3 former employees say they did 2003 campaign work for Melvin
Three former staffers for state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin testified Monday that they were expected to perform campaign work during the then-Superior Court judge’s failed 2003 campaign for the state’s high court.
Molly Creenan, a former staff attorney; Lisa Sasinoski, Melvin’s chief law clerk during the 2003 election; and Kathy Squires, a secretary in Melvin’s legal chambers, said Janine Orie, Melvin’s sister and office manager, wanted them to stand at polling places and distribute literature and individually perform other campaign work on taxpayers’ time.
“I felt like it would be in my best interests to do what was asked or what was told,” said Squires, who worked for Melvin from 1998 through December 2009. “I felt like I had no choice.”
Melvin, 56, a Republican from Marshall, is charged with illegally using her taxpayer-funded staff to campaign for a seat on the high court in 2003 and 2009. She was suspended from the Supreme Court in May after an Allegheny County grand jury recommended charging her with theft of services, conspiracy, solicitation to tamper with or fabricate evidence, official oppression and misapplication of entrusted property. Melvin has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The three former staffers and Sharon Cochran, a former employee of Melvin’s sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, were the first witnesses at Melvin’s preliminary hearing in Pittsburgh Municipal Court before District Judge James Hanley. Testimony continues Tuesday.
Sasinoski, the wife of Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski, said she and another staffer handed out fliers outside polling places in Penn Hills on Election Day 2003.
“I thought at the time it was a test of loyalty,” Sasinoski said.
Melvin’s attorneys spent the past month requesting an out-of-county judge to preside over her case. The state Supreme Court and Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning denied their requests.
In cross-examinations, Melvin’s attorneys pressed witnesses for specific instances when they were directed to perform campaign work.
“I considered an order from Janine (Orie) as an order from the judge,” said Creenan, who refused to stand at a polling site on Election Day and instead said she was forced to sit in the office and field phone calls.
Creenan said she filled out questionnaires from newspapers, legal associations and interest groups on state time in 2003, but told Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus she later refused because she didn’t want the office to fall victim to an ethics investigation.
“I was just trying to protect myself and the office from what has occurred, which is everyone losing their jobs and being here (in court) today,” she said. “I told her that if there was ever an investigation in our office I would tell the truth.”
Squires said she maintained a computer-based spreadsheet to organize campaign contributions.
Sasinoski said Janine Orie asked her to forge expense vouchers to get “street money” to pay poll workers. Sasinoski declined.
“I was an attorney who had gone to law school and passed the bar exam. There was absolutely no way I was going to duplicate or fabricate expense vouchers to take money from the campaign,” she said.
In cross-examination, defense attorneys questioned Sasinoski about her employment with state Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, a Mt. Lebanon Democrat, with whom she worked shortly after she stopped working for Melvin.
Sasinoski was a key witness in Janine Orie’s preliminary hearing in December. Janine Orie will stand trial in August on charges of theft of services, tampering with evidence, criminal solicitation and conspiracy based on allegations that she used judicial staffers and Jane Orie’s legislative staffers to campaign for Melvin.
An Allegheny County jury convicted Jane Orie of McCandless in March of using public employees for political activity. Manning sentenced her to 2 1⁄2 to 10 years in prison in June.
Manning last week quashed subpoenas from Melvin’s attorneys for Baer, Sasinoski’s husband and other former staffers to appear at her preliminary hearing.
Melvin, wearing a navy suit, sat away from the desk behind her attorneys, with her hands in her lap, her left hand clasping a coin-sized gold charm on a bracelet around her right wrist.
Her daughter, Casey Melvin, 24, seated nearby, was seen taking notes and occasionally tearing a slip of paper out of a notebook, writing on it and giving it to her mother or one of the attorneys. She later dozed off during Squires’ testimony.
The last sitting state Supreme Court justice to be found guilty of criminal charges was Rolf Larsen in 1994. The state House removed him from office later that year.
Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or [email protected].