PITTSBURGH (AP) — The story has more irony than a Greek tragedy. Three sisters from a devoutly Catholic family have seen their personal and political careers ruined by a scandal that began with, of all things, a letter to some nuns.
Thursday's conviction of suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin along with her aide and sister, Janine Orie, on campaign corruption charges mean they might join a third sister — former state Sen. Jane Orie — in state prison. No sentencing date has been set.
The former senator was sentenced last year to 2½ to 10 years for using her state-paid staff to run her campaigns, though she was acquitted of having them campaign for Melvin, then a lower appellate court judge, who was running for the Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009. Joan Orie Melvin and Janine Orie were convicted in a spinoff investigation and found guilty of similarly misusing Melvin's former staff and the senator's.
Even before the convictions, their careers — and the family from which they sprang — were extraordinary.
Dr. John Orie, now 90, and his late wife, Jean, raised nine children including five attorneys, Joan and Jane among them; two cardiologists; a teacher; and a human resources manager, Janine, who worked for her sister Joan Orie Melvin in the lower Superior Court before moving up with her to the Supreme Court.
"It's all pretty unbelievable," said John Burkoff, a university of Pittsburgh law professor who has closely followed the cases. "Whatever you thought about the Orie sisters, whether you liked or didn't like them, you have to look at all of this as tragic."
Jim Roddey is a prominent businessman who heads the Republican Party in Allegheny County, where Republicans are outnumbered more than 2 to 1 by Democrats and where Pittsburgh, the county seat, hasn't elected a GOP mayor since the Great Depression.
Before 2010, when Republican Tom Corbett was elected governor, Jane Orie was the state Senate majority whip — the highest-ranking elected Republican politician not just in Pennsylvania, but also of several states in the Northeast, Roddey said. And Melvin, elected in November 2009, was one of seven members of the state's highest court.
And now? Jane Orie resigned her Senate seat in May, and Melvin's status on the state's highest court figures to change, one way or another.
State lawmakers have already asked her to resign or face articles of impeachment. If those are approved by the state House, Melvin would be tried by the Senate, which could remove her from office if she hasn't already been removed by the state's Court of Judicial Discipline.
Now that she has been convicted, Melvin has 30 days to respond to charges of misconduct filed with that court by the state's Judicial Conduct Board. If it is determined Melvin has violated professional conduct rules or the state Constitution, or brought disrepute to the judiciary, the court can remove her from office.
Melvin's criminal defense attorneys and her disciplinary court attorney didn't return calls Friday.
The Ories have argued the prosecution is the result of a political vendetta by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., a Democrat, who has repeatedly denied ulterior motives.
When the investigation first became public in late 2009, the sisters claimed they were being targeted because Zappala's family has interests in legalized gambling, which the Ories opposed expanding in Pennsylvania.
The allegations grew uglier, when Melvin — after it was known Sen. Orie was being investigated but before the justice was charged — called for an audit of two child care centers that paid kickbacks to two judges in northeastern Pennsylvania's Luzerne County who sent troubled youths to the facilities. The facilities were co-owned by Gregory Zappala, the prosecutor's brother, who was never charged in the scheme and has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
To this day, some Orie supporters still believe those politics — not justice — drove the prosecution.
Roddey acknowledges the sisters' success in a politically hostile environment has something to do with that chatter.
"That's part of it," Roddey said. "But the other half of the equation is that her prosecutor was Stephen Zappala, and Joan's biggest public battle was she chastised the Supreme Court for what happened in Luzerne County."
Whatever the motivations, two juries have now found enough evidence to bring the overachieving siblings from triumph to tragedy despite a raft of supporters — Sen. Orie spent $420 on a chartered bus to bring 50 character witnesses to her trial — and, even, efforts to seek divine intervention.
During the investigation, which centered on the sisters' emails, prosecutors stumbled onto messages Sen. Orie and Melvin sent to the "angel lady," a Philadelphia psychic who read her client's written questions aloud before claiming to receive a whispered answer from an angel.
The senator and justice sought assurances from the $85-an-hour medium that Zappala's investigation wouldn't result in criminal charges.
But rather than being touched by an angel, the sisters were undone by some nuns.
That happened in late October 2009 — days before Melvin won her Supreme Court seat — when a Senate intern complained to Zappala that Sen. Orie's staff was doing campaign work for Melvin.
The complaint centered on a letter Sen. Orie wrote on Melvin's campaign stationery asking Pittsburgh-area nuns to vote for Melvin.
When Orie and Melvin learned of the whistleblowing intern, the senator had a staffer prepare another letter — a "cover-up" letter, according to prosecutors. This time, Sen. Orie — on her own stationery — spoke about civic events of interest to nuns but didn't mention Melvin.
Prosecutors contend the letter was created to make it appear the intern was simply mistaken about what she saw and was never mailed. Eventually, Sen. Orie's and Melvin's staffs told a grand jury about other illegal campaign work done in Orie's Senate offices and Melvin's chambers.
"Frankly, it's a smart group of people. How could they put themselves in this kind of situation?" Burkoff said. "This is the kind of thing we'll be puzzling about for years."
Jackson reported from Harrisburg, Pa.