The tainted prosecution of Justice Joan Orie Melvin


FACING OUSTER— In this May 18, 2012 photo Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, speaks to reporters outside Pittsburgh Municipal Court in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)


by Bill Keisling

(–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 on Feb. 21, 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?

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