Judge dismisses two counts against Joan Orie Melvin

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Suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin scored a victory of sorts Tuesday when two of the nine criminal counts against her were dismissed at the conclusion of her preliminary hearing.

Magisterial District Judge James J. Hanley Jr. dismissed one count of official oppression and another count of criminal solicitation. Both counts are misdemeanors.

Justice Orie Melvin will stand trial on three counts of theft of services and one count of conspiracy to commit theft of services -- all felonies -- as well as on one count each of misapplication of government property, official oppression and conspiracy to tamper with evidence -- all misdemeanors.

Dan Brier, one of Justice Orie Melvin's defense attorneys, praised the decision.

"This was our first opportunity to put these charges up to judicial scrutiny and a test, and we will have additional opportunities to challenge the remaining counts, which we believe will not withstand the strict application of the law to these facts," he said.

The two counts that were dismissed were based on testimony of Justice Orie Melvin's former law clerk Molly Creenan, and testimony by the former chief of staff for then-Sen. Jane Orie.

Regarding official oppression of Ms. Creenan, Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus tried to show that the law clerk was placed under stress by Justice Orie Melvin because of political work being done in the office, both in 2003 and 2009.

But the defense argued that feeling "stressed" was not enough to support the legal definition of "mistreatment" in the law.

The judge agreed.

As for the criminal solicitation count, it stemmed from testimony by Jamie Pavlot, who worked as Orie's chief of staff.

She testified at the senator's trial in March and again Tuesday that in the days immediately after a complaint was made to investigators regarding political work being done in the legislative office she received a phone call with both Justice Orie Melvin and Jane Orie on the line telling her to remove political materials from boxes she had taken from the senator's office on Nov. 1, 2009.

During her testimony before Judge Hanley, Ms. Pavlot claimed that both women gave her the instruction to remove the materials.

However, the defense challenged her story. According to Mr. Brier, Ms. Pavlot had given statements or testimony under oath at least half a dozen times -- including within three weeks of the alleged phone call -- before she ever mentioned receiving such a phone call in March of this year.

She claimed that questions during Orie's most recent trial triggered the memory.

But Judge Hanley characterized Ms. Pavlot's testimony as "confused" in dismissing that count.

The defense spent much of the day Tuesday questioning Janine Orie's involvement in Justice Orie Melvin's successful bid for the high court in 2009.

Ms. Orie, who worked as an administrative assistant for Justice Orie Melvin and is also awaiting trial on similar charges, has been painted by prosecutors as being the judge's campaign manager.

But two of the district attorney's own witnesses Tuesday disputed that idea.

Instead, the women agreed with the defense that although they often spoke with Janine Orie regarding scheduling matters, they never dealt with her on important campaign issues like strategy, opposition research, fundraising or polling.

"I don't believe there was ever a campaign manager that I know of," said Noel Nyquist, who worked with Commonwealth Strategic Solutions on that election.

Instead, both she and Tracy Kolich Hall said they regularly spoke directly to Justice Orie Melvin herself.

They also told Judge Hanley that they never went to Justice Orie Melvin's judicial chambers to speak with her, never called her on her chambers telephone and did not email her on her Superior Court account.

A campaign headquarters was rented at the Commonwealth Strategic Solutions office on State Street in Harrisburg. Ms. Kolich Hall staffed it.

Mr. Claus also presented testimony regarding how much state money was used to pay legislative and judicial staffers to do political work on Justice Orie Melvin's 2003 and 2009 campaigns.

Based on employees' salaries and an estimate of how much time they spent during the work week on campaign activities, the total was $27,881.43.

Also testifying Tuesday was Barbara Brown, an executive assistant for then-state Sen. Jane Orie in Harrisburg.

Ms. Brown testified that she attended a number of events with Judge Orie Melvin in 2003 in the Harrisburg area at the senator's direction.

She was told to help with "anything Joan needed," Ms. Brown said.

"I was willing to do it," she said. "It's what the senator wanted."

Orie, a former Republican senator from McCandless, was found guilty on charges of public corruption for using her legislative staff for campaigning. She was sentenced to state prison in June.

state

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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