Grand jury accuses state Sen. Jane Orie
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An Allegheny County grand jury has accused Jane Orie, the third-ranking Republican in the state Senate, of widespread use of her office and staff for political campaigns on state time, including the state Supreme Court campaign of her sister, Justice Joan Orie Melvin.
The grand jury's findings are expected to become public sometime this week, according to sources close to the case. Charges are expected against both Ms. Orie and one other person who is not believed to be a member of her staff.
The investigation, which became public knowledge Dec. 24, centers on allegations that staff and state resources were routinely used to arrange political meetings, fundraising and even work on telephone banks. Accusations include that political work stretched over several years and involved campaigns other than Justice Melvin's.
Justice Melvin has not been charged in the investigation, but sources connected to it said Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. might refer any involvement by her to the office of state Attorney General Tom Corbett.
Last night, Ms. Orie's attorney, Jerry McDevitt, said he was not surprised at word that his client would face charges. He reiterated his longstanding assertions that the prosecution of Ms. Orie, a Republican, by the office of Mr. Zappala, a Democrat, was politically motivated.
"It was obvious, from Day One, Zappala was going to try to wreck the Orie family to retaliate for the positions they've taken adverse to the Zappala family," he said.
Mr. McDevitt and Ms. Orie both have suggested that she has been targeted for prosecution because of her opposition to expanded casino gambling in Pennsylvania. Mr. Zappala's father, former state Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr., has served as an official with a group representing the casino industry. The DA has repeatedly rejected the accusation, calling it a diversionary tactic.
Mr. McDevitt also said he no longer will represent Ms. Orie after criminal charges are filed.
"They are people of modest means," said Mr. McDevitt of the law firm K&L Gates.
The investigation began after a University of Pittsburgh graduate student, Jennifer Knapp Rioja, left her unpaid internship in Ms. Orie's McCandless office after protesting that she and another intern were being forced to perform political campaign chores. Her complaint sparked an inquiry that quickly resulted in an immunity agreement for Ms. Orie's chief-of-staff, Jamie Pavlot, who, the grand jury reported, steered them to a wide array of potentially improper office activities.
Ms. Pavlot has remained working at the Orie district office. She has not responded to calls for comment.
At least two witnesses said they told investigators of widespread political activities within the office, including a series of phone banks to which employees were transported during work hours to make calls on behalf of various Republican candidates. One witness told investigators that employees were assigned fictitious names one year and taken to a phone bank where they made calls for the 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush.
One witness told investigators that he was assigned to stuff envelopes for an earlier campaign by Justice Melvin and that he was also dispatched to a nearby office, given the name "Austin" and instructed to work a phone bank for the Bush campaign.
The witness, who spoke to the Post-Gazette on condition of anonymity, also told of taking constituent inquiries at the senator's office and being instructed to immediately add those names to Ms. Orie's campaign contribution list.
The other witness, Ms. Rioja, gave a detailed account of her experiences to the newspaper, saying she and another intern were instructed to work on the campaign of Justice Melvin.
Following that complaint, former and current staff members as well as a large number of former office interns were reached by investigators. A number of them reportedly provided accounts similar to those of Ms. Rioja.
Ms. Rioja last night declined to comment.
Since the investigation was revealed, Mr. McDevitt has gone on the offensive, accusing the district attorney's office of playing politics.
In a lengthy motion filed with Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge John Zottola to prohibit Mr. Zappala's office from prosecuting the case, Mr. McDevitt included a detailed list of potential conflicts of interest between his client and members of Mr. Zappala's family and office.
Included were allegations that the district attorney was only targeting Ms. Orie because she had previously called into question concerns that his father and sister, Michele Zappala Peck, were involved in the state casino industry.
Further, Mr. McDevitt included claims that the lead prosecutor on the case, Lawrence Claus, held a grudge against Ms. Orie dating from more than a decade ago when she was working as an assistant attorney general. In an affidavit filed by Ms. Orie that accompanied the motion for disqualification, she said she had a dispute with Mr. Claus, who was then her supervisor, over whether charges should be filed in a case involving local politics.
Ms. Orie thought that they should not be, the affidavit said. From that point on, she said, she was subjected to a hostile work environment, which eventually required a transfer to a different division. She claims that when Mr. Corbett took over as state attorney general, she gave an interview to his transition team regarding the situation, and Mr. Claus was later dismissed.
First Published April 6, 2010 12:00 am