The tainted prosecution of Justice Joan Orie Melvin
A public impeachment trial in the state senate is not only desirable in the case of Justice Melvin, but necessary.
For the second time in less than 20 years a Pennsylvania state Supreme Court Justice has been found guilty of criminal misconduct and is facing certain ouster or impeachment from the politicized and troubled state bench.
Almost immediately following Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s conviction in Pittsburgh last week, political operatives tied to the high court and the legislature put out demands in the press that Justice Melvin immediately resign, or face certain removal or impeachment.
We should have no doubt it would be best for politicians in all three branches of Pennsylvania government — the courts, the legislature, and the governor’s office — if Justice Melvin simply went quietly away into that good night.
But it would be best for the public, and perhaps for Justice Melvin’s family, if she stuck it out and demanded a full impeachment trial in the state senate.
It’s clear to just about everyone who’s followed their criminal cases that Justice Melvin and her sisters are victims of a suspect and tainted prosecution.
The justice and her two sisters — including former Republican state Senator Jane Orie — were improperly prosecuted by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr.
DA Zappala had obvious and unseemly personal conflicts of interest with the Orie sisters, who were long-time, and vocal, political opponents of DA Zappala’s family.
As such, the sisters are the latest victims in Pennsylvania of the misuse or appearance of misuse of a prosecutor’s great powers to settle scores and vendettas with political or personal enemies.
This was also a grave transgression of Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett during his run for governor.
Corbett, also from Allegheny County, went after Democratic enemies in the “Bonusgate” scandal, when he should have been going after Jerry Sandusky.
Ironically, former GOP Sen. Jane Orie was left untouched and protected by AG Corbett’s politically motivated “Bonusgate” prosecutions, as were other Corbett party members in the state senate.
The same witness that was ignored by a friendly Corbett was used by DA Zappala to convict Sen. Orie.
What led up to all this? It’s not a pretty story, and rather convoluted.
Before she was convicted in 2012, Sen. Orie was a critic of gambling expansion in the state.
Sen. Orie criticized the role of DA Zappala’s father — former Pennsylvania Chief Justice Stephen Zappala Sr. –for his mysterious paid work with the Pennsylvania Casino Association (PCA).
“It’s unclear what (the senior) Zappala did for the PCA; he’s not mentioned on its 2007 and 2008 federal tax forms,” the Allentown Morning Call pondered in 2010. “But Zappala and his daughter, Michelle Zappala Peck (the DA’s sister – ed.), the PCA’s bookkeeper, earned over $409,000 in 2008 even though the group did nothing publicly until October 2009, when it issued several press releases in support of table games legislation.”
Sen. Orie’s sister, Justice Melvin, also called for an audit of two private detention facilities that for years bribed Luzerne County judges to unlawfully incarcerate some 6,500 young people in the infamous Cash for Kids scandal.
The private detention firm at the heart of the scandal was co-owned by DA Zappala’s brother, Gregory Zappala, who has said he did nothing wrong. Zappala’s erstwhile partner was prosecuted and recently was released from federal prison.
For these obvious reasons alone, DA Zappala, or any prosecutor of integrity, should have recused himself from the Orie / Melvin prosecutions.
But the problems with the case run deeper than DA Zappala’s family conflicts of interest and long-running personal and political feuds with the Orie sisters.
The witness who got the ball rolling against the Orie sisters in the criminal cases — an intern named Jennifer Knapp Rioja who worked in state Senator Orie’s office — first complained about alleged improprieties involving politicking in the Ories’ offices to former attorney general Tom Corbett’s office.
As the Washington Post related in 2010, “Jennifer Knapp Rioja, the intern whose complaint started the investigation, insists that the first call she made was not to the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office but rather to the state Attorney General’s office..
“The biggest question coming out of all of this?” asks the Washington Post. “How in the world did Attorney General Tom Corbett’s office miss this? In his nearly three-year-long ‘mission’ to ‘clean up’ Harrisburg, he’s gone after some of the biggest fish in the Capitol. It doesn’t get much bigger than the woman who, at the time of her indictment, was the senate majority whip, the No. 3 Republican in the chamber.”
Why then did AG Corbett turn away witness Knapp Rioja?
It’s obvious. In order to help ease his path to the governor’s office, Corbett protected his cronies in the Republican-controlled state senate from investigation and prosecution.
Like DA Zappala, Corbett was more interested in prosecuting his political and personal enemies – prominent Democrats in the General Assembly — for these same offenses.
Tom Corbett, the record is clear, protected GOP allies like Orie in the state senate.
As we see here, the question in Pennsylvania increasingly appears to be not whether you have broken a law, but who you know, who you don’t know, and whether you have rocked a boat, or gone along.
These are some of the issues that should rightfully be addressed at a full impeachment trial of Justice Melvin in the state senate.
An impeachment trial in the state senate would no doubt be uncomfortable, to say the very least, for many politically protected state senators, their staffers, and Gov. Tom Corbett.
Political court operatives meanwhile threaten to short-circuit any highly embarrassing impeachment trial in the senate.
Their preferred plan is to dispose of Justice Melvin by misusing the court’s comatose and politically motivated Judicial Conduct Board to remove her quickly, before any more embarrassing information can be made public in an open impeachment trial.
But Justice Melvin, we should remember, has the right to appeal her conviction, as does any defendant. She also has 30 days after her conviction to respond to a Conduct Board complaint against her.
Justice Melvin’s sentencing won’t occur until May 7. Her conviction, by state law, and her rights of appeal, won’t even take effect until her sentence has been pronounced in May.
It’s worth remembering that former Justice Rolf Larsen was removed from the bench in a senate impeachment trial in 1994 only after he was criminally convicted for drug charges, and was awaiting his appeal.
So there are strong procedural comparisons to Melvin and Larsen’s predicaments.
A criminal conviction and a pending appeal, historically, are grounds for a public legislative impeachment, not a secretive Judicial Conduct Board proceeding.
There are other problems, both obvious and not so obvious, with a secretive Judicial Conduct Board disposition. Judicial Conduct Board proceedings typically can be tied up for months, or years. It’s called “due process.
As well, in the last few decades, the Judicial Conduct Board, like AG Corbett, has earned a reputation for protecting cronies, and going after only enemies of the court. That should not be allowed to happen in Justice Melvin’s case.
All of which means that a public impeachment trial in the state senate may not only be desirable, but is necessary to get to the bottom of things.
A public impeachment trial in the state senate would open a window and shine light on misbehavior at the highest levels of state and Allegheny County government.
It’s clearly in the interest of justice, and the public interest, to have a full trial in the state senate to air the case against the Orie sisters, and their prosecution at the hands of an unethical political, and personal enemy.
Ironically, in the mid-1990s, the Zappala family’s antics took center stage at the state senate impeachment trial of Justice Rolf Larsen.
At the time, critics of the court, like Common Cause Pennsylvania, suggested the Zappalas should have been more fully investigated and, like Larsen, removed from positions of public responsibility.
Should Justice Melvin assert her right to a full trial in the state senate, the Zappala family again will take center stage, and it will be déjà vu all over again.
The question then will be: why weren’t these problems involving these same individuals not properly addressed by the legislature in the 1990s, during the senate trial of Justice Larsen?
And did the legislature’s failure to act properly in the 1990s cause the problems we face today?
EDITOR: Bill Keisling is the author of “We All Fall Down”, the story of the impeachment of Pennsylvania state Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen, a once-popular Pittsburgh jurist. Keisling’s account suggests that Larsen’s impeachment was a blemish on democracy that should concern all Americans. Keisling describes the breakdown of nearly every democratic institution in the state that cradled American democracy.