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The real theft & fraud

| Monday, April 14, 2008

If the wrongful emptying of our wallets by a public servant is the issue, it's U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan who's the problem -- not Cyril Wecht.

Tossing everything but the kitchen sink at Wecht, the government's initial case charged the former Allegheny County coroner with 84 counts of fraud and theft (later reduced, at the prosecution's request, to 41 counts), including mail fraud, wire fraud, using county resources for a private business, and trading unclaimed bodies for lab space at Carlow University.

Millions of dollars later -- our money, not "federal funds" -- what we got for our lavish spending was a deadlocked jury, a mistrial, a prosecution that won't give up, and a May 27 date for the start of a new trial.

After the news of a deadlocked jury, Wecht claimed that Buchanan had wasted an estimated $10 million in tax revenues to go after him.

In contrast, moneywise, 29 of the charges against Wecht involved alleged wire fraud, 24 of which centered on messages related to Wecht's speaking engagements or personal business that were allegedly sent over a five-year period on county fax machines. For all 24 charges, according to Wecht's attorneys, the total cost to the county of sending the faxes was $3.96.

The prosecutors argued that the $3.96 wasn't the issue. Wecht, they said, had earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from those faxes.

With the charge that Wecht had made a deal with Carlow to trade unclaimed bodies from the coroner's office for lab space, it wasn't the best day in court for the prosecution when the top nun at Carlow came out on the side of Dr. Wecht.

"To trade bodies, cadavers, for space, is entirely false," said former Carlow University president Sister Grace Ann Geibel. "There was never an agreement that related to the trading of bodies and the securing of space."

Geibel explained on the stand that she offered lab space to Wecht because of his expertise, not in a trade for cadavers. "I had given Dr. Wecht use of the lab space in 2003 for the purpose of establishing an academic program," she explained.

On top of all of us spending millions of tax dollars on this case, Dr. Wecht has reportedly already spent nearly $4 million of his own money on his defense. His lawyers say that the evidence the government presented at trial added up to a total of approximately $1,600 in alleged losses to the public.

Calling his prosecution a "travesty of justice," Wecht told KDKA that the trial has cost him "more than I have." Asked the question, "You're in debt?," Wecht answered, "Yes, greatly."

In contrast, Mary Beth Buchanan, of course, hasn't spent a dime of her own money. Not missing a beat after the announcement of a deadlocked jury, Buchanan decided immediately to retry the case.

"We are committed to eliminating the culture of corruption that prevails when officials at the highest levels abuse the public trust," said Buchanan in a prepared statement.

What about being committed to eliminating the culture of waste that exists in the government -- the waste, for instance, of the 300,000 pages of trial exhibits and the years of lawyering that went into the Wecht case?

How about being committed to a legal system that's less about punitive retaliation and money and more about truthfulness and resolution?

What about being committed to going after the real criminals• "They've diverted resources from priority needs of fighting terrorism and armed gangs," charged Richard Thornburgh, the former U.S. attorney general, Pennsylvania governor and a member of the Wecht defense team. "This is an exercise in vindictiveness in my over 50 years of experience that I've never seen paralleled."

Vindictiveness and arrogance. "Having put the prestige of the office, as well as millions of dollars in federal resources on the line, it's hard to imagine that the prosecution will now let it drop," said former U.S. attorney Harry Litman.

Instead of admitting that she's wrong, in other words, Buchanan will stay the course and throw even more tax dollars down the money hole at the courthouse.

The real crime in all of this, the real theft and fraud, isn't with Wecht's faxes or the unclaimed cadavers at Carlow. The real thievery is the millions and millions of dollars that were taken from the taxpayers and from Dr. Wecht.

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