PITTSBURGH – The campaign corruption case against suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and her sister and suspended aide is one of family ties becoming “criminal ties,” a prosecutor said Friday in closing arguments.
Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney Lawrence Claus said it was understandable that aide Janine Orie and a third sister, then-state GOP Sen. Jane Orie, would support Melvin’s Supreme Court campaigns in 2003 and 2009, when she was still a Superior Court judge. But the sisters crossed the line by conspiring to misuse Melvin’s state-paid court staffers and Jane Orie’s Senate staff for political work, Claus said.
“That’s taking family ties too far,” Claus said. “That’s not what the law allows.”
Attorneys for Melvin and Janine Orie say prosecutors haven’t proved the illegal campaign work, largely because all the witnesses agreed that Melvin’s staff did their judicial work and did it well.
“If all this is true, and they were unanimous in saying that, how could there have been this campaign work to the degree they say it was going on?” argued James DePasquale, Janine Orie’s attorney.
Melvin’s attorney, Patrick Casey, agreed: “Joan Orie Melvin got the work done, she served her job, she ran her campaign with political professionals, and she paid for it with private funds.”
Casey also argued that two key prosecution witnesses “lied” when they testified about key documents, though Claus claimed the witnesses “misspoke.”
Jamie Pavlot, Jane Orie’s ex-chief of staff, testified she oversaw political work by Senate staffers requested by all three sisters. She documented some of that with a file she took home in November 2009, days after a Senate intern prompted the DA’s investigation by complaining she saw Sen. Orie’s staffers working on Melvin’s campaign.
During Pavlot’s cross-examination, the defense noted several documents dated 2010 were in the file, which they say proved Pavlot doctored the file to help prosecutors. Pavlot insisted the 2010 documents weren’t in the 2009 file – which Claus agreed Friday would have been a “physical impossibility” – and that she didn’t know how they got there. Outside court, investigators said they believed the 2010 documents were mistakenly mixed into the 2009 file by a jury that examined them when Sen. Orie stood trial last year.
Jane Orie was sentenced in June to 2 1/2 to 10 years in prison for misusing Senate staff on her own campaigns but was acquitted of using them to work on Melvin’s campaigns, too.
Casey also said Lisa Sasinoski, Melvin’s former law clerk, lied when she testified that a handwritten note from Melvin contained instructions to fill out a 2003 candidate questionnaire for a special interest endorsement. Claus discovered the document was wrongly identified and Sasinoski acknowledged it was from 1998. Sasinoski then explained she was mistaken simply because she had received so many other requests from Melvin to fill out candidate questionnaires in 2003.
DePasquale also sought to minimize Janine Orie’s role in what he sarcastically called the “theft ring,” arguing she didn’t function as Melvin’s “office manager” as prosecutors claimed but was a mere “secretary” charged primarily because she was Melvin’s sister.
“You tell me: Is she anything more than collateral damage?” DePasquale asked the jury. “Is she anything more than a patsy who gets put into this because of her name?”
Claus argued, however, that Sen. Orie’s response after the intern blew the whistle in October 2009 showed the sisters knew illegal political work was being done.
A Senate intern saw a letter from the senator – but printed on Melvin’s stationery – seeking votes from Catholic nuns because of Melvin’s anti-abortion beliefs. Pavlot testified that a “cover-up” letter was created in which Sen. Orie wrote to the nuns – on her own stationery – about some nonpolitical community events.
Pavlot, who was then trying to defend the senator, testified she used the cover-up letter to try to convince the intern she was mistaken about the first letter’s contents.
The jury deliberated about two hours Friday without reaching a verdict. Jurors are set to return Tuesday after the Presidents Day holiday.