In new Orie trial, key witnesses are first

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The first time around, the prosecution built its case against state Sen. Jane C. Orie slowly, calling the intern who initiated the investigation about illegal campaign work about half-way through its presentation, working its way to full crescendo by calling the senator's chief of staff as its penultimate witness.

This time, Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus changed tack: starting Wednesday first with former University of Pittsburgh intern Jennifer Rioja, followed immediately by key witness Jamie Pavlot.

"There was an overall attitude that these actions were OK and even required of staff members," Ms. Rioja wrote in a formal complaint filed with the district attorney's office. "It was a series of consistent actions, not an isolated event."

Ms. Pavlot's testimony supported that claim, saying that for her, doing campaign work for the senator dated to when she was initially hired as a legislative aide in 1997.

"She gave the directives, and I followed those directives," she said.

Ms. Orie's trial on charges that she used her legislative staff to campaign for both herself and her sister, now state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, began Wednesday morning before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning.

It is expected to last three weeks.

Ms. Orie is charged with 26 counts, including perjury, forgery and obstructing the administration of law, which were added last summer after the first trial of Jane Orie, and another sister, Janine Orie, ended in a mistrial. The mistrial was declared after the prosecution alleged the senator submitted forged documents as evidence in the case.

Ms. Pavlot, who will resume her testimony today, told the jury of seven women and five men that for her, the political work included things like organizing fundraising events, circulating petitions and knocking on doors for the McCandless Republican.

Ms. Pavlot admitted that there were concerns about doing campaign work on state time, but it didn't change, even after former state Rep. Jeff Habay, R-Shaler, was convicted in 2005 of similar activity.

The defense has tried to argue that campaign work by legislative staff was done during comp time for those employees.

But Ms. Rioja, the first witness called, said that wasn't the case. In her formal complaint, she quoted an attorney in the senator's office who said once, "If anyone were to find out what they were doing on state time 'they would be leaving the office in handcuffs.' "

During opening statements, defense attorney William Costopoulos said the prosecution would try to overwhelm the jurors with reams of evidence.

"The commonwealth will present you with binder after binder to make you think they have a mountain of evidence when they've got nothing," Mr. Costopoulos said. "They're not as adept as David Copperfield, and you're going to see right through this."

The binders, the defense attorney said, will include thousands of pages of documents -- emails, letters, fundraiser lists -- designed to convince the jurors that more than just "de minimis" activity occurred.

He insisted that the number of charges against Ms. Orie are a way for the prosecution to ensure she gets convicted of something.

But, as far he's concerned, Mr. Costopoulos considers the forged documents in the case to be "the big ones" against his client.

He told the jury that the defense does not challenge the prosecution's assertion that the documents have been doctored.

But, he continued, it wasn't his client who did it.

"The greater likelihood is someone did it to bring her harm, or someone did it that thought they were helping her," Mr. Costopoulos said.

The actual forgeries -- including one document where Ms. Pavlot's signature is clearly askew -- were described by the defense attorney as looking "like the work product of a grade-school student -- a fifth-grader at best."

He emphasized throughout his hour-long statement that Ms. Orie had an extensive background in the law and forensics.

"Try to make that fit," he said. "There is no evidence linking Jane Orie to any document fraud. Theories do not count. Evidence does."

He accused the prosecution of jumping to conclusions and immediately targeting the senator without any investigation.

He also mentioned her raising $1 million after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by creating the Hearts of Steel account.

"Community outreach is expected, desired and needed," he said. "All of this activity is non-legislative by definition, but it's what legislators are meant to do. It's why there are district offices."

The lawyer called her a "proven reformer in the legislature," who "stepped on a lot of toes.

"That is the nature of the beast when you run for political office."

In his 75-minute opening statement, the prosecutor said the case is about the two faces of Ms. Orie -- the one she showed to fellow senators and constituents and the one who forced her staff to do "her political bidding."

Mr. Claus called her legislative office a "full-time political campaign office," and said that one staffer is expected to testify that 85 percent of her work time was spent on campaign activity.

The political work, he said, continued over a period of nine years on both her behalf, and that of Justice Melvin.

The victims, Mr. Claus continued, are Pennsylvania taxpayers, who were responsible for funding the senator's legislative staff.

"These actions by the senator, directives by her, deprived the commonwealth, the taxpayers ... the monies used to do this inappropriate work," Mr. Claus said. "The senator, literally, tilted the playing field against candidates who didn't have the luxury of having state employees to campaign for them."

Paula Reed Ward: or 412-263-2620. First Published March 1, 2012 5:00 AM


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