Halting corruption is a job for voters

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And so the tawdry Orie melodrama draws to a close.

As despair-inducing scandals go, it was more entertaining than Bonusgate -- it had loud hair, crazy vendettas and the occasional whiff of ethnic slur.

The drama may yet whimper along for a bit, but with any luck, suspended Justice Joan Orie Melvin will finally do the right thing for the public she supposedly served and resign her seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, rather than cost the taxpayers even one more staff-hour necessary for her removal or impeachment.

She could have resigned Friday, having been convicted Thursday on six counts -- three of them felonies -- for using public resources in her political campaign, but perhaps she needed the weekend to think it over.

Critics of Pennsylvania's judicial system had clearly done their thinking ahead of time, however, and used Thursday's verdicts to call again for reform. Judges shouldn't be "in the campaign and fundraising business," said one; their selection should be based on experience and ability, not political party or campaigning prowess, said another.

These reformers are right -- as far as they go. But the need for reform goes well beyond the fascinating peculiarities of the Orie sister saga. Theirs is actually just one chapter in the ever-growing tome of Keystone corruption.

In this decadeslong tale of public servants' malfeasance, recent episodes have been so obvious and predictable that we the people are very nearly co-conspirators in our own defrauding.

While the Orie scandal involves a judge and so prompts us to consider judicial reform, it involves something else well-known and destructive in Pennsylvania politics: family.

The other person convicted Thursday was Justice Orie Melvin's sister and employee, Janine Orie. Some of the public resources they used for campaigning were under the stewardship of yet another sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, who was convicted on 24 counts back in March. The three sisters' crimes were committed to help each other out and increase their family's clout.

Under attack, they blamed a different family. When District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. brought charges against Jane Orie in April 2010, she lashed out wild-eyed with: "It's all about the Zappalas." Her brother Jack characterized Mr. Zappala's charges as "a Mafia hit" and the DA himself as "stupid."

While fear may have motivated the Ories' over-the-top slams, there also seemed to be a good bit of envy. After all, the Zappalas have been anything but stupid in their juggling of public office and private gain.

The family's aggregation of power and influence, funded by a constant stream of government contracts, was part of this newspaper's close examination of their "network" just months after Jane Orie's indictment.

Their only brush with scandal -- unless you consider any association with the casino industry to be scandalous -- is Greg Zappala's investment in the detention facility where loathsome Lucerne County judges were sending adolescents in exchange for kickbacks, but Mr. Zappala wasn't accused of any wrongdoing.

The avid trading on political influence to make money breeds public cynicism and invites corruption. We're pretty much asking for more messes if we keep putting members of the same family in multiple offices, boards and authorities. Southwestern Pennsylvania has millions of capable, civic-minded citizens whose names are not Ravenstahl, Wagner, Onorato, Zappala, O'Connor or Orie. We voters could exercise some self-discipline and not vote for the same old surnames.

But the real problem -- driving both individuals' and family's quests for power -- is that we've allowed the stakes to climb so high. Generous salaries, lavish pensions, unjustified per diems, car leases -- there is so much to gain from so-called public "service" that it's become too much to lose. We must prune the perks.

It's not just about trimming waste; it's also about doing what's best for our elected officials. Anyone is corruptible. Mike Veon, co-architect of the criminal Bonusgate scheme, began his career in Harrisburg as a reformer but ended up the poster boy for double-dipping and taxpayer-defrauding.

Human nature doesn't change. Twenty years from now, the newbies we've been electing may be walking out of a courthouse in handcuffs. But there'll be less chance of that if we insist the new lawmakers elected to (once again) "clean up Harrisburg" actually follow through with meaningful reform.

We can wallpaper the capitol with some scary posters -- Mike Veon in handcuffs, Jane Orie in "Bride of Chuckie" mode -- and a slogan like, "Don't serve time, serve the public."

If not the fear of God, we can at least instill a healthy fear of the electorate. That's our job. Let's get on it.


Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com


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