Top Pa. judge charged with campaign corruption

May 18, 2012 - 4:55 PM
Pennsylvania Judge Corruption

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, center, leaves Pittsburgh Municipal Court after a hearing on charges she illegally used her state-funded staff to perform campaign work on Friday, May 18, 2012 in Pittsburgh. Orie Melvin said after the hearing that she is not guilty of campaign corruption charges connected to her bids for a seat on the high court. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

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.

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. Orie is scheduled to be sentenced in June, and her attorney has said in court filings that she will resign before then.

The grand jury report said Orie Melvin and her staff used personal email accounts to shield the actual email addresses that generated 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 state-paid 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.

The absence of Orie Melvin, a Republican, leaves the court evenly divided between the parties, with review of the politically charged legislative reapportionment matter potentially returning before the court. The Supreme Court in January by a 4-3 vote threw out the last set of district maps and the reapportionment commission has not yet had a final vote on a new version.

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Associated Press writer Peter Jackson contributed to this story from Harrisburg.