Orie denies call for audit is reaction to investigation

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State Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, is calling for an audit of two juvenile detention facilities owned by local businessman Gregory Zappala.

The call for a special state audit comes a month after news broke that Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., Gregory's brother, had convened a grand jury probe into the question of whether the McCandless Republican's staff did campaign work on behalf of her sister, state Supreme Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin.

An attorney for Ms. Orie, the third-ranking Republican in the state Senate, has decried the investigation as a political act rooted in her opposition to casino gambling, an industry to which the Zappala family has connections. The recent developments reveal the tension between the Zappalas, one of Western Pennsylvania's most prominent Democratic families, and the Ories, well-known Republicans.

In a letter dated Jan. 15 and addressed to state Auditor General Jack Wagner, Ms. Orie asks for a "special performance audit" of Western Pennsylvania Child Care, a facility located in northern Butler County, and Pennsylvania Child Care, a facility in Luzerne County. Gregory Zappala owns both.

The facilities are at the center of a $2.6 million "kids for cash" scandal in which two Luzerne County Common Pleas Court judges are accused of taking kickbacks for sending juveniles to the privately owned facilities. Mr. Zappala's former business partner, Robert Powell, also faces criminal charges.

No evidence has come to light showing Mr. Zappala knew of the arrangement, and attorneys representing juveniles incarcerated in the facilities have dropped him from a civil suit that names the judges, their spouses and numerous court officials.

Ms. Orie is asking that the finances of both juvenile detention facilities be reviewed since each opened for business: February 2005 in Butler County and February 2003 in Luzerne County.

Steve Halvonik, a spokesman for the state auditor general's office, said the senator's request is under review.

A state audit of the facilities by the Department of Public Welfare looked at a single year, beginning July 1, 2008, and determined there had been $1.2 million in unallowable expenses, such as golf outings and a chartered fishing trip. Those expenses inflated fees that were passed on to counties that contracted with Western Pennsylvania Child Care and with Pennsylvania Child Care, the DPW audit determined.

Ms. Orie said in her letter that she is motivated by concern for taxpayers who "should not bear the cost of these illegal actions." Her call for the audits, however, follows the disclosure that District Attorney Zappala had opened an inquiry into allegations that Ms. Orie's staffers were doing work on behalf of the state Supreme Court campaign of Judge Melvin.

The senator's spokesman denied any connection between that investigation and her request for another audit. "Anyone who knows the senator knows that this is a continuing pattern for her, not a responsive pattern to any individuals who have problems with what she does," said Mike Sarfert.

Earlier this month, Ms. Orie railed at a public hearing against the Pennsylvania Casino Association, which has three casinos as members, saying it hadn't disclosed the names of its employees and officers -- Michele Zappala Peck, the group's operations director, and her father, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr., the group's chairman and former executive director. Ms. Zappala Peck is a special master to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Board of Viewers. Stephen A. Zappala Sr. is the father of the district attorney and of Gregory Zappala.

Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9180.


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