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Pa. justice convicted of corruption

Joan Orie Melvin was found guilty, with her sister Janine Orie, of misusing state funds, other counts.

State Sen. Jane Orie (left) and her sister Janine are involved in a case that shows the perils of electing Pennsylvania's appellate judges. (AP Photo)
State Sen. Jane Orie (left) and her sister Janine are involved in a case that shows the perils of electing Pennsylvania's appellate judges. (AP Photo)Read more

PITTSBURGH - A jury delivered guilty verdicts Thursday on six of seven corruption charges against suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

Jurors convicted Melvin on theft and conspiracy charges. Her sister and codefendant, Janine Orie, was also convicted on all but one count of the charges against her.

The sisters were charged with misapplication of state funds, theft of services, and conspiracy for using the justice's former Superior Court staff and the legislative staff of a third sister, former State Sen. Jane Orie, to work on Melvin's campaigns for the Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009.

Among the allegations were that staffers wrote speeches, drove her to campaign events, and worked for her at the polls.

Jurors were deadlocked on one count - official oppression, a charge brought against the justice for terminating her chief law clerk for failing to do political work. Defense witnesses testified that the clerk left voluntarily. Allegheny County Court Judge Lester G. Nauhaus declared the jurors hung on that count.

He did not set a sentencing date, but ordered a presentence report for both women, who along with their lawyers left the courthouse without commenting on the verdicts or whether they would appeal.

Melvin, 56, is the second member of Pennsylvania's highest court convicted of crimes in the last two decades. In 1994, a jury convicted Rolf Larsen of conspiracy to procure controlled substances.

Melvin remains suspended without pay pending further action by the state Court of Judicial Discipline.

"This jury . . . has made it absolutely clear that no one is above the law, irrespective of title or status," Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said. Gov. Corbett's statement echoed that sentiment. "The conviction of Justice Melvin shows that no public official is above the law," he said.

Melvin and her lawyers have long contended that Zappala brought the charges against her as part of a political vendetta, which Zappala has denied.

The jury of nine women and three men began deliberating Friday afternoon. As foreman Matt Mabon read the verdict on each charge ("theft of services greater than $2,000 - guilty") Patrick Casey, one of Melvin's lawyers, appeared to steady her, grasping her elbow.

He held on throughout the reading of all seven counts for Melvin: Guilty of two more counts of theft of services; guilty of two counts of conspiracy, and of misapplication of entrusted property.

Then the verdicts for Janine Orie were read. There was no visible reaction from either defendant.

Mabon said the idea of acquittal never came up during deliberations. "We never even talked about that," he said.

He said jurors were aware of the previous case involving Jane Orie. "We're not allowed to talk about that," he said. "Jane's already been convicted, she's in jail, that horse is dead, let's not beat it anymore."

Regarding the defense argument that Melvin repaid her campaign for some of the expenses in question, Mabon said, "It has really nothing to do with any of that. The paying-back was so minimal as to what was actually taken."

Melvin was charged in May, and voluntarily stepped away from the high court that day. Within hours, the court ordered her suspended to "preserve the integrity" of the system.

That same day, a state board recommended suspending Melvin with pay pending resolution of the case. In August, the Court of Judicial Discipline ruled that Melvin should go unpaid during her suspension. Her salary at the time was $195,309.

Melvin fought to have the charges dismissed, claiming the Supreme Court and not the criminal courts should have jurisdiction.

Janine Orie worked for Melvin as an administrative assistant.

The staunchly Republican, conservative Catholic sisters from Pittsburgh's North Hills suburbs have argued that the charges were overblown or outright lies whipped up by Zappala, a Democrat, 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 because an intern for then-Sen. Orie complained in 2009 of 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.