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Wecht takes Buchanan's claims to court

| Sunday, Nov. 4, 2007

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht has asked a federal judge to determine whether U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan selectively sought to prosecute him because he is a Democrat.

Buchanan, a Republican appointed by President Bush, has maintained that the federal public corruption case against Wecht was not a Republican-driven vendetta. In court documents filed late Friday night, Wecht's lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab to order Buchanan to prove her claim in court.

Wecht is accused of using his public office while Allegheny County coroner for private financial gain. He is charged with 84 counts of fraud and theft.

"Her record of prosecuting or investigating high-profile Democrats stands in stark contrast to the Republicans whose conduct her office ignored," defense attorney Jerry McDevitt wrote. "The public perception of this U.S. Attorney is that the verdict is in: 100 percent political."

Last week, prosecutors asked Schwab to bar Wecht's lawyers from presenting testimony about the case being politically motivated when the trial begins Jan. 28.

Congressional investigators have questioned Buchanan privately about any role she might have played in last year's firings by the Justice Department of nine U.S. attorneys for failing to bring charges against Democrats or for pursuing cases against Republicans.

On Oct. 23, former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh -- a Republican who is helping represent Wecht -- told members of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that he believes the case against his client was politically driven. He accused Buchanan's office of abusing federal law to bring trivial charges against Wecht, 75, of Squirrel Hill, a renowned forensic pathologist.

After that hearing, Buchanan invited Wecht's lawyers to make their claims in court.

"For whatever reason, they have refrained, choosing instead to air it in a forum where they know the government lawyers cannot respond, and where there is no member of the judiciary to consider and decide the matter," Buchanan said. "This is unfortunate."

Now they have.

Wecht's lawyers want:

= Figures from the Justice Department and Buchanan's office on investigations and prosecutions of Democrats versus Republicans.

= A transcript of Buchanan's sworn testimony before Congressional investigators.

= E-mails between Buchanan and former top-ranking Justice Department officials while she served as director of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys in 2004 and 2005, when decisions were made about which prosecutors to fire.

= All communications between Buchanan's office and the Justice Department regarding Wecht.

Wecht's lawyers want to question Buchanan under oath about the firings and communications she's had with people outside Pittsburgh regarding public corruption cases. Specifically, they want to know what discussions Buchanan's office had with Washington officials regarding alleged wrongdoings of former state Rep. Jeff Habay, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, all Republicans.

Habay was convicted on state conflict-of-interest charges for using staffers to do campaign work. A whistleblower accused Murphy of doing the same. Santorum was accused of having a local school district foot the bill for his children to be cyber-schooled while they actually lived in Virginia.

Buchanan has refused to say whether any of the three were investigated. They were not charged by federal prosecutors.

Buchanan acknowledged last week that she is reviewing Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl - a Democrat - for having a bodyguard chauffeur him and friends to a country music concert in a federally funded vehicle.

In August, federal prosecutors charged then-Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Michael T. Joyce, a Republican from Erie, with mail fraud and money laundering for faking injuries and collecting $440,000 in insurance claims after a minor fender bender.

While Joyce is believed to be the first Republican charged by Buchanan since she became U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania in 2001, her office has launched several investigations into high-profile Democrats.

Besides Wecht, Buchanan investigated but never prosecuted former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, a Democrat. Her office prosecuted and earned convictions against former Democratic Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio and three members of his staff on corruption charges.

Investigations were also begun against Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning and Washington County District Attorney John Pettit. Neither Democrat has been charged.

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