Orie sisters accused of threatening DA over grand jury probe
Jack Orie, surrounded by his sisters, left to right, Jane Orie, Judith E. Orie, Justice Joan Orie Melvin and Janine Orie.
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An affidavit unsealed in the corruption case against state Sen. Jane Clare Orie says she and her sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, dispatched an intermediary to convey threats in an attempt to halt a grand jury investigation into the senator.
The affidavit, which had previously been sealed by court order, became public when it was introduced into evidence at a preliminary hearing Monday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.
Robert Kramm, described as a political consultant for the Laborers' District Council of Western Pennsylvania, met Nov. 19 with officials at the district attorney's office. According to the affidavit filed by district attorney Detective Lyle Graber. Mr. Kramm said the Orie sisters had asked him to convey a series of messages that included a threat to launch a "Wecht style" attack if District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. allowed the investigation to continue.
The reference was to the aggressive public response by former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht to a federal indictment charging him with misusing office resources for personal gain. Half the charges were dropped before trial and a jury deadlocked on the remaining counts before then U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan decided against seeking a retrial.
An Allegheny County grand jury earlier this year recommended charges against Ms. Orie, R-McCandless, and her sister, Janine, who was an aide to Judge Melvin, on allegations that they used employees and resources in Ms. Orie's state-funded office to help Justice Melvin's bids for the Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009. She won a seat on the Supreme Court last year.
"During this meeting, Kramm stated that he had been asked to meet with Senator [Jane] Orie and her sister Judge Joan Orie Melvin earlier that day. Kramm stated that the Orie sisters had asked him at this meeting to convey a message to District Attorney Zappala" regarding the office's criminal probe of the senator.
Among the allegations -- some of which were later raised by attorney Jerry McDevitt, who represented the senator during the probe -- were claims that deputy district attorney Lawrence Claus, who headed up the Orie investigation, had been fired from a job at the state attorney general's office after a complaint against him by Jane Orie.
In subsequent days, after the investigation became public, Dr. Wecht took to the airwaves to criticize Mr. Zappala and the DA's office and its probe into Ms. Orie.
The affidavit goes on to list an array of other allegations the sisters threatened.
Detectives later obtained a search warrant for Mr. Kramm's e-mail account and received a disc which is still under examination. The affidavit says it contains records of e-mails between him and the Orie camp.
"Based on the previously outlined sequence of events," the affidavit reads, "your affiant avers that this threat of negative consequences outlined by Kramm (and alleged by Kramm to be at the behest of Senator Orie and Justice Joan Orie Melvin) is being carried out in retaliation and as a direct result of this criminal investigation continuing after the November 19, 2009 meeting, and further, these events appear to be aimed at thwarting this ongoing Grand Jury Investigation."
At the same time, Mr. Zappala's office has opened a grand jury investigation into Justice Melvin and any role she may have played in the use of state employees and resources to assist her campaign. She was not accused in the series of charges filed against her sisters in April.
Justice Melvin's attorney, J. Alan Johnson, said he had not read the affidavits yet; Ms. Orie's attorney, William C. Costopoulos, declined comment; Mr. Kramm did not respond to requests for comment.
In earlier testimony, two former employees of the senator's office, Sharon Cochran and her son, Jason Davidek, testified that they had been assigned to drive Judge Melvin to various events on state time.
Ms. Cochran said she was given "comp" time off from her state job, in return for driving the judge to and from an April 21, 2003 meeting in Johnstown, Cambria County. At the time, Joan Orie Melvin was in her first bid for the state Supreme Court, a race she lost. She was elected last year on her second bid.
"So, in essence, you got paid by the state to drive this judicial candidate to Johnstown?" asked prosecutor Claus.
"Yes," Ms. Cochran responded.
Mr. Costopoulos delivered a sharp cross-examination that included one assertion that Ms. Cochran had spoken on behalf of one of the programs of Ms. Orie -- the "hearts of steel" campaign in honor of 9/11 heroes -- on one of the stops in which she said she was working for Justice Melvin's campaign.
Other testimony included John Contino, the director of the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission, who testified that the state ethics law forbids the use of commonwealth resources for political purposes -- a law that Ms. Orie voted for 12 years ago when she served in the state House.
Mr. Contino came under sharp questioning by Mr. Costopoulos, who suggested that some of the accusations are based on ill-defined law and interpretations by the commission.
Under questioning, Mr. Contino indicated that both the U.S. House and Senate have their own internal codes of ethics that call for noncriminal sanctions, while Pennsylvania's ethics law classifies the use of a state office for partisan politics as a crime.
"Therefore, if Sen. Orie were in Washington, the allegations here would not be a crime," Mr. Costopoulos said.
In later testimony, Mr. Contino argued that while the line is not brightly defined in the statute, members would understand if they were violating rules.
"It doesn't take an extreme amount of knowledge to know when the red flag's raised," Mr. Contino said.
Outside the courtroom, Mr. Costopoulos said he believes the state's ethics law is too vague.
"I don't think it can be adequately applied or defined," he said. "It cannot be applied fairly. Our position is that whatever she engaged in that she is charged with is trivial."
The preliminary hearing in the courtroom of Common Pleas Judge Donna Jo McDaniel is expected to stretch over two days, with an estimated dozen witnesses, including Ms. Orie's chief-of-staff, Jamie Pavlot.
Ms. Pavlot is expected to testify under a grant of immunity. She previously told a county grand jury that Ms. Orie permitted widespread political work in the office last year.
First Published July 20, 2010 12:00 am