PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s preliminary hearing on nine criminal counts began Monday in Pittsburgh.
Melvin is charged with using state-paid staff to run for election to the state Supreme Court.
Orie Melvin showed up for court this morning, as two former employees testified that the judge’s Superior Court office in Pittsburgh was really a campaign headquarters for her statewide campaign for Supreme Court in both 2003 and 2009.
The preliminary hearing before Municipal Court Judge James Hanley is the first step in determining whether District Attorney Stephen Zappala has enough evidence to take Orie Melvin to trial.
Molly Creenan, who worked for Orie Melvin from 1998 until this year, and Lisa Sasinoski, Orie Melvin’s chief law clerk from 1998 through 2003, testified that under the direction of Janine Orie, the judge’s sister, staff were expected to fill out campaign questionnaires, maintain campaign contributors on court equipment and stand at the polls on Election Day handing out literature.
“I felt I was being placed in an ethical dilemma,” Creenan said. “I felt my job could be in jeopardy.”
Sasinoski, wife of Allegheny County Judge Kevin Sasinoski, said she raced to her husband’s chambers in tears after Janine Orie asked her to forge expense documents so Orie Melvin could get street money, cash, to hand out to poll workers on election day.
“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 and expense vouchers to take money from the campaign,” she testified.
Good at winning elections, the Orie sisters were clearly one of this area’s powerful political families.
But with former Sen. Jane Orie in jail and Janine Orie awaiting trial in August, it was Orie Melvin who heard former staffers testify that she used her Superior Court office as campaign central in two bids to win a seat on the state Supreme Court.
Creenan testified she saw Janine, who was on the judge’s state payroll, use office equipment to prepare poll cards, stuff campaign envelopes, and answer candidate questionnaires.
Sasinoski said shortly before Orie Melvin’s 2003 election she received a profanity-laced voice message from Senator Orie.
“Get your clerks in line. They better work the polls. If they can’t, they need to get two others to work the polls,” Sasinoski said was the message left on her telephone.
Sasinoski said the judge’s staff felt intimidated into campaigning for Orie Melvin, even though court rules prohibit that.
“If you didn’t keep them (the Ories) happy, you wouldn’t be around very long.”
After Orie Melvin lost her bid in 2003, Sasinoski testified she confronted Orie Melvin.
Sasinoski: “This political stuff has to stop.”
Orie Melvin: “Stop? Lisa, we need to kick it up a notch.”
Six year later, Orie Melvin won election to the state Supreme Court, a position from which she has now been suspended, awaiting trial on nine counts of using state-paid staff to do political work.
The preliminary hearing will continue on Tuesday morning.
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