Buchanan Goes Gonzo | Vox Pop | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Buchanan Goes Gonzo

U.S. Attorney goes overboard on Wecht case

Why did U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan indict former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht? Was it because, as former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh implies, she was trying to indict Democrats to curry favor with her former boss, Alberto Gonzales? Was it because, as the Grant Street rumor mill will have you believe, Allegheny County District Attorney Steve Zappala was angry that Cyril wouldn't stop meddling in murder investigations by conducting official coroner inquiries?

This rumor would have you believe that Steve walked into Mary Beth's office and said, "I'm sick of this guy but I don't want to look petty, so why don't you do the dirty work?" And she was all like, "An indicted Democrat on a silver platter? You rock, dude." Or some much more formal dialogue approximating that.

What was the real reason Mary Beth indicted the good Dr. Wecht? Beats me. But I do think the case is a gigantic waste of time.

When he was serving as coroner, Wecht had a public and a private medical practice; he's now accused of using his public staff and resources for private gain. The charges include theft of services, mail fraud and wire fraud. It's also alleged he made a deal with Carlow University, telling the school he'd give it cadavers for medical students to work on, if they'd give him lab space. And he's accused of using a taxpayer-funded fax machine to fax items for his private business. The democracy is crumbling!

As one prominent local legal eagle put it, "We've got people trying to blow up buildings. We're going to nail Dr. Wecht for misusing a fax machine."

On Oct. 23, Thornburgh was called before the House Judiciary Committee, currently run by Democrats, investigating allegations that Gonzales went a bit Gonzo and instructed his minions to hit the opposition party, and hit it hard. I believe Thornburgh's spin that Mary Beth is grasping at straws.

Mind you, Thornburgh is a member of Wecht's defense team. So you can argue that his testimony was more than a bit self-serving for everyone involved. The Democrats got to highlight charges that Gonzo was playing politics with the Justice Department, while Thornburgh got to air the claims of Wecht's defense team in a high-profile venue.

But Thornburgh is 75 years old, with a distinguished track record and little left to prove. And I believe he is shooting straight when he refers to the charges against Wecht as "nickel-and-dime transgressions" which Buchanan wants "to be converted into federal felony charges."

"How many people would go to jail for using a government fax machine for personal use?" asks WQED legal analyst Heather Heidelbaugh, herself a Republican activist. She acknowledges it may appear self-serving for Thornburgh to defend Wecht before a congressional committee. On the other hand, she says that as a defense attorney in the case, privy to all the pertinent facts, and as a former U.S. attorney general, Thornburgh's testimony deserves attention. "Who else could go before the Congress, have the facts, and be listened to?"

Democrats touted a study by a communications professor from the University of Missouri, which showed that under the Bush administration, 80 percent of the prosecutions of elected officials have targeted Democrats. "The numbers don't lie," said professor Donald Shields. "There is political bias."

No shit, Sherlock. Everybody fires U.S. attorneys when there's a new president. Only the Bushies fire them mid-course, because some of the people they put into place weren't going after enough Democrats.

Buchanan went after Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio for pressuring employees to buy fund-raising tickets. That was a legitimate case. But she also went after former Mayor Tom Murphy for allegedly bribing firefighters with a new contract in exchange for the union endorsement. She didn't have dick. And she didn't get a conviction, just some weasely agreement in which Murphy promised never to be a bad boy again.

That indicates to me a propensity for grasping at straws. The fax-machine crime of the century would be a further indication. But then, I've never gotten over the ludicrous prosecution of Tommy Chong for Internet bong sales. It's become a stale joke: Mary Beth's having a party -- and we're all indicted.

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