PITTSBURGH - Suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and the sister who worked for her were convicted Thursday of corruption for allegedly misusing state-paid staffers to do campaign work.
The sisters were each convicted of six counts for the work done on Melvin's 2003 and 2009 Supreme Court campaigns. Jurors were unable to decide one count of official oppression against Melvin, 56, who was accused of firing her Superior Court law clerk-turned-key witness, Lisa Sasinoski, after she objected to doing political work in 2003.
The sisters were each found guilty of several counts of theft of services, as well as criminal conspiracy, and one count each of misappropriation of state property.
Janine Orie, 58, was also convicted of evidence tampering for ordering a Superior Court staffer to delete political files from court computers once the Allegheny County district attorney began investigating in late 2009.
One of Melvin's conspiracy convictions stemmed from cover-up activity, too: a three-way call between herself, a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, and Orie's former chief of staff Jamie Pavlot. During the call, Melvin and Jane Orie allegedly told Pavlot to remove any political documents from a file Pavlot took home after they learned of the investigation.
Melvin and her attorneys left the courtroom without commenting after sheriff's deputies blocked off a hallway to keep reporters away.
Janine Orie's attorney, James DePasquale, said of the verdict, "I didn't like it, I'll tell you that."
"She's been on trial for a month, she's had this hanging over her head for, what, three-and-a-quarter years? She's devastated."
Melvin and Janine Orie, who followed her sister as a Supreme Court aide, remain suspended without pay and the Judicial Conduct Board has disciplinary charges pending against Melvin.
Art Heinz, spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said the conviction doesn't immediately change Melvin's status, though the Court of Judicial Discipline has the authority to remove her from office if the Judicial Conduct Board charges are proven. Heinz wasn't sure if the Supreme Court, itself, could remove Melvin from office and said Chief Justice Ronald Castille was not immediately commenting.
Pennsylvania Bar Association president Thomas Wilkinson said the "verdict represents a sad chapter in the history of Pennsylvania's justice system" and bolsters the association's position that justices should be appointed, not elected. Wilkinson was hoping the court - which has been split with 3 Republican and 3 Democrat justices since Melvin, the Republican swing vote, has been suspended - will soon have a seventh justice.
The staunchly Republican, conservative Catholic sisters from Pittsburgh's North Hills suburbs have argued the charges were overblown or outright lies whipped up by Democratic Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., allegedly because the Ories have opposed the expansion of legalized gambling, an industry in which Zappala's relatives have an interest.
Zappala said the investigation began simply because an intern for then-Sen. Orie complained in October 2009 about political campaign work the legislative staff was being made to do for Melvin, just days before she won a seat on the state's highest court.
Zappala said the verdict "has made it absolutely clear that no one is above the law irrespective of title or status."
Although Jane Orie, 51, was charged as part of the conspiracy, she wasn't on trial. She resigned from office last year and is serving 2½ to 10 years in prison for illegally using her staff to work on her own campaigns, though she was acquitted of having her staff campaign for Melvin, too.
Jury foreman Matt Mabon, a 22-year-old 911 dispatcher, said the jurors largely put aside the senator's alleged role because, "that horse is dead. Let's not talk about that horse anymore. That horse is in jail."
The foreman said the jury decided the counts against Janine Orie first because "all the evidence pointed to Janine Orie. There was a lot more emails of Janine Orie directing people what to do." The evidence that Melvin used her Superior Court staff politically, though strong, was more circumstantial, he said.
The jury hung on the Lisa Sasinoski firing charge because the defense, through state personnel records, muddied the waters as to whether the law clerk was actually fired or merely resigned to take a job with Justice Max Baer after he defeated Melvin in the 2003 election.
Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus didn't schedule a sentencing date. The felony theft of services charges are the most serious carrying up to 7 years in prison each, though sentencing guidelines - which will take into account the clean record of both - are likely to recommend less time.
DePasquale said he plans to appeal the verdict and ask for probation for Janine Orie, which he believes is possible under the guidelines.