
The investigation began in October 2009 after one of Sen. Orie's staff members contacted prosecutors with the allegations.
Ms. Orie, R-McCandless, went to trial on the charges against her in February.
However, the case ended with a mistrial after the prosecution claimed that the defense admitted falsified documents into evidence.
The prosecution plans to retry the senator, and the state Superior Court recently rejected her appeal challenging a retrial based on double jeopardy.
Last month, the district attorney's office filed new charges against Ms. Orie for perjury, forgery and tampering with evidence related to the falsified documents presented during her first trial.
Barry Kauffman, the executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, criticized the practice that allows legislators' legal bills to be paid with taxpayer money.
"That's strictly a personal obligation," he said. "We have tried to get that kind of language in to upgrade the ethics law."
It is one thing to pay the legal fees of a public official being sued in an official capacity, but it is another, Mr. Kauffman said, when the official has broken that trust by committing a crime.
Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law, said it's not an abuse of the system since the rules specifically allow for the payments.
However, Mr. Ledewitz said, if criminal charges are filed, perhaps the person should be required to pay back the money.
He noted that police officers who are accused of using excessive force are defended by their municipal employers in cases against them.
"The principle would be the same," he said.
Both the Republican and Democratic chairs for Allegheny County agree that the practice of paying for individual legislators' criminal defense should be stopped.
Jim Roddey, who chairs the county Republican Party, said he continues to support Ms. Orie but not taxpayers footing the bill for any lawmaker's criminal defense.
"I don't fault her at all for using the money," he said. "Everyone else has been doing it for a long time."
Still, Mr. Roddey continued, it's a "poor practice."
Jim Burn, the county Democratic chair, called on the governor to issue an executive order.
"This is an example of how, irrespective of party, there appears to be a process spinning out of control," he said. "[Governor Tom Corbett] needs to put the brakes on it until it can be fixed or eradicated completely."
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2620.