Investigators with the Allegheny County district attorney's office questioned an aide to state Sen. Jane Clare Orie, R-McCandless, for eight hours, according to her attorney, who says he expects the senator's staff members to be summoned before a grand jury investigating her.
At the core of the investigation is an allegation that Ms. Orie's official office somehow was employed for political campaign purposes.
The questioning, which was tape-recorded, apparently followed days of surveillance on Ms. Orie's staff, her district office on McKnight Road and furtive photography of staff as they came and went, according to Ms. Orie's criminal defense attorney, Jerry McDevitt.
"Imagine how intimidating it is when six or seven burly cops come in," said Mr. McDevitt, who said one of the aides was photographed packing two boxes of documents from the senator's office into the trunk of a car.
Agents later sought and obtained those boxes which, according to documents released yesterday, now await a ruling that centers on whether they are protected by legislative privilege.
Yesterday, several pieces of correspondence between Mr. McDevitt and the office of District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. laid out the early phases of what threatens to become a bitter legal contest over the investigation. Mr. McDevitt previously represented former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht on an 84-count indictment and held federal prosecutors at bay with a range of challenges to the constitutionality of search warrants and evidence produced.
U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan later abandoned the prosecution.
Mr. McDevitt yesterday likened the county-level investigation into Ms. Orie to the federal probe of Mr. Wecht, including surveillance.
"They did the same thing in the beginning phase of Cyril's case," he said.
A Dec. 14 letter to Mr. Zappala and to Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus complained of a Dec. 11 raid on Ms. Orie's Senate office. Previously, Mr. McDevitt, in interviews, had placed the raid a week later, but the correspondence released yesterday leaves little doubt that the seizure, which included several computers and the office computer server, took place a Friday earlier.
"I was even more stunned to see that your office had again been involved in the procurement of a general search warrant for computers in this latest use of the District Attorney's powers against political foes," Mr. McDevitt wrote to Mr. Zappala Dec. 14. "I was equally stunned to see that you would try the same techniques that proved very problematical in the Wecht case with which both of you were involved -- such as using a sealed probable cause affidavit to obtain the warrant."
Through a spokesman Mr. Zappala yesterday dismissed Mr. McDevitt's assertions of politics as "incredible assertions that have no basis in fact."
Mr. McDevitt has publicly accused Mr. Zappala's office of targeting Ms. Orie because she opposes an expansion of casino gambling in Pennsylvania. Mr. Zappala's father, former Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr. and his sister, Michele Zappala Peck, both serve with a group advocating casino businesses.
Mr. Zappala's spokesman called the accusation "posturing" and a diversion.
The boxes, which Mr. McDevitt says likely contain routine legislative materials, were obtained by the district attorney's investigators after they contacted the staff member who had removed them.
"They apparently started talking to everybody and they get lawyered up," Mr. McDevitt said. An attorney for the staff member, whom he declined to identify, later turned over the boxes.
Several sources with firsthand knowledge of the case have stated, and Mr. McDevitt has confirmed, that the investigation is looking at allegations that Ms. Orie's office was used to help the campaign of her sister, Joan Orie Melvin, during her successful run for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last year.
Joan Orie Melvin could not be reached for comment.
Yesterday, after a day of contemplating the situation, Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, issued a brief statement, calling Ms. Orie "a trusted and respected member of our leadership team" and "a tireless advocate for reform."
They referred any further questions to Mr. McDevitt.