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September 27, 2011

Sen. Orie’s new trial pushed back to February

PITTSBURGH — State Sen. Jane Orie’s corruption retrial was pushed back until Feb. 13 to give lawyers more time to prepare for new charges including forgery and perjury that grew out of her mistrial earlier this year. The charges will now be heard by the same jury when her original campaign corruption charges are retried.

Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning declared the mistrial during jury deliberations in March because he believed the defense used a forged document to discredit a key witness in the trial of the 49-year-old Pittsburgh-area Republican and her sister, 57-year-old Janine Orie, on charges of illegally using the senator’s state-paid staff for campaign work.

In the months since the mistrial, county prosecutors and detectives investigated other defense documents and Orie’s testimony about them at the original trial. Last month, prosecutors filed 16 new criminal counts, including forgery, perjury, evidence tampering, and obstruction of justice after claiming they uncovered evidence that Orie had fabricated or forged some documents, and lied when she testified about them at the first trial.

Manning agreed Tuesday that both sets of charges are so closely related that they should be combined in one new trial.

The judge had previously rejected a request by Orie’s attorney, William Costopoulos, to do just that – but Manning explained that was only because Orie had yet to be ordered to stand trial at a preliminary hearing on the new charges. The senator, in a surprise move, waived her right to that preliminary hearing early Tuesday and then stayed away from the pretrial conference about 90 minutes later at which Manning combined the two cases.

Costopoulos told reporters the decision to waive the preliminary hearing on the new charges “was unilaterally mine, in anticipation that we were picking a jury on Monday.” Costopoulos also said he didn’t want to put the senator through what was expected to be a painstaking three-day preliminary hearing on the eve of the retrial.

The preliminary hearing had been scheduled to begin Wednesday, with jury selection for the retrial to begin Monday. Manning pushed back the trial to give defense attorneys and Deputy Assistant District Attorney Law Claus time to prepare to try the newer charges.

Claus and Costopoulos agreed it made more sense to try both sets of charges together.

“We feel that will give the jury the appropriate context” in which to consider all the charges, Claus said.

It does leave Costopoulos in a strange position, however, because many of the documents and some of the testimony Orie used to defend herself against the original corruption charges has now been deemed criminal by prosecutors.

Costopoulos declined to comment on how he will defend Orie at the retrial, but agreed a combined trial on all charges was fair.

“Otherwise we would be having two new trials and that’s a bit much for the senator and a bit much for the commonwealth,” Costopoulos said.

District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. filed the original campaign corruption charges after an Orie intern came to his office in late 2009 to complain that she and other staffers were made to do campaign work for the senator on state time.

Sen. Orie’s former chief of staff, Jamie Pavlot, and more than a dozen other staffers testified the senator authorized campaign work in her suburban Pittsburgh office and even authorized comp time for staffers who did it. Orie denied that, presenting as evidence printouts of emails and other staff directives on which she also wrote instructions that purported to show she disapproved of such work.

Those documents included one Manning determined had Pavlov’s signature cut-and-pasted onto it, prompting the mistrial, and dozens more that form the basis of the new charges against the senator.

The senator’s staffers also testified that Janine Orie, who is suspended from her job as aide to a third sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, often directed them to do campaign work for Melvin in 2009. Melvin, then a Superior Court judge, was elected to a seat on the state’s highest court that year. Melvin has not been accused of wrongdoing or charged with any crimes.

Costopoulos had appealed to the Supreme Court in an attempt to stop the retrial, claiming prosecutors raised the forgery issue at the 11th hour to cause a mistrial because they feared Orie would be acquitted. The high court rejected that appeal – which had already been twice rejected by the Superior Court – on Tuesday, clearing the way for February’s trial.

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