If you want to accuse Dr. Cyril Wecht of being abrasive, you'll get no argument here. Tacked to my cubicle wall is a letter the former Allegheny County Coroner sent us back in 2001. "Perhaps some of the Muslim terrorists took over the offices of the Pittsburgh City Paper recently," he wrote in response to our post-9/11 coverage.
If you want to accuse Wecht of using taxpayer resources for personal business, you'll also get little argument. For one thing, the 2001 letter was written on county stationery. Anyway, we'll know better later this month, when Wecht faces a federal trial on charges that, among other things, he blurred his private pathology consulting work with his job as a county coroner.
It won't surprise me if Wecht is found guilty of some of the 41 charges U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan has filed against him. His own defenders have acknowledged he may have made accounting errors and overbilled clients, or charged them for travel expenses picked up by taxpayers. But when that trial begins, Wecht will be the official in that courtroom I worry about least.
For starters, many of the charges -- that Wecht used a county fax machine for private business, for example -- are penny-ante stuff. Put things in perspective: When Wecht was replaced by medical examiner Karl Williams last year, the county agreed to pay Williams $175,000. That's a 173 percent pay hike over the $64,000 Wecht had been earning. That'd cover a lot of faxes.
This is the point where someone says, "It's the principle that matters! We must demand the highest ethical standards from our public officials!"
Fair enough. So why does Brad Orsini still have a job?
Orsini was the lead FBI agent investigating Wecht's case. But as Wecht's attorneys later discovered, Orsini had admitted falsifying other agents' signatures on evidence packets used in other cases. Orsini has since been reassigned, but he still draws a government salary. Given that Wecht is facing federal charges for deceptive paperwork, one wonders how the Justice Department can keep Orsini on its payroll.
And while the feds indicted Wecht for overcharging his clients, it seems they've done some overcharging themselves. Last week, prosecutors withdrew more than half of the charges they originally filed against Wecht. They did so in part because they'd accused Wecht of committing mail fraud ... when the documents he'd sent "may have been hand-delivered instead."
It's amusing this matters at all. Ordinarily, the government doesn't make a federal case out of private billing disputes; it could do so here only if Wecht used the U.S. postal service. (Legal tip: Before you send a postcard saying "Wish you were here!" without really meaning it, check with an attorney.) Wecht allegedly bills his clients wrongly; the government makes wrongful accusations about how those clients were billed. Who am I supposed to be outraged at again?
Some Wecht backers suspect Buchanan is politically motivated -- that she targeted him because he's a prominent Democrat. Buchanan is, after all, a Republican U.S. Attorney in an administration that has deeply politicized the Justice Department.
It's worrisome to think Wecht might have been targeted. It's more worrisome to think that he wasn't. I mean, what if this stuff goes on all the time, only no one notices?
What if lots of investigations are carried out by FBI investigators with a history of falsifying signatures? What if the feds often indict people on spurious charges, if only because they want to force a defendant to make a plea bargain? That possibility is taken for granted by observers -- the Post-Gazette's coverage of Wecht recently mentioned it in a casual aside. But doesn't that count as an abuse of office, one that ranks a bit higher than taking home a box of paper clips? I'm supposed to get worked up over Cyril Wecht's alleged abuse of the postage meter, but shrug off a possible abuse of a federal indictment?
I'm not losing sleep over what may happen to Wecht. Unlike a lot of defendants, he can obviously take care of himself -- otherwise he would have taken a plea before any of this stuff came to light. Even if he's guilty, he's already stepped down as coroner. He'll never again have the chance to abuse his fellow citizens on the taxpayer's dime.
Mary Beth Buchanan, I'm not so sure about.
(Editor's note: An earlier version of this story that misstated Wecht's salary as coroner has been corrected.)