PITTSBURGH – Suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s lawyer told jurors he had been waiting a long time to say it: “Joan Orie Melvin is innocent.”
They were the first words Daniel Brier spoke Friday to the Allegheny County jury that must decide whether Melvin illegally misused her former state-paid Superior Court staffers to campaign for her seat on the state’s highest court.
Brier told the jury that Melvin and her sister, Janine Orie, did not conspire to direct illegal campaigning by Melvin’s former staff or the state-paid staffers of a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie.
Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney Lawrence Claus told the jury that Melvin, 56, and Janine Orie, 58, violated the law by using those two groups of state employees to campaign for Melvin when she ran for the Supreme Court in 2003 and eventually won a seat in 2009.
But Brier and Janine Orie’s defense attorney, James DePasquale, told the jury that taxpayers weren’t ripped off because the employees’ state-funded “work got done.” And, Brier said, the cost of running Melvin’s chambers in the campaign years of 2003 and 2009 was actually less than it was in the years when she wasn’t campaigning.
“Everybody’s doing their work, and the office is not under-utilized,” DePasquale said, referring to Claus’ claim that taxpayers were nonetheless cheated. “Does that make any sense?”
DePasquale told the jury that the prosecution witnesses will be scrutinized for consistency because they’ve given statements to investigators and testified in past proceedings, including at Jane Orie’s trial. The former senator was convicted last year of misusing her own state-funded staff to run her campaigns and political fundraisers from 2001 to 2009.
Jane Orie, 51, is serving 2 1/2 to 10 years in prison, though she was acquitted of charges she directed her staff to campaign and raise political funds for Melvin.
Janine Orie – who worked as Melvin’s Superior Court aide and is now suspended from her similar job on the Supreme Court – is alleged to have been the messenger between the two sisters’ political camps who had authority to order their respective state workers to do the illegal campaigning.
DePasquale and Brier acknowledged the prosecution will prove Janine Orie sent emails about political work to both her sisters’ staffs, but they argued that’s a violation of a work rule barring open campaigning by state judicial employees, not a crime.
“We’re not denying that Janine Orie sent emails, and that she sent them to her sister’s staff,” Brier said. “She sent emails, and lots of them.”
Rather, DePasquale said, Janine Orie’s emails were mostly benign attempts to coordinate Melvin’s work schedule with her campaign appearances.
Claus, the prosecutor, told the jury at least eight of former Sen. Orie’s staffers will testify about political work they did for Melvin and that Melvin’s own staff will also testify that they were forced to do political work – and suffered the consequences when they finally objected.
Staffer Molly Creenan will testify that she was “ostracized, she was given the quiet treatment for over six months” when she told Melvin in 2009 that she wouldn’t do campaign work like she did in 2003, Claus said.
Melvin is charged with official oppression – misusing her official powers to punish someone – for how she allegedly treated another staffer, law clerk Lisa Sasinoski.
Sasinoski will testify that she was fired after she objected to doing campaign work following Melvin’s Supreme Court election loss in 2003.
Brier contends Sasinoski wasn’t fired but, instead, resigned to work for the winning candidate.
“Lisa Sasinoski decided she was going to work for a Supreme Court judge, and she did, and she still does,” Brier said.
The jury was to hear brief testimony Friday before returning Monday to hear from Sen. Orie’s former chief of staff, Jamie Pavlot, an uncharged co-conspirator testifying under immunity.