The Allegheny County district attorney's office is accusing state Sen. Jane C. Orie, R-McCandless, of attempting to taint the jury pool for her upcoming criminal trial by sending what it characterizes as a form letter to residents of her district.
The letter, attached to a motion filed in Common Pleas Court, includes reference to the senator's faith, information that she refused to take the legislative pay raise and has returned the cost of living adjustments she received.
"This chapter in my life calls upon me to ask you to serve as a character witness for me in my upcoming trial," wrote Ms. Orie. "I am asking you as a friend and supporter who truly knows what I represent and what I stand for."
Included in the letter is a quote from Winston Churchill, that reads: "You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give."
It is signed by the senator and includes a note at the end that the letter was "not paid for at taxpayers expense."
The letter suggests that recipients contact Ms. Orie's nephew, attorney Jonathan Orie, for inquiries.
In addition, Ms. Orie said in the letter that she was attempting to organize transportation for character witnesses who might testify on her behalf.
In his motion, Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus suggests that the letter is inappropriate -- both in its purpose and because he believes it violates the gag order in the case, issued by Judge Jeffrey A. Manning.
"The commonwealth submits that this letter represents a blatant attempt to influence prospective members of the jury pool by defendant Jane C. Orie's professional achievements, her faith and her assurance to recipients that her 'integrity' and 'veracity' are such that she would 'never betray [her] constituents or the people of Pennsylvania.' "
Further, Mr. Claus wrote that Judge Manning had already ruled that Ms. Orie's legislative history regarding pay increases and similar issues are inadmissible as a defense at trial.
Mr. Claus claimed that the letters appear "indicative of a wide distribution to multiple individuals."
Ms. Orie's defense attorney, William Costopoulos, could not be reached. Jack Orie, Ms. Orie's brother and a Downtown attorney, had no comment.
No hearing date has yet been set on the motion, which asks the court to require the defense to disclose the complete distribution list of the letters.
University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor John Burkoff said the letter from Ms. Orie could simply be a letter seeking character testimony, which the defense has every right to send out.
"If it is, however, a form letter in this guise, what becomes significant," Mr. Burkoff said, is how many copies of the letter were sent.
"If it's not a mass mailing, it doesn't seem like it would be very hard to deal with any potential taint. If it's 25, I don't see anything wrong with it," he said. "If it's 2,500, oh my. That's a different story entirely."
As part of his motion, Mr. Claus also asked Judge Manning to now exclude residents from the senator's legislative district from the jury pool.
In her previous trial, which ended in a mistrial after prosecutors claimed the defense submitted fraudulent evidence, Judge Manning excluded from the jury pool potential members from the senator's district.
However, he previously ruled that with the upcoming case, scheduled to begin on Feb. 27, he would allow jurors from Ms. Orie's district on the panel.
The senator and her sister, Janine Orie, are charged with using the senator's legislative staff to help run the election campaign of another sister, now state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.
Following the conclusion of the first trial in March, the district attorney's office charged Jane Orie with additional counts, including forgery and perjury, stemming from statements she made in her own testimony and the documents submitted in her defense.
In December, Janine Orie was charged with four additional counts, accusing her of using then-Judge Melvin's judicial staff to help the woman campaign for higher office. Earlier this month it was revealed that Justice Melvin received a letter informing her that she was the target of a criminal investigation. However, she has not been charged and continues to hear cases before the Supreme Court.
James DePasquale, the attorney who represents Janine Orie, said his client had nothing to do with the letter now under fire by the prosecution.
"My client didn't send them. My client doesn't benefit from them," he said.
The idea that Mr. Claus is now asking for the 40th Senatorial District to be excluded from the jury pool is unacceptable for, Mr. DePasquale said.
"She has the right to be tried by the people from the community where she lives," he said.