Orie fall from grace rapid, spectacular
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On the day after her family reached the height of its influence, Jane Orie's slide toward imprisonment began.
Her sister Joan Orie Melvin won election to the state Supreme Court on Nov. 3, 2009, and the two were up late that night taking congratulatory calls. "When Wednesday morning, at 7:30 in the morning, I get this call, I said ... 'This is it,' " Jane Orie, the former state senator, recounted in an interview with the Post-Gazette.
The call, she said, was from Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus, whom Orie knew from their days working in the office of the attorney general. She said he told her that she was under investigation.
"I really believed in my heart of hearts that there was absolutely nothing there," said Orie. On Monday, she was sentenced to 21/2 to 10 years in prison for 14 criminal counts, including five felonies.
She maintained to the end that what happened in her office was common and defensible, and that her prosecution was driven less by the severity of wrongdoing than by the stridency of her positions.
"Every staff was involved in campaigns," Orie said. The prosecution "all goes to this malicious, vindictive agenda to punish my family."
Not so, said District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. "What is it that I want that they have?" he asked hypothetically in a May 21 interview.
The daughter of a doctor, Orie left Duquesne Law School weighing interests in the law and hospital administration. "I want to smack myself for not doing [the latter]," she said, slapping her cheek.
Hired right out of law school by District Attorney Robert Colville, she specialized in domestic violence cases.
Later she moved to the state level, working for Attorney General Ernie Preate, and then for Tom Corbett, now the governor.
Former Warren County Sheriff Larry Kopko, who worked with Orie on the prosecution of a jail warden she sent to prison for eight to 16 years for sexual abuse of a child, called her "the meanest" prosecutor he ever saw.
"When she asked you questions, she would get just inches away from your face. She was just a very powerful prosecutor, just like Law Claus."
The Warren County press dubbed her "The Ice Princess," which she viewed as a compliment. "I always get that because I don't smile much," she said.
Her supervisor, for a time, was Mr. Claus. Their relationship soured, she said, after she wrote a memo critical of the evidence in a probe of a political foe of Mr. Preate, effectively killing the case. After that, she said, "They'd give me these horrible cases, like stolen cheese."
Her father's popularity, her sister's position as a judge and the family's friendships with local GOP committee members led her to run for state House in 1996.
Once elected, she drew on her prosecutorial experiences and reached out to experts on domestic violence. She sponsored legislation to train hospital personnel to identify domestic violence victims and refer them for help.
"Leadership was not in favor of this, but she pressed ahead," said Nancy Durborow, who was then the health projects manager for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
"She was very tenacious," Ms. Durborow said. The bill passed.
"She lived to work," said county Councilwoman Jan Rea, R-McCandless. "It didn't matter who you were when you came into her office; if you needed help, she would help."
Elected to the Senate in 2001, her opposition to pension enhancements, pay raises and gambling made her "something of a voice in the wilderness," Orie said. "But I could get a drum beat going."
She pounded on the bill legalizing slots casinos.
"So much money was at stake, and so many political insiders had their hands out. So did a lot of legislators," Orie said. A provision in the slots legislation that allowed legislators to have 1 percent stakes in casinos was stripped from the law after she made it an issue.
Once gambling was approved, Orie backed the Isle of Capri casino proposal, and not the Harrah's bid in which Charles Zappala, uncle of the district attorney, had an interest. Neither bid prevailed.
On Oct. 30, 2009, Orie wrote to fellow senators expressing concern that the Pennsylvania Casino Association hadn't registered as a lobbying organization, and saying it "has employed a former member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court." That former member was Stephen A. Zappala Sr., father of the district attorney.
Also on that date, intern Jennifer Knapp Rioja left Orie's district office and contacted law enforcement to report witnessing political work on behalf of Joan Orie Melvin. That led to two trials, one ending in a mistrial when prosecutors discovered forged documents submitted by Orie, the other a conviction.
Jane Orie said she always tried to keep politics out of the office.
"I'd have people come into my office handing [campaign] checks to my secretary," she said. "How do you control that?"
Her chief of staff, Jamie Pavlot, "always volunteered" to help on campaigns, Orie said.
In interviews with investigators, Ms. Pavlot said the senator sometimes ordered staff to drive to the campaign mailbox, prepare mailers to voter groups or transport Joan Orie Melvin to political functions. She detailed a scramble, directed by Jane Orie, to remove political taint from the office after Ms. Rioja made her accusations.
At trial, Ms. Pavlot said some staffers were fired when they balked at doing political work.
"When I saw how far she had gone, I really was stunned and disappointed and befuddled," Orie said.
Orie said she felt that decisions by Judge Jeffrey A. Manning hamstrung her.
"I'm not allowed to even mention the Zappala name or gambling," she said. "I'm doing a case in the day and age where [the perception of] public corruption is so heightened, and my hands are shackled behind my back."
She was convicted March 26.
Unmarried, with no children, she spent the months prior to sentencing on house arrest in the McCandless home in which she grew up. She resigned from the Senate May 21. Next up: prison.
"I still believe I'll get justice," Orie said. "I'll never stop doing what I did."
First Published June 5, 2012 12:00 am