HARRISBURG Prosecutors overreached and improperly tore down the wall between the executive and legislative branches in carrying out their corruption investigation of former State Sen. Jane C. Orie, her attorney told a state Superior Court appeals panel Tuesday.
Lawyer William C. Costopoulos asked the three judges to bar the evidence against the former Republican majority whip and overturn her conviction on charges of using state staff to campaign for her and her sister, Joan Orie Melvin, the former state Supreme Court justice separately convicted of similar charges.
Costopoulos also contended Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. had built his case against Orie by digging into what the lawyer called the "sacred data" of the state Senate.
Rather than conducting raids and serving search warrants to seize computers from Orie's office near Pittsburgh, Costopoulos argued, prosecutors could have simply subpoenaed the material. "There's no fear that the Senate of Pennsylvania would go in and burn or destroy their computer system," he told reporters after the arguments.
Michael W. Streily, a deputy Allegheny County district attorney, countered that a special master had reviewed all of the seized Senate material to distinguish evidence of crimes from legitimate legislative documents. Streily said constitutional separations of branches of government could not be used to block criminal probes.
After the arguments, Costopoulos predicted the appeals panel would issue its opinion after Feb. 9 - the tentative date Orie is to be paroled. She was sentenced to serve 21/2 to 10 years, but the state parole board last week ruled she could be freed early for good behavior and "motivation for success."
Even with her sentence behind her, her lawyer said, Orie, 52, would welcome an opinion that would clear her name and also strengthen the privacy rights of lawmakers.
Orie's first trial in 2011 ended when an angry judge declared a mistrial. Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey A. Manning did so after determining that her defense had presented "fraudulent information."
A jury convicted Orie the following year of illegally using state resources for campaigning and trying to conceal her crime with doctored documents. At sentencing, Manning said her original wrongdoing was "overshadowed by the cover-up."
In Orie's appeal, Costopoulos argued that Manning had wrongly declared the 2011 mistrial and thus put her in double jeopardy at her second trial.
Manning had also ordered Orie to reimburse the state $110,000 in fees paid to her defense lawyers before her conviction. She did so after prosecutors invoked - for the first time in Pennsylvania - a 1996 law requiring politicians convicted of crimes in office to pay back defense costs initially borne by the taxpayers.
As The Inquirer reported last year, taxpayers have footed about $15 million in legal bills in recent years for legislators and their aides amid criminal investigations.
In his appeal, Costopoulos contended the payback law did not apply to legislators. He noted that the money to assist Orie had been funneled through the state Senate Republican caucus, not through a state agency, and thus was outside the law's reach. He wrote in his brief that prosecutors' demand for the fees was unprecedented.
In their rebuttal filing, prosecutors said the law unquestionably applied to legislators. Though the defense payments flowed from the Senate GOP caucus, prosecutors wrote, the money was still "taxpayer-funded."
During the investigation that led to Orie's trial, taxpayers spent about $1.2 million on legal bills. Of that, Senate lawyers have argued, only $110,000 was spent to assist Orie directly, with the rest spent protecting the rights of the legislature and advising about 20 aides who were witnesses in the probe.
In May, a jury convicted Joan Orie Melvin, 57, of using state court staff - she was then a Superior Court judge - to run for the state Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009. Last month, a judge suspended her sentence of three years' house arrest after the Superior Court ruled that she did not have to write apologies to every judge in Pennsylvania, as initially ordered.
Another of Orie's sisters, Janine Orie, 59, is serving a year of house arrest for charges of helping her sisters commit their crimes.