Westmoreland coroner hopefuls have contentious past
The race for Westmoreland County coroner is personal.
The two candidates, three-term incumbent Democrat Ken Bacha and Republican challenger F. Christopher O'Leath, have a working history that is being litigated as part of a wrongful termination lawsuit in federal court.
O'Leath contends he was fired by Bacha in 2010 after nearly 10 years working as a deputy coroner for refusing to do political work for his boss. Bacha, in court documents, claimed O'Leath was fired following a long history of disciplinary problems and allegations that he performed private work while he received workers' compensation benefits for an injury he sustained on the job.
Both men declined to discuss the ongoing litigation as part of the campaign.
They are seeking a four-year term in the position, which pays $65,414 a year.
Bacha has served as coroner since 2002, when he replaced his father, Leo, who had spent 24 years in the office.
“I've got the experience. We've done over 18,000 death investigations, we've modernized the records and we've trained the staff,” Bacha said.
During his tenure, Bacha has conducted several inquests into police-involved shootings. He sponsored education programs in response to the record number of drug overdose and addiction problems in the county.
“Morally, I want to let people know who, how and what people are dying from, especially with the drug stuff,” Bacha said.
The office is expected to move next year from the courthouse to a $1.1 million forensics center being built in the vacated waste-to-energy plant in Hempfield.
The center will include new coroner offices, larger morgue facilities and an autopsy suite.
Operations of the office are not expected to be expanded, Bacha said.
The coroner's office oversees death investigations but does not perform its own autopsies. The county hired Pittsburgh forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht to perform autopsies.
Both Bacha and O'Leath said they would continue that arrangement.
O'Leath said he wants to increase the education efforts of the coroner's office, specifically regarding the drug epidemic.
“I want to get out and educate the general public, not only schools. We need to create some sort of formal program to reach out to parents, because we're talking about a problem that has steadily grown,” O'Leath said.
He said the Bachas have had a monopoly on the office for too long.
“Dynasties are for sports teams, not elected officials. That's somebody who is out of touch,” O'Leath said of his opponent.
Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 firstname.lastname@example.org.