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Orie: I didn't commit perjury at corruption trial

Republican state Sen. Jane Orie of McCandless on Tuesday denied prosecutors' accusations that she attempted to hide evidence of illegal political work she allegedly ordered her legislative staff to perform at taxpayer expense — including charges that she committed perjury or submitted forged documents at what became a mistrial last year, or that she had directed a cover-up from the earliest days of the investigation.

On cross-examination during her corruption trial, Orie said emails directing her staff to open a campaign office within a day that an intern's complaints triggered the investigation weren't part of a cover-up. Instead, Orie said she was merely preparing to run for re-election more than a year later.

Orie is on trial on charges including theft of services and conflict of interest that she illegally used her state-funded staff to do political work that benefited herself and her sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who isn't charged. The illegal campaigning allegedly occurred from 2001 until the intern went to Allegheny County prosecutors in October 2009.

That's when Orie sent her staff an email titled "Campaign headquarters" with the note, "We need to begin finding one."

More than 20 current and former staff members have testified that Orie directed, encouraged or allowed political work on state time and even awarded comp time for doing it. Orie took the stand to deny that Monday, and also denied some staffers' testimony that she hastily created a campaign office in rented space one floor above her legislative office space so she could more plausibly deny that her state-paid staff had, in essence, become her campaign staff.

Orie said that email was simply to express her urgency in preparing for her 2010 re-election campaign — even though she previously testified she spent the last half of October 2009 exclusively devoted to what would become Melvin's Supreme Court election victory the following month.

Deputy District Attorney Lawrence Claus asked whether Orie wasn't really worried at that point about the district attorney's investigation launched by the intern's complaints.

"I'm worrying about the future for myself," Orie said, even though she also acknowledged she didn't even have to begin circulating nominating petitions to get on the 2010 primary ballot until mid-February 2010.

Orie is being retried on the campaign corruption charges — as well as perjury, forgery and evidence tampering charges stemming from her first trial last year.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning declared a mistrial last year after agreeing with prosecutors that one defense exhibit was a forgery so obvious that "even Ray Charles" could see it. Orie's attorney, William Costopoulos, hasn't disputed the forgeries but has argued that prosecutors can't prove that Orie did it herself or knew about it.

In the retrial, the 50-year-old senator faces five perjury counts because prosecutors claim she lied when testifying last year about yet another campaign office — this one opened across the street from her legislative offices — for her 2006 re-election.

Orie's staff has testified that office was opened for appearance's sake, equipped with outdated computers, and was manned by a single volunteer intern because Orie was concerned about the fallout from a case involving another western Pennsylvania lawmaker, Republican state Rep. Jeff Habay, who had been convicted in 2005 of using his state-paid staff to do illegal campaign work.

Orie's testimony was to continue Wednesday, and she has yet to be cross-examined about her allegedly false testimony about the 2006 campaign office. But when asked by her attorney to explain the alleged perjury, Orie said she simply forgot when testifying last year that the office had been across the street in 2006 instead of upstairs.

"There was no subterfuge, there was no charade" in opening the 2006 campaign office, Orie testified.

Orie also denied having anything to do with forging her former chief of staff's signature on three documents that prosecutors contend she tried to use to discredit the aide's testimony last year.

The former chief of staff, Jamie Pavlot, is the key witness against Orie.

The senator contends she forbade such political work but that Pavlot allowed it to happen despite knowing it was illegal. Pavlot has testified under a grant of immunity because she's considered to be a co-conspirator in the case.

Orie said she had no idea who forged the documents or why someone would do that — even though a document expert determined the forgeries were made by electronically manipulating records that Orie's staff scanned into the state Senate computer network before they were turned over to prosecutors.

"Do you have any idea who did or why?" Costopoulos asked.

"I have no idea how, who, why," Orie said. "No."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.