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Majority of defendants in corruption cases by Buchanan were Dems

Jason Cato
| Sunday, June 7, 2009

For three years, lawyers for Dr. Cyril H. Wecht professed that federal prosecutors were persecuting the former Allegheny County coroner because of his Democratic politics -- a claim they admit people accused of public corruption frequently use.

"It's the first line of defense of someone in public office," said Dick Thornburgh, a former Republican governor and an attorney general under President Reagan. "But this case was so flimsy from the outset that there had to be some reason it was brought."

Thornburgh was part of the legal team that vigorously defended Wecht, 78, of Squirrel Hill on public corruption charges, which U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan dropped last week.

An examination of public corruption cases brought by Buchanan since her September 2001 appointment by President Bush shows the majority of defendants were registered Democrats.

Of 18 defendants charged with public corruption crimes during her tenure, 13 were Democrats and two were Republicans -- former state Superior Court Judge Michael Joyce of Erie and a South Fayette police officer convicted of conspiring to sell nearly 9 pounds of cocaine -- according to voting records.

Party affiliations of three defendants are unknown.

Still, there is no evidence that Buchanan sought out Democrats, said John Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law professor.

"A lot of people have said it, but no one has established that fact," Burkoff said. "Now we will never know unless people inside that office tell what was going on. I hope they don't. Enough is enough, especially with the Wecht case. We've suffered enough."

Buchanan declined to comment for this story. She has repeatedly insisted Wecht's case was based on criminal wrongdoing, not his party affiliation.

Wecht, a former Allegheny County Democratic chairman, served two 10-year stints as coroner, first in the 1970s and then beginning in 1996. He was a county commissioner from 1980 to 1984, when he unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate. He lost a 1999 bid to become the county's first elected chief executive.

Buchanan's office accused Wecht of using county resources while coroner to benefit his private consulting business.

Prosecutors whittled the 84 fraud and theft counts filed in January 2006 down to 41 for trial, which ended with a hung jury in April 2008. The government reduced the number of counts to 14 in anticipation of a retrial. In May, U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin ruled search warrants used to collect evidence for those counts were unconstitutional.

"Is this the way justice is pursued in America?" Wecht asked. "I think the record will speak for itself. As for her record, that will speak for itself, too."

In 18 public corruption prosecutions Buchanan's office sought, 15 people were convicted. Collectively, they received more than 30 years in prison and were ordered to pay $851,256 in fines and restitution. A judge dismissed one defendant's indictment after he completed a pretrial diversion program. Another defendant is awaiting sentencing.

And then there is Wecht, the celebrity pathologist who waged a contentious fight against the federal prosecutor.

"In Pennsylvania, that was one of the most high-profile prosecutions in modern history. He is a national figure," said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College. "But I wouldn't judge (Buchanan) on one case. She has pursued public corruption and been successful at it. One case does not make a career."

Some of the more notable public corruption convictions under Buchanan include:

• Joseph Jaffe, an Allegheny County judge who pleaded guilty to extortion in 2002 and was sentenced to 27 months in prison.

• Dennis Skosnik, an Allegheny County sheriff's chief deputy who pleaded guilty in 2006 to bribery, fixing criminal cases, witness tampering and forcing employees to contribute to then-Sheriff Pete DeFazio's campaign fund. He was sentenced to 63 months in prison.

• Joyce, a state Superior Court judge convicted of fraud and money laundering in 2008 and sentenced to 46 months in prison. He was ordered to pay $440,000 in restitution.

During Buchanan's tenure, investigations into several notable Democrats became publicly known -- through witnesses and attorneys who commented about grand jury questionings. But criminal charges have not been filed. That list includes former Mayor Tom Murphy, former Washington County District Attorney John Pettit and Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey A. Manning.

"I don't believe federal criminal prosecution is the best resolution," Buchanan said in June 2006 when announcing charges would not be filed against Murphy, whose 2001 deal with the Pittsburgh Firefighters Local No. 1 became a subject of federal scrutiny. The 650-member union then endorsed Murphy, who won the Democratic primary by 699 votes.

Joyce was by far the most high-profile Republican prosecuted by Buchanan's office.

"And that was after Wecht was charged," said Thornburgh, who acknowledged he, too, was accused of bringing politically motivated charges against public officials while serving in the same job as Buchanan.

In 2007, Thornburgh testified before a congressional panel investigating whether certain Democrats -- including Wecht and former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman -- were unjustly charged by Republican-appointed prosecutors.

The panel questioned Buchanan about any role she might have played in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys, some of whom complained they were terminated for not pursuing cases against Democrats or for prosecuting Republicans.

A Justice Department official said he asked Buchanan's opinion while she served as director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, a post she held from May 2004 to June 2005. Buchanan never gave him a direct answer, an investigation by the inspector general found.

Rooting out public corruption was a priority under the Bush administration, which some critics alleged politicized the Department of Justice.

Democratic officials were investigated more than five times as often as Republicans during the Bush administration, according to a 2007 study by two retired professors from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Illinois State University.

That might have led some prosecutors to be overzealous in pursuing such cases, said G. Douglas Jones, a U.S. attorney in Birmingham, Ala., during the Clinton administration.

"I think certainly public corruption cases ought to be a priority for any administration," said Jones, who once represented Siegelman and believes that the prosecution was politically motivated. "But sometimes people confuse a priority as something to go fishing around and looking for."

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