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Political Convictions

Prosecution and politics mingle in Wecht case

The Penguins missed the playoffs again, and the Pirates have been mired in last place since April. This has resulted in a dearth of spectator events to keep a Pittsburgher engaged, which is why the Cyril Wecht drama has interested me more than it otherwise might have.

That is not to make light of Dr. Wecht's problems, which include an 84-count federal indictment concerning allegations that he used his public office for personal gain. I have nothing but respect for the good doctor. He is surely the most eminent forensic pathologist in the country, a man whose opinion has been sought in the deaths of JFK, JonBenet Ramsey and even Elvis Presley. Nor is it funny (with a few exceptions) to watch the federal government come down on somebody like a ton a bricks. When the feds come, they bring the wealth and power of the U.S. government — the Constitution and schoolyard notions of fair play be damned. Criminal proceedings in federal court are rarely battles. They are more like executions.

Wecht, however, is formidable in his own right. A former Allegheny County commissioner and a longtime Democratic Party stalwart, he has a defense team that includes two former U.S. Attorneys for the Western District: J. Alan Johnson and Dick Thornburg (who went on to become governor of Pennsylvania and Attorney General of the United States).

This is a battle of heavyweights … and did anyone say "political implications"? Even at age 75, it's hard to imagine Wecht leaving politics. I have no idea whether the current U.S. Attorney, Mary Beth Buchanan, has political ambitions, but in a state where that office can be a stepping stone to the governor's office or a Senate seat (as in the case of former U.S. Attorney Arlen Specter), who could blame her if her mind occasionally wandered in that direction?

For those of you who haven't been paying attention, the government alleges that some of the very same people who work for Wecht in his capacity as the county medical examiner also did work for his private consulting firm on the public's dime. It's a question of who was paying whom to do what. This sounds analogous to Karl Rove going to New Hampshire to make a political speech the other week while collecting a White House paycheck — though it must be subtly different in some salient way, which I have been unable to discern.

The threat of federal indictment has become a weapon in the arsenal of people who play tough politics. Former Speakers of the House Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich were threatened with indictment. Hillary Clinton held her breath for years because of Ken Starr's investigation. A former chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee, Dan Rostenkowski, was indicted and even did some time, just like Duke Cunningham and James Traficant. Bill Clinton faced impeachment, which is a form of indictment, and now it's Scooter Libby's turn.

I'm not saying Wecht's problems are just politics. That's what the trial will decide. I do know that Wecht isn't very popular with some cops, probably because in a few high-profile cases, he hasn't bent over backwards to see things their way.

For a while after the indictment, the combatants danced around, feeling each other out and making strategic statements to the press. Lately, the action has been heating up.

Wecht's defense team has claimed that Bradley Orsini, the FBI agent brought in to lead Wecht's investigation, had been accused of misconduct in New Jersey. The truth of these allegations remains in doubt because the judge in the case, Judge Arthur J. Schwab, has so far kept the FBI reports under seal. Last week, Wecht's lawyers asked the judge to throw out some evidence seized from Wecht's private office, contending it was not covered under the terms of the search warrant. The judge rejected that claim, and in any case, just last week the Supreme Court ruled that the "fruit of a poison tree" (i.e. illegally seized evidence) could be used at trial.

Now, Wecht's defense team has filed to have Judge Schwab removed from the case because of bias. The feds, meanwhile, are talking about bringing another indictment with more counts. It doesn't get any better than this.

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