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Sister’s use of Orie office for election denied |

Sister’s use of Orie office for election denied

| Wednesday, December 30, 2009 12:00 a.m

HARRISBURG — Supreme Court Justice-elect Joan Orie Melvin’s campaign headquarters effectively was 121 State St. in Harrisburg, the office of longtime former state Senate aide Mike Long, top Republicans said Tuesday.

“Mike Long was her campaign manager,” Allegheny County Republican Chairman Jim Roddey said. He said he met with Melvin several times during her campaign, but never in the office of her sister, Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie of McCandless, who co-chaired Melvin’s campaign.

An attorney for Orie yesterday denied she directed or condoned campaign activity in her Senate office on Melvin’s behalf. Orie, the Senate’s third-highest ranking Republican, is under criminal investigation by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office.

“In terms of directed activity, it’s nonexistent,” said her attorney, Jerry McDevitt. “That’s just not going to be found. We believe this is a politically inspired investigation.”

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., a Democrat, has denied his grand jury investigation is a political maneuver.

Long is the former majority staff administrator for ex-Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, R-Altoona. Long left state government to head his own lobbying and consulting firm in 2007.

Mike Barley, spokesman for the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, identified “121 State St.,” the address of Long’s firm, as Melvin’s headquarters during the Supreme Court campaign. Reached by telephone, Long would not comment. Campaign finance records show Orie Melvin’s campaign paid his firm $24,000 on Nov. 2 for consulting.

Melvin won a 53-47 percent victory over Democrat Jack Panella on Nov. 3 after a bitter campaign that could become the most expensive in the court’s history. The two sides spent a combined $4.5 million.

Republicans will hold a majority on the court for the first time since 2006. The court could be called upon to decide congressional redistricting in 2011.

The day before the election, an intern from the University of Pittsburgh working at Orie’s McCandless office went to Zappala’s office to allege campaign work occurred there for Melvin. Authorities haven’t released the intern’s identity or the exact nature of the allegations. But agents for Zappala and state police raided Orie’s office Dec. 11 and seized computer hard drives. They have questioned Orie’s chief of staff.

Orie co-chaired her sister’s campaign, according to a September fundraising letter the Tribune-Review obtained. Orie signed the letter seeking donations to Melvin’s campaign, and included her title as majority whip.

“Please know that you can count on the Orie family to work hard for the people of Pennsylvania,” she wrote on Melvin’s letterhead. “I pledge to you Joan will make you proud as a candidate for Supreme Court justice.”

McDevitt, who said Orie’s letter is innocuous, released a letter Zappala wrote during the spring primary on behalf of his sister, Michelle Zappala Peck, who ran for a seat on Allegheny County Common Pleas Court last year. His letter, which listed Zappala’s position as district attorney and was written on Friends of Stephen A. Zappala Jr. letterhead, sought “support today for Michelle.”

“There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two letters,” McDevitt said.

Orie’s voice is recorded on a message on an answering machine of an FOP official in Philadelphia during the campaign. She talked about police pension reform and asked to meet with the official “about my sis,” according to a transcript of the audio. McDevitt said there was nothing inappropriate about the message.

“There’s not a politician in this state that could pass a zero tolerance test,” he said. Orie did not specifically mention Melvin’s campaign or fundraising in the phone message.

Orie wasn’t the only Senate Republican leader tied to Melvin’s campaign.

“I think I was chair of her campaign … maybe just the fundraising chair,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County. “She worked the commonwealth as hard as any statewide candidate I have ever seen. She was even in my rural district. She earned the voters’ trust and respect.”

Melvin kept a campaign office at Long’s company and, according to McDevitt, a headquarters in Pittsburgh at brother Jack Orie’s Downtown law office.

Although Long managed the campaign — primarily the paid-TV and radio ads — state Sen. Kim Ward said state GOP Chairman Rob Gleason directed the effort to elect Republican judges to state appellate courts, with a special emphasis on the Supreme Court seat.

Gleason declined to comment and referred questions to Barley.

Ward, R-Hempfield, said the race was critical on two levels. She said party officials realized the party controlling the court would be in a good position if redistricting became an issue for the court to decide. But Republicans also needed to make a stand in a state that increasingly has swayed Democrats in recent statewide elections.

“This race was really important to Rob Gleason. We were losing statewide races and he needed to show we could win statewide,” Ward said. “That he put people on the ground mattered a lot. The state party was key here.”

Roddey said allegations of improprieties by Orie are hard to believe.

“I’m very familiar with the way she runs her office, and she would be the last person I would ever think would have this kind of problem, which she is alleged to have done,” Roddey said. “She was obviously very active on her sister’s campaign, and that’s to be expected, but she did that on her own time and she didn’t miss any of the sessions in Harrisburg.”

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