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Thursday, December 24, 2009

If you liked the Wecht trial, you'll LOVE the sequel

Posted By on Thu, Dec 24, 2009 at 10:03 AM

Christmas came early for some of us this morning, thanks to this story in the Post-Gazette. Looks like state Sen. Jane Orie (R-North Suburban Wastelands) is the target of allegations that -- like so many other state legislators these days -- she may have used her state office for political purposes.

Orie has hired Jerry McDevitt, the high-powered attorney who gave now-departed US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan conniptions in the Cyril Wecht case. And true to form, McDevitt is already tearing into his client's accuser: District Attorney Steve Zappala. As the P-G's Dennis Roddy reports, McDevitt has accused the DA

of a conflict of interest because of Ms. Orie's opposition to an expansion of casino gambling in the state.

He pointed to a story earlier this year in the Post-Gazette that detailed the involvement of Mr. Zappala's father, former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Zappala, in a gaming industry organization.

This ain't the first time McDevitt has taken after Zappala. He did the same thing in defending Wecht, alleging that Wecht's prosecution was politically motivated as well.  (Wecht and Zappala had squabbled over the former coroner's authority to conduct independent investigations, especially involving poilce shootings.)

In fact, McDevitt's tactics have barely changed. In both cases, he has turned the tables on Zappala by alleging hypocrisy. In the Orie matter, Roddy reports, McDevitt is threatening "to demand ... the computer records in Mr. Zappala's office to determine if any political work or correspondence had taken place on county computers." That, of course, would be the same kind of behavior Orie is being investigated for.

Similarly, back in 2006, Wecht was accused of using county resources to conduct outside consulting work, mixing his professional and personal ties. And McDevitt responded by "point[ing] to public documents showing Zappala has tossed more than $250,000 in business to his former law firm through no-bid contracts." Zappala, McDevitt noted, had continued receiving payments from the firm while in office. (Zappala maintained the payments were for buying out his share in the law partnership.)

I'm getting the feeling that we're going to see a replay of the scorched-earth tactics that defined the Wecht trial.

And there's a larger picture here too. According to Roddy, the inquiry is looking into whether Orie used office resources to help her sister, Joan Orie Melvin, win election to the state Supreme Court this year. So the son of a former Supreme Court justice, it seems, is going after the sister of a future Supreme Court justice. 

What we've got shaping up here is two western Pennsylvania political dynasties, about to slug it out in a court system over which they both cast long shadows. This could get as messy as the Wecht trial.

And it's almost certainly far more important. Even before the charges were filed against him, Wecht was in the twilight of his career. Having lost a county-executive race to Republican Jim Roddey a few years before, Wecht was almost certainly going to spend the rest of his days doing autopsies and showing up on Larry King. His county post was important, but not influential as far as shaping the political landscape. But the Ories and the Zappalas? There is no telling where these kids could go ... or where this case could end up. 

 

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