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Wecht's charges against Zappala reopen feud

| Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010

A simmering personal feud erupted again Tuesday on KQV Radio when Dr. Cyril H. Wecht accused Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. of prosecuting his family's political enemies.

The famous forensic pathologist lashed out at Zappala's grand jury investigation of state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, for campaign irregularities. Wecht said it closely resembles the investigation launched against him in 2005 by then-U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, which he said was done at Zappala's behest.

Zappala later rejected all of Wecht's claims.

"The basic and most important common denominator is the political manipulations, and Machiavellian machinations of Steve Zappala," said Wecht, 78, of Squirrel Hill, who resigned as county medical examiner after his indictment on federal charges of using his public office for private gain.

The charges against Wecht eventually were dropped after a mistrial and a high-profile effort headed by Downtown attorney Jerry McDevitt, who now represents Orie.

In an e-mailed statement, Zappala said, "The District Attorney is well aware that Dr. Wecht does not like him, but would like to correct the record: The District Attorney is proud of his Italian-American heritage; The District Attorney resents the use of the ethnic slur 'gumba' in reference to Italian individuals."

During the interview, Wecht referred to FBI Agent Bradley Orsini, a lead investigator in the Wecht case, as Zappala's "goombah" and a "disgraced FBI agent." Orsini developed the search warrants used to seize records from Wecht's offices.

FBI Agent William Crowley said Orsini would not comment.

Carla Lucente, a professor of modern languages at Duquesne University, said she was surprised that Wecht used the word "goombah."

Lucente said the context makes the use of "goombah" offensive because it implies unethical behavior by Zappala and Orsini. She said the word is slang, not true Italian. Its origin refers to a godparent.

"I'm angry he used that," she said. "It is offensive, especially when we talk so much today about diversity."

The latest eruption occurs about a month after Zappala's investigators seized records and computers from Orie's McCandless office. An unidentified University of Pittsburgh intern working for Orie told investigators that campaign work was occurring there on behalf of the senator's sister, Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin.

Melvin eventually won a seat on the Supreme Court, giving Republicans a one-vote edge on the high court.

"The (Orie) raid, the indictment, all of this came down exactly at the time that Judge Joan Orie Melvin was campaigning and made statements about that Luzerne County scandal," Wecht told KQV. "That's when 'Little Stevie Boy,' as I refer to him, made his move. This will prove to be, I think, a big zero. I believe it's going to be a door that he will have opened, that he is going to be very, very unhappy about."

Two Luzerne County judges are accused of accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks for sending juvenile offenders to detention centers in Luzerne and Butler counties. Gregory Zappala, the prosecutor's brother, co-owned the centers at the time.

In December, attorneys representing the juveniles removed Gregory Zappala's name from civil lawsuits because they found no connection between him and the kickbacks. He has not been accused of wrongdoing.

Wecht accused Stephen Zappala of telling an unnamed state legislator in 2005, "Anybody that screws with me or my family is going to be indicted."

Wecht declined to identify the state legislator. The prosecutor did not address the assertion.

Wecht challenged the news media to investigate the "big salaries" that Zappala's father, retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr., and his sister, attorney Michele Zappala Peck, are drawing from the "Pennsylvania state gaming commission."

Zappala Sr. and his daughter work for the Pennsylvania Casino Association, a private nonprofit outfit. The association has resisted efforts by one lawmaker to register as a lobbyist, which would require greater disclosure of its finances and interactions with legislators.

Attorney Richard A. Sprague of Philadelphia, who represents the association, has said the group is dedicated to "providing job opportunities for living-wage employment" and "enhancing revenue to the commonwealth and the communities in which our gaming facilities are located."

Sprague characterized it as a "trade organization" that represents Rivers Casino on the North Shore, SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia and Mt. Airy Casino Resort.

"The District Attorney's dad has never been employed by any governmental agency involving gaming," Zappala's statement said.

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