Friday, March 9, 2012
Cyril Wecht, the county's longtime coroner whose career has mixed international fame with local controversy, is taking after county executive Rich Fitzgerald in a dispute about whether Wecht should have his old job back.
Wecht stepped down from the position six years ago, after federal prosecutors charged him for wrongly mixing county duties with his private practice. That case fell apart, and if anyone ended up looking bad, it was local US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. But Wecht was never restored to his former county position ... and now he's demanding to know why.
Wecht has sent Fitzgerald an 8-page letter -- a full copy of which can be viewed here -- accusing Fitzgerald of holding Wecht to a double-standard. The letter, which Wecht has circulated to supporters and media outlets, contends that Fitzgerald objected to Wecht performing outside work ... but says the current medical examiner, Karl Williams, has engaged in such work himself. "I want to make it clear for the record that I do not believe Williams [or] other M.E. [pathologists] are doing anything that is illegal or unethical," the letter adds. "However, it requires no further comment or analysis to point out the blatant hypocrisy of your stance."
Most intriguingly, Wecht's letter suggests that his track record for investigating, and publicly criticizing, police conduct might be part of the reason Fitzgerald has denied him the job.
Citing second-hand reports that Fitzgerald considered Wecht too "loud" for the post, Wecht argues, "I am certain that the 'loudness' you are concerned about relates in significant measure to the Open Inquests I conducted as Coroner in all police-related deaths ... There has not been a single inquest conducted since I left office in January 2006. Thus, police-related deaths (almost all of which involve white officers and African-American victims) are never publicly scrutinized. Our illustrious D.A. is the sole and final arbiter, and the record shows that he will not pursue charges against any police officers in such cases."
In the past, Wecht has called for charges to be filed against officers involved in controversial deaths ... calls that have not always been welcome by other law-enforcement officials. DA Stephen Zappala in particular has publicly objected to Wecht's use of the coroner's inquest, resulting in an often ugly feud. Wecht has been a sharp critic of Zappala since then, accusing the DA of using his office to settle family scores. Wecht's letter suggests that the hatchet is far from buried: "I want to know who -- besides a small cabal manipulated by little Stevie boy Zappala behind the scenes, and some other personal Wecht-haters -- have influenced you to make this decision," he writes.
In recent days, Wecht has become a forceful critic of Fitzgerald: He has publicly objected to the Fitzgerald-engineered dismissal of longtime Health Department head Bruce Dixon, and has spoken out on KDKA Radio. His letter suggests, however, that before going public with those criticisms, he'd actively campaigned for the ME job behind the scenes. The letter refers to a "multitude of letters" sent on Wecht's behalf by such well-known figures as former mayor Sophie Masloff, union leader Jack Shea, and GOP grande dame Elsie Hillman. "How many people do you think could get 50 letters such as the ones I acquired from these kinds of people?" the letter asks.
The letter also suggests that Fitzgerald asked Wecht to hold his peace, by keeping mum about the issue at a press conference Wecht held with Dixon on the danger of prescription drugs. Wecht's letter included a news clipping of the press conference, citing it as proof that "I do not need the M.E. position to deal with professional matters [or] to convene a large news media turnout."
Indeed, Wecht may be able to garner plenty of media attention just by sending a single 8-page letter. When I called Fitzgerald spokeswoman Amie Downs, she said she'd been getting calls about it, but without having seen a copy of it herself. When the Fitzgerald camp has a response, I'll have it in a future post.
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