Pa. Senate paid for legislator's defense on several charges
May 10, 2012 4:00 AM
State Sen. Jane C. Orie was convicted in March on public corruption charges.
By Paula Reed Ward Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The government is seeking more than $1.5 million in reimbursement for the legal expenses paid by the Senate on behalf of state Sen. Jane C. Orie, who was convicted in March on public corruption charges.
In a motion filed Wednesday, the Allegheny County district attorney's office said the law requires Ms. Orie repay the monies spent on her defense.
"A public official who is convicted of a felony or misdemeanor under federal law or under the laws of this commonwealth shall be liable for and shall reimburse any public money expended by the commonwealth to cover the costs incurred by an agency for outside counsel to defend the convicted public official in connection with a criminal investigation and prosecution of such public official," the motion read.
Ms. Orie's defense attorney, William Costopoulos, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Ms. Orie, R-McCandless, was convicted of using her legislative staffers to campaign for herself.
Epstein, co-founder of political reform group Rock the Capital, said
it's common practice for politicians to use taxpayer money to fund legal defense.
But the move by the district attorney to seek reimbursement for those costs is rare -- "a political lightning bolt," as Mr. Epstein put it.
"It's progressive. It's an important and necessary step," he said.
"In this case, it's like a double crime is committed. Not only did she rip the taxpayers off, she used the taxpayers for her defense."
Prosecutors list the costs to the state to defend the public corruption case against Ms. Orie, including nearly $1.3 million to the Philadelphia law firm Conrad O'Brien, which represented Ms. Orie during the investigation, as well as the Senate Republican Caucus.
An additional $74,232 was paid to Judge Joseph Doyle, who served as an expert defense witness during a pretrial hearing, and just over $3,000 was paid to the Pittsburgh law firm Ward McGough for services provided from Nov. 4, 2009, to Dec. 31, 2009.
Chief Senate clerk W. Russell Faber also lists about $225,000 in payment to the Conrad O'Brien firm. It's unclear from the court records if that money is separate from the $1.3 million invoice.
Under Senate rules, the caucus is responsible for paying for a sitting member's legal defense during the course of an investigation. However, once charges are filed, all payments must stop.
Ms. Orie was charged in April 2010.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said Ms. Orie should be expected to pay all of her legal fees like everyone else.
"We have always been bewildered as to why any public official has their legal fees paid by taxpayer money, unless they were working in an official capacity," he said. "Breaking the law to force one's employees to engage in illegal activity is not the role of the public official, it is something they do in their personal capacity."
But others, such as John Burkoff -- a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, who said the senator will likely be incarcerated -- believe the motion seeking reimbursement is the prosecution's way of "piling on."
"The government already has her down and out; do they really need to kick her, too?" he said.
Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus has asked Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning for a hearing on the matter, separate from the sentencing, which is scheduled for May 21.
Also the state Supreme Court on Monday temporarily suspended Ms. Orie from practicing law as a result of her conviction. Her sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who is a target of the investigating grand jury, did not participate in the decision.
Mr. Costopoulos has said that Jane Orie will step down prior to sentencing. She has been on home electronic monitoring since the jury returned its verdict March 26.