The 26-year-old intern who triggered a criminal probe into State Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, says she overlooked political work inside the office until she learned a fellow intern was being used to do campaign research.
Jennifer Knapp Rioja was fulfilling an internship requirement for her master's degrees in social work and public administration last year when she walked out of her assignment in the North Hills district office in protest to what she said were clear violations of law, a claim Sen. Orie's attorney vigorously contests.
"They had the other intern doing it," Ms. Rioja said in an interview with the Post-Gazette regarding her role in an investigation by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. "I could rationalize all day and say 'don't look -- you're not involved in it, you'll be fine.' But when they had another intern involved in it and she was afraid of rocking the boat ... I knew I had to do something."
At first, assignments blending business and politics were subtle, she said. Sent to staff a table for the senator at a church festival in July, Ms. Rioja said she was also given a box of campaign materials for the Supreme Court campaign of the senator's sister, Judge Joan Orie Melvin.
"It did seem odd, but it didn't seem overtly illegal," she said. "It seemed it was unfair for a state senator to help her sister win a campaign when campaigns should be won by the people campaigning."
By the time she quit, Ms. Rioja said, the political activities in the office were more open and troubling to her.
Ms. Rioja said the office photocopier and printer was used to make name tags for a fund-raiser for the Melvin campaign. She said the office computers were used to create fund-raising letters for the judge's campaign, and that a fellow intern was assigned to research local retirement homes so campaign materials could be dropped off.
So pervasive was the political work in the office, she said, that some staff spent the larger part of a work day stuffing envelopes for Judge Melvin's campaign.
Jerry McDevitt, attorney for Ms. Orie, last night said that notably absent from Ms. Rioja's complaints, as well as earlier details of the investigation, "is any claim that Jane ever told her to do anything or was involved in any way in the things that she seems to question.
"If this is in fact what they are looking into, I have to state that this is pretty weak stuff and I am confident that when Zappala's office responds to our RTK [right to know] request there will be far more pervasive politicking going on there for his candidates," he said.
Mr. McDevitt filed a Right to Know request on Dec. 18 seeking any records in the office of Mr. Zappala relating to the election campaigns of such Zappala allies as State Sen. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville, Common Pleas Court Judges John McVay and Edward Borkowski, and judicial candidates Michele Zappala Peck, Anne Lazarus and Judge Melvin's 2008 opponent, Jack Panella.
Throughout the investigation, Mr. McDevitt has asserted that Mr. Zappala has a conflict of interest in pursuing a criminal case against a state senator who has been an outspoken opponent of expanded gambling in Pennsylvania. Mr. Zappala's father, former Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr. and the district attorney's sister, Michelle Zappala Peck, have been active in the Pennsylvania Casino Association, an industry advocacy group.
During her internship, which began in May of last year, Ms. Rioja said, Ms. Orie's staff talked openly about the extent of their political work on state time. At one point, she said, Jamie Pavlot, Ms. Orie's chief-of-staff, reprimanded another employee for talking too openly about the political work.
She said one staff member at the North Hills office told her he had complained to a supervisor about being assigned political tasks and was told "that he was hired with the expectation that this is what he would do and if he didn't think he could do it, they would have to talk about his future."
The alleged political work came amid an ongoing scandal involving the use of state employees and money for political purposes. At the time, Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett had charged more than 20 people with violating criminal laws as well as the state Ethics Act.
According to Ms. Rioja, one Orie staffer told her, "If the attorney general's office found out what we were doing we'd all be led out of the office in handcuffs."
After abruptly leaving her internship on Oct. 30, Ms. Rioja said, she telephoned the state attorney general's office and was referred by a receptionist to the office of Mr. Zappala.
Since then, investigators from the district attorney's office have interviewed several Orie staff members, including Ms. Pavlot.
Ms. Pavlot did not respond to requests for comment.
Ms. Rioja, a Westmoreland County native now living in Ross, described herself as a Democrat and said she did little to hide her political views while working her unpaid internship on the senator's staff. At the same time, she said she had looked forward to working in a Republican legislative office.
"Going to a Republican's office I thought would broaden my horizons. I thought I would see the other side of things," she said.
After learning that her fellow intern, Erika Frantz, was being assigned to perform overtly political tasks, Ms. Rioja said she took her concerns to one of her academic advisers, Tracy M. Soska at the Pitt school of social work. Mr. Soska referred the matter to John Dalessandro, the school's director of field education who oversees intern outplacements. Ms. Frantz did not respond to a request for an interview.
Mr. Soska yesterday described Ms. Rioja as "diligent, hard-working and thoughtful" and said he supported her decision.
"All she wanted to do was do a good job and learn about policies and politics," he said.
The day after conferring with both men, Ms. Rioja said she confronted Ms. Pavlot, who denied any political activity. Ms. Rioja said Ms. Pavlot invited her to discuss the matter further but Ms. Rioja said she refused and left. Shortly after that, she informed the district attorney's office.
On Nov. 2, Ms. Rioja received a letter from Ms. Orie, copied to both Mr. Dalessandro and Mr. Soska, denying any political activity in the office.
"At no time has any member of my staff engaged in any political activity during, or on official state working time," she wrote. "What any member of my staff does on his or her personal leave, vacation time, or comp-time leave or even after working hours is their personal prerogative. My district office records and accounts for all legislative leaves for all staff."
"I also note that members of my staff received various e-mails from you criticizing Republican legislators and making derogatory remarks toward Republicans," Ms. Orie continued. "I do not know if you came to my office with a political agenda, but the allegations are baseless, slanderous and defamatory."
The senator also states in her letter that she had never personally met Ms. Rioja or spoken with her -- something Ms. Rioja said yesterday is incorrect. She said she met the senator on several occasions while in the office.
Mr. McDevitt, Ms. Orie's attorney, last night issued a point-by-point rebuttal of Ms. Rioja's claims. He said he had "good reason to believe that Ms. Rioja took issue with some of Jane's political views" and said the church festival to which she was posted was at the Orie family parish.
"Please remember she was a volunteer, not an employee," Mr. McDevitt said. "Jane wasn't even at the event she is talking about."
He also said that her assertions of political letters on office equipment lacked a clear definition of what Ms. Rioja would consider a "political" letter. He said Ms. Rioja's first complaints centered on "comp time issues" and that the matter "was fully explained to her."
Dennis B. Roddy can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1965.