Judges affirm Orie conviction, sentence

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Former state Sen. Jane Orie lost another round of appeals Thursday.

A three-judge panel of the state Superior Court issued a unanimous 76-page opinion on the case Thursday, finding against Orie on all 10 of the claims that she raised.

Written by Superior Court Judge Paula Ott, the court affirmed Orie's conviction on 14 counts, as well as her sentence of 2 1/2 to 10 years in prison.

Orie -- who was found guilty of theft of services, conspiracy, tampering with evidence and forgery -- has completed the prison portion of her sentence, having been released from the State Correctional Institution at Cambridge Springs last month.

As a nonviolent offender, Orie was eligible for early release under the state's Recidivism Risk Reduction Initiative.

She is now on parole.

Orie, who once served as the Senate Majority Whip, was charged with using her legislative staff to help run election campaigns for her sister, Joan Orie Melvin, for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009.

Orie Melvin, who was successful in the 2009 run, also was charged in relation to the case, and she was found guilty last year of similar charges. Her sentence has been stayed pending appeal.

In Orie's appeal stemming from her conviction before Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, she alleged a number of claims, including that there was insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction, that search warrants issued in the case were overbroad and that her retrial was double jeopardy.

Orie was originally tried in early 2011, but that case ended in a mistrial shortly after the jury began its deliberations. Prosecutors alleged that the defense had tried to use forged documents in that case.

Additional charges were filed against Orie, and she was convicted the next year.

She claimed in her appeal that the court lacked the "manifest necessity" to declare the mistrial.

"Once the trial judge realized forged documents had been admitted into evidence, he could not allow those documents to enter into the jury's deliberation and verdict," the court wrote. "Here the admission of the forged documents into evidence was not only a fraud upon the court, but also undermined the jury's fact finding function, and we agree with Judge Manning there was no other adequate method, except a mistrial, to cure the harm."

As for her claim that there was insufficient evidence to prove she was responsible for the forgery, the court disagreed.

"Here the documents at issue were in Orie's sole possession up to the time that she turned them over to defense counsel," Judge Ott wrote.

Another claim raised by Orie and dismissed by the court was that the conflict of interest statute under which she was charged is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. She also claimed the statute violates her free speech rights.

"We disagree," Judge Ott wrote. "We find the statute places no restrictions on a public official's federal or state protected rights of expression and association, but only prohibits officials from using state-funded resources for non-de minimis private pecuniary gain."

Orie can ask for reargument before the same three-judge panel, or ask to be heard by a full nine-judge panel of the Superior Court. She also can go directly to the state Supreme Court and file a petition for allowance of appeal.

The Allegheny County District Attorney's office had no comment. Orie's attorney, William Costopoulos, could not be immediately reached.

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published March 6, 2014 11:38 AM

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