PITTSBURGH – Suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s former law clerk took the stand Friday to accuse the justice of directing political campaign work by her state-funded staff when Melvin was still a Superior Court judge.
Lisa Sasinoski’s testimony Friday marked a shift in emphasis for the trial of Melvin and her suspended aide and sister, Janine Orie.
The siblings from Pittsburgh’s North Hills suburbs are charged with conspiring to use Melvin’s state-paid Superior Court staff to illegally campaign in 2003 and again in 2009 when Melvin won a Supreme Court seat. They’re charged with using the state-funded staff of a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, to campaign for Melvin as well.
The former lawmaker is serving 2½ to 10 years in prison for her conviction last year of misusing her own staff on her own political campaigns, though she was acquitted of charges she had her staff help Melvin’s electoral efforts.
Until Friday, only former Sen. Orie’s ex-staffers had testified against Melvin, 56, and Janine Orie, 58. Sasinoski is expected to be the first of several former Melvin employees to take the stand.
“I’m ashamed of it. I’m embarrassed that I ever got involved,” Sasinoski said of the political work. “When it started, it seemed harmless enough.”
Sasinoski said she kept Melvin’s biography updated so it could be passed out to groups Melvin hoped would support her campaign, filled out political questionnaires and took trips with Melvin when the judge was seeking the Republican party’s endorsement from county caucuses.
Sasinoski explained that some of Melvin’s trips had a dual purpose. When Melvin had judicial business in some cities, she’d also schedule campaign events like meet-and-greets and political dinners, Sasinoski said.
Melvin’s attorneys are expected to seize on such testimony because her lead counsel, Daniel Brier, told the jury during opening statements that Melvin was a hard-working Superior Court judge who managed to get all of her work done – and often filed more opinions than her colleagues – even when she was campaigning.
Brier has contended taxpayers weren’t ripped off because Melvin and her employees didn’t punch a clock. He argued that as long as the salaried staff’s judicial work got done, the taxpayers got their money’s worth, whether the staff pitched in on political work or not.
Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney Lawrence Claus, by contrast, wants the jury to find that any political work done by Melvin’s staff on state time was illegal and questioned Sasinoski about that Friday.
“Did you have any qualms about doing political or campaign-related work?” Claus asked. “Yes, I did, because we were not allowed to,” Sasinoski replied.
Sasinoski worked for Melvin from 1990, when she was a lower court judge, until she was fired in 2003 after she objected to doing the political work, Claus said.
But Brier contends Sasinoski wasn’t fired but simply went to work for Max Baer, who defeated Melvin in the 2003 race for a Supreme Court seat, and for whom Sasinoski still works as a law clerk.