Pa. judge’s defense tries to undermine state case
PITTSBURGH – Defense attorneys for suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin called their first witnesses Friday to attack the credibility of prosecution witnesses, especially a former law clerk who contends she was fired for objecting to political work.
But attorneys for both sides spent most of their time arguing whether records produced by one witness, the deputy recorder for the state Superior Court, are relevant. Dolores Bianco brought reams of reports that show how many cases Melvin and her staff handled annually when she was still a judge on the Superior Court.
Melvin, 56, and her sister and suspended aide, Janine Orie, 58, are charged with conspiracy, theft of services and other crimes for allegedly using Melvin’s taxpayer-funded Superior Court staff to work on her 2003 and 2009 campaigns for the state’s highest court, and similarly using the taxpayer-funded staffers of a third sister, then state Sen. Jane Orie, 51.
The defense contends Bianco’s records show Melvin and her staff did their court work and, in some instances, handled more cases than most other Superior Court judges. They contend taxpayers weren’t ripped off if the work was done and, further, that Melvin’s staff wouldn’t have had time to do political work on state time if they were that productive.
Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus disagreed, saying that proof that Melvin and her staff did their work doesn’t disprove they also campaigned on state time.
“So your defense is, ‘So what, we were running a good show?”’ Nauhaus asked.
“The defense is not ‘So what?’ The defense is that it didn’t happen,” Melvin’s attorney, Patrick Casey said. “We are disputing that (state) services were taken.”
Nauhaus didn’t immediately rule on whether Bianco can testify when the trial resumes Monday. But he pushed the attorneys toward a compromise in which another witness would be allowed to tell the jury that Melvin’s staff did their professional work and, perhaps, would present a chart with statistics to that effect.
Before Bianco’s truncated testimony, the defense called retired Superior Court Judge Joseph Del Sole, who was president judge when Melvin first ran for the Supreme Court in 2003.
Del Sole testified he spoke to Melvin by phone about what he was told was the resignation of Lisa Sasinoski, the law clerk who testified she was fired for objecting to political work in December 2003. That was a month after Melvin lost the Supreme Court race to Max Baer, who is still also a justice on the high court.
Melvin contends Sasinoski wasn’t fired, but quit so she could jump ship and work for Baer, for whom she still clerks.
Del Sole was also asked about four personnel documents the defense contends show that Sasinoski wasn’t fired, but was transferred to a centralized pool of court employees until she could start working for Baer in January 2004. Sasinoski has said she never knew such paperwork existed until prosecutors prepared her to testify a couple of months ago. Though Del Sole said the paperwork supports his recollection of what happened, he said he had never seen it before either.
Wayne Raum, an official with the State Employees Retirement System, testified that agency records don’t show Sasinoski had an interruption of service as a state employee – which the defense claims would have occurred had she been fired. Raum also said, however, those same records show Sasinoski took maternity leave between Dec. 29, 2003, and Jan. 5, 2004, the first day she worked for Baer.
Sasinoski had previously denied being pregnant or taking leave at that time, and testified that any records showing she worked in the centralized pool were merely a bookkeeping maneuver so she could be paid for unused sick and vacation days in the weeks between working for Melvin and Baer.
Even Nauhaus questioned the maternity leave testimony.
“A six-day maternity leave? I’m just asking,” the judge said to no one in particular.