Joan Orie Melvin claims a political vendetta
In the weeks leading up to Friday's indictment of state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, an attorney for the justice sought to have a member of the state Judicial Conduct Board recuse himself, claiming he had a connection to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
The Judicial Conduct Board has been investigating Justice Melvin this year, including a deposition of the justice in April, according to a source close to the matter. Mr. Zappala on Monday strongly denied the connection to the board member.
On Friday, within hours after Justice Melvin was indicted by a county grand jury on campaign-related charges, the conduct board charged her before the Court of Judicial Discipline, and asked that she be suspended with pay while the criminal case against her plays out. A source said the judicial conduct board member in question did recuse himself.
The justice has said she will fight all charges and declined to comment for this story.
Her attorney, though, wrote in a legal filing that the charges against Justice Melvin reflected a "political vendetta" by the district attorney. The accusation was included in a motion filed April 30 with the Judicial Conduct Board in which the justice's attorney sought the recusal of one board member.
"Justice Orie Melvin has always maintained that this prosecution emanates from a political vendetta due to her vocal opposition to the juvenile detention facilities owned by the district attorney's brother, Gregory Zappala," the motion said. Justice Melvin's attorney, William I. Arbuckle, wrote that the justice believes that the district attorney's office "has utilized its prosecutorial powers against the Orie and Melvin family due to the extensive, pervasive, financial and direct interests of the Zappala family," which Justice Melvin and her sister, state Sen. Jane Orie, have periodically threatened.
Mr. Zappala on Monday called the motion "defamatory and actionable. And I'm trying to give this person a fair trial."
He said his actions prove that he has been fair to the Ories.
"If I have evidence before the time of the  election for the Supreme Court, and I choose not to go forward with" investigatory steps that would have generated pre-election publicity, Mr. Zappala said, "does that suggest that I have some kind of animus toward these people?"
Justice Melvin, 56, was arraigned Friday on nine criminal charges, including theft of services, official oppression, criminal conspiracy, criminal solicitation and misapplication of entrusted property. Those stem from her failed 2003 campaign, and successful 2009 run, for the Supreme Court, during which, Mr. Zappala's office has alleged, she used state resources, including her sister and staff member Janine Orie, in the electoral process.
Mr. Zappala's office also prosecuted Jane Orie, winning convictions on 14 counts of diversion of services, conflict of interest, fabrication of evidence and forgery. The district attorney's office argued that the senator used government resources, including staff members' state-paid time, to further hers and Justice Melvin's political careers. She is to be sentenced June 4.
Janine Orie's trial on related charges is set to start Aug. 13 but could be combined with the justice's case.
The conduct board process was under wraps until Friday, when the board filed a 30-page complaint, accusing the justice of allowing and directing "partisan political activity" by staff in her former office as a Superior Court judge, particularly by and through Janine Orie.
The 12-member conduct board handles allegations against judges and can spur trial before the Court of Judicial Discipline, as it has in regard to Justice Melvin. That eight-member court hears cases against judges, with the board acting as prosecutor, and punishment can range from a reprimand to removal from office.
According to the board complaint, Superior Court staff was ordered to pick up campaign mail, deposit campaign contributions, keep a database of contributions, fill out campaign finance reports, send thank-you notes, fill in campaign questionnaires and sometimes write political speeches.
It is not known who filed the complaint or complaints that started the board's investigation. Mr. Zappala said he wasn't certain of the extent of his office's participation in the board's process.
"If we have evidence which would be appropriate for them to consider, we would turn that over," he said.
The board would have had to vote to charge the justice, said Mr. Arbuckle, who used to be the board's counsel.
"It doesn't matter if it was unanimous, or it squeaked by with the minimum," Mr. Arbuckle said. "Once you're charged, you're charged."
The recusal effort focused on Philip Ripepi, a West Mifflin physician who is a Republican, appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell to the board in 2010. The April 30 motion seeking his recusal traced a series of marriages and included as exhibits newspaper articles going back to 1948, in an effort to show that Dr. Ripepi was a relative of Mr. Zappala, and that his family members have been represented by relatives of the district attorney.
"I'm not related to Dr. Ripepi," Mr. Zappala said.
The doctor could not be reached for comment.
The board's chief counsel, Joseph A. Massa, Jr., also could not be reached.
The recusal motion went on to detail what has been a centerpiece of the Orie families' defense so far. It said the justice criticized the involvement of former Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr. in the Pennsylvania Casino Association, and the court system's initial handling of accusations that two Luzerne County judges took bribes to send adjudicated minors to centers co-owned by Greg Zappala, the district attorney's brother. Greg Zappala has never been charged or accused of any wrongdoing in relation to the centers, PA Child Care in Luzerene County and Western PA Child Care in Butler County.
Justice Melvin was one of numerous critics of the Judicial Conduct Board's failure to investigate the Luzerne County judges. Ex-board members have defended the board's handling of the matter.
Told that Mr. Zappala called his motion defamatory, Mr. Arbuckle questioned how Mr. Zappala could have gotten access to any legal argument he may have filed during the board process.
"If he's had access to confidential information, he should justify that access," he said.
He said the board is allowed to share material with outside law enforcement "if it contains information related to violations of criminal laws.
"That has to come from the chair, and from the board," he added. "A board member doesn't get to leak it."
Mr. Zappala said there's "nothing out there that has been published" that would suggest any personal animosity by him toward the Ories.
He said there has "never been any relationship in any respect with the Ories until such time as a complaint was filed with the attorney general" by an intern in Jane Orie's district office who said she witnessed political work.
"Why are you carrying the water for people who are under indictment?" Mr. Zappala asked a reporter.
"The justice entered a plea of not guilty to the criminal charges," Mr. Arbuckle said. "We intend to contest vigorously the Judicial Conduct Board charges, and it's certainly our belief that the justice was in substantial compliance with all of the rules" for running a judicial office.
The court can take a number of measures after it tries a judge. It can issue a reprimand, remove the judge from office, and can bar the defendant from ever serving as a judge again.
First Published May 22, 2012 12:00 am