Grand jury probing political corruption on behalf of sister
December 24, 2009 5:00 AM
State Sen. Jane Orie during a Senate Education Committee hearing.
By Dennis B. Roddy Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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, a move her lawyer has promised to "fight like hell."
The investigation, confirmed last night 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 district attorney's 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.
Mr. McDevitt last night also said he planned to demand, under the state's public record laws, for the computer records in Mr. Zappala's office to determine if any political work or correspondence had taken place on county computers. He said this was in part a reaction to an earlier remark he attributed to Lawrence Claus, a deputy district attorney who is overseeing the grand jury, that the office held a "zero tolerance" position on violations of state ethics laws.
Mr. Claus could not be reached for comment last night.
Mike Manko, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, last night issued a two-sentence statement.
"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.
Ms. Orie, a three-term Republican who was first elected to the state House in 1996, replaced incumbent state Rep. Elaine Farmer, who withdrew from the party nomination after being diagnosed with cancer.
Five years later, she was elevated to the senate in an election to fill the post vacated by then-state Sen. Melissa Hart, who won election to the U.S. House.
Ms. Orie, a former Allegheny County assistant district attorney, rose quickly in the senate ranks, and now serves as Republican whip, the third-highest position in the caucus.