Top Pa. Judge Charged With Campaign Corruption
PITTSBURGH (AP) – State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin was charged Friday with illegally using her taxpayer-funded staff in her campaigns for a seat on the state’s highest court in a scheme that ensnared her sister, a senator awaiting sentencing on similar charges.
Orie Melvin said outside court that she will vigorously defend herself against the nine criminal charges, which a grand jury report called a “tale of corruption” that she “actively condoned and even promoted.”
“I am a woman of faith,” Orie Melvin said. “My faith will see me through this. And I will not resign because of these politically motivated charges.”
The high court relieved her of judicial and administrative duties Friday, but she remains a Supreme Court justice, on the payroll with a $195,000 salary and full benefits. The court also ordered Orie Melvin’s Pittsburgh office sealed to secure records, files and equipment that are property of the court.
Also Friday, the state Judicial Conduct Board filed disciplinary charges against Orie Melvin. It asked that she be suspended with pay pending a trial before the Court of Judicial Discipline on the allegations that her conduct violated the state constitution and the Code of Judicial Conduct.
The charges come two months after her sister Republican state Sen. Jane Orie was convicted of 14 counts of theft of services, conflict of interest and forgery charges.
The grand jury report said Orie Melvin and her staff used personal email accounts to shield the actual email addresses that gener- ated the messages, hiding the fact that political activities were being handled by the staffers while they were on the state payroll. Orie Melvin also used her statepaid telephone line to solicit support from hundreds of Republican committee members around the state, the report said.
Lisa Sasinoski, a former law clerk, told the grand jury that Orie Melvin’s aide and sister, Janine Orie, ordered her to work the polls for Orie Melvin in the 2003 election. Sasinoski testified that she told Orie Melvin after the election that the illegal campaign activities needed to end; the next day, she was fired.
The grand jury found evidence that “Superior Court personnel, court-provided facilities, and court-supplied office equipment” were used in the 2003 and 2009 elections.
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts said this is apparently only the second time a sitting justice has faced criminal charges. Justice Rolf Larsen was accused in 1993 of using the names of court employees to fraudulently obtain prescription drugs. He was removed from the bench when the charges were filed and was convicted the following year.
Gov. Tom Corbett said that while the charges against Orie Melvin will be resolved in court, “her arrest should serve as a reminder to public officials that no one is above the law.”
The grand jury investigation began in 2009 when an intern in Sen. Orie’s office complained to the district attorney’s office that she’d seen the lawmaker’s staff doing campaign work for Orie Melvin just days before she was elected to the high court.
Orie Melvin’s sisters Jane and Janine Orie initially went on trial together early last year on campaign corruption charges, but their cases were split after the judge overseeing the case declared a mistrial, saying one document was so obviously fake that “even Ray Charles” could see it. An examination of the exhibits by a U.S. Secret Service document expert resulted in forgery, perjury and evidence tampering charges in Sen. Orie’s next trial.
Sen. Orie is scheduled to be sentenced next month. Her attorney has said in court filings that she would resign before that.
Janine Orie is suspended from her job as an aide to Orie Melvin. She’s charged with directing the taxpayerfunded staffs of both sisters to perform campaign work. Her attorney, Jim De- Pasquale, told The Associated Press on Friday that he expects prosecutors to attempt to try Janie Orie with Orie Melvin but that he will oppose that.