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John Baer: In Pittsburgh, politics isn't just politics: it's 'Family Feud'
THE SAGA of Pittsburgh's Sisters Orie - the senator, the Supreme Court justice and her aide has implications well beyond the borders of the Burg. There, it's a clash of titans, two powerful local families, the Ories and Zappalas, toe-to-toe. Principals are Republican state Sen. Jane Orie and Democratic Allegheny County D.A. Stephen Zappala Jr., both of whom have been mentioned for future statewide office. But it goes further. Two Orie sisters are charged with corruption. A third looks likely to be investigated. The Italian Zappala family is accused of Mafia-like political hits: Sen. Jane says the charges result from her opposition to gambling, an industry with Zappala links. Also, the sisters' attorney of the moment, their brother Jack Orie, says that witnesses heard the D.A. pledge to indict anyone "who f---s with my family," and promise, in reference to the sisters, "those bitches are going down." I love this state. Sounding more like a brother than a lawyer, Jack also tags the D.A. as amoral, unethical and "stupid," and associates the Zappalas with Luzerne County's cash-for-kids, which reportedly gets the Zappalas thinking: Hmm, civil suit? (Also known as calling Dick Sprague.) Put it together and it's like someone went "dawntawn" where the three rivers meet and screamed (in reference to a mythical sea monster): "Release the Kraken!" Here are details. Last week, Sen. Jane was whacked with multiple charges, including conspiring with her sister Janine Orie to use state resources to help elect another sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.
Janine works for Justice Joan. It's a family of J's. Another brother, lawyer Jerry Orie, works for state Attorney General Tom Corbett. Sen. Jane, because of charges, loses her leadership post as Majority Whip in the GOP-controlled Senate. (She stays in office, though; in fact, has no opposition in the primary or general elections.) Justice Joan, although not charged, certainly faces further scrutiny, at least by the Judicial Conduct Board. Meanwhile, the Zappala name is familiar because former Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen Zappala Sr. is the D.A.'s dad. (He once was accused of trying to run down a rival justice with a car; you can't make this stuff up.) His daughter, Michelle Zappala Peck, narrowly lost a race for Allegheny County judge last year, after being "not recommended" by the local bar. His brother, Charles Zappala, was part of a group that lost a bid for a Pittsburgh gambling license in '07, a loss upheld by the Supreme Court (after Zappala Sr. left and before Justice Joan arrived). Oh, yeah: Zappala Sr. chairs the Pennsylvania Casino Association, a trade group for which daughter Michelle works. Founder of the group? That would be one Dick Sprague. There's more. Greg Zappala, the ex-chief's son, the D.A.'s brother, was part owner of some of those juvey jails where Luzerne County judges sent kids in exchange for cash. (He has not been charged.) And when Justice Joan ran for court last year, she aired TV ads blasting official handling of the case. You really need a scorecard. How this all plays out is anybody's guess. I'm guessing, for starters, that the sisters get a new attorney. A source says that the family talked with prominent central Pennsylvania defense lawyer Bill Costopoulos (currently representing Democratic Rep. Bill DeWeese on corruption charges). I track Costopoulos down in Miami. He declines to comment. I try for a chat with Sen. Jane or brother Jack. Neither calls back. I ask, since Corbett spent years investigating (he says) all four caucuses, why a fellowRepublican senator in leadership never shows up on his radar. Spokesman Kevin Harley says - despite reports that an Orie intern called Corbett's office and was referred to Zappala - that there's no record of a caller offering details on Orie and that Zappala has "original jurisdiction." I ask, since Corbett spent years investigating the same stuff the Ories are charged with, why Zappala didn't give the case to Corbett? Zappala spokesman Mike Manko says: "He [Zappala] believes it's his duty to follow the evidence."
I believe that this thing's fit for "Family Feud," has more connections than AT&T and promises to provide political fodder for, I'm guessing, years to come.