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Pittsburgh reporters gain access to grand jury documents

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Reporters at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette were granted access to grand jury-related documents Friday after an Allegheny County judge reversed an…

Reporters at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette were granted access to grand jury-related documents Friday after an Allegheny County judge reversed an earlier ruling that had retroactively sealed them.

Judge John Zottola gave no reason for his decision in April to seal all the documents filed in a miscellaneous docket pertaining to a grand jury hearing involving Pennsylvania Sen. Jane Orie. And on Friday, he gave little more explanation than to say that in compliance with the state Supreme Court’s remand he was unsealing, said Tonya Goodman, an attorney for the Post-Gazette.

In March, Post-Gazette reporters attempted to review publicly filed documents that contained grand jury information, but they were denied access under Judge Zottola’s order. The newspaper appealed to the state Supreme Court, which remanded the request to the trial court “to conduct whatever proceedings it deems necessary,” according to court documents.

Judge Zottola erred in his interpretation of an earlier state Supreme Court ruling involving a request made by Orie’s counsel to file a grand jury motion under seal because it named involved parties, according to the Supreme Court remand. "This Court’s orders dated March 17, 2010, were not intended to seal any filings on the common pleas court docket," the remand said.

When the request was granted, Zottola “believed that the Supreme Court’s orders in those cases had the effect of sealing the entire miscellaneous docket where the documents were filed that the Post-Gazette sought access to,” Goodman said.

“The Supreme Court, in its remand, made clear that that wasn’t the case. The orders that it had issued had no effect on this miscellaneous docket and did not have the effect of sealing the documents that had been filed in the miscellaneous docket,” she said.

Reporters were seeking to review motions filed by Orie’s counsel to disqualify the district attorney due to a conflict of interest and for the return of property seized pursuant to a search warrant, she said.

Orie is charged with 10 counts that include theft of services, tampering with evidence, conspiracy and violating the state Ethics Act. She has been accused of using her staff to run a state Supreme Court campaign for her sister, Joan Orie Melvin, in 2009, according to the Post-Gazette.

Local Pittsburgh news channel WPXI-TV is waiting for a response to another request for access to other sealed grand jury documents.