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Rematch in Westmoreland County coroner's race shows rift in overdose death issue

Paul Peirce
| Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, 11:36 a.m.
Ken Bacha has been Westmoreland County coroner since 2001.
Ken Bacha has been Westmoreland County coroner since 2001.
F. Christopher O'Leath is a candidate for Westmoreland County coroner.
F. Christopher O'Leath is a candidate for Westmoreland County coroner.
Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha discusses details of a double homicide in Hempfield on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. Timothy Reffner, 30, and Christina White, 23, were shot to death by Philip Cancilla, 51, who then shot himself, police said.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha discusses details of a double homicide in Hempfield on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. Timothy Reffner, 30, and Christina White, 23, were shot to death by Philip Cancilla, 51, who then shot himself, police said.

When Westmoreland County voters go to the polls Nov. 7, they'll find the same names on the ballot for coroner as they did in 2013.

Four-term incumbent Democrat Ken Bacha is again being challenged by former deputy coroner F. Christopher O'Leath, a Republican. The winner will serve a four-year term and earn $67,504 annually.

Bacha handily won re-election four years ago.

The two have a history of challenging each other outside of politics as well. In 2010, Bacha fired O'Leath, who had worked as a deputy coroner for 10 years.

O'Leath subsequently sued Bacha in federal court for wrongful termination, claiming he was dismissed for refusing to do political work. Bacha disputed the claim in court documents, saying O'Leath was fired as a result of several office disciplinary issues.

In 2014, a federal judge in Pittsburgh sided with Bacha and dismissed the case.

Bacha has served as coroner since 2002, when he replaced his father, Leo, who held the office for 24 years.

Bacha said the office has progressed significantly since it occupied space on the sixth floor of the courthouse, had one vehicle eight floors below and all autopsies were performed in Pittsburgh.

“We now have the Westmoreland County Forensics Center (in Hempfield) where everything is under one roof,” Bacha said.

He noted that the 18,000-square-foot center is staffed by the coroner, five full-time deputy coroners and three forensic detectives. He secured state grants to lease six vehicles for the deputies, “enabling them to respond to emergencies from their homes,” he said.

“Since June, forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht relocated his office from Pittsburgh to our forensics center, and now autopsies are done in-house. He pays us $2,500 a month rent, plus we save approximately $100,000 a year by not having to transport bodies to Pittsburgh,” Bacha said.

O'Leath agreed that having Wecht's operation in the forensics center was a good move, but he believes more improvements can be made.

“When I left the office, the entire coroner's budget was about $1 million. Now they are spending that much on autopsies alone. ... I don't believe you need to perform an autopsy on every single drug overdose death,” O'Leath said. “You can determine the cause of death by a simple, less expensive toxicology test. An autopsy only tells us what we already know from the toxicology.”

Bacha defended his policy of performing autopsies in all overdose cases.

“The reason we do them is to enable the prosecution of drug delivery resulting in death,” he said. “If you don't have that (formal autopsy report), you would open yourself up to a number of evidentiary problems in court when you prosecute the drug dealers.”

O'Leath also was critical of Bacha because he had to go before the county commissioners in July and ask for $11,570 to buy five additional autopsy tables for the forensics center. Because the drug overdose epidemic has resulted in a record number of fatalities — 174 in 2016 — the coroner needed the additional equipment for all of the bodies that require examination.

“He (Bacha) knew when he budgeted last year that there was an opioid epidemic. ... You have to have foresight and plan for things in advance. That is poor planning, poor budgeting and puts the county commissioners in a bind having to go back for emergency appropriations,” O'Leath said.

O'Leath noted that he has dealt with finances and budgeting in his work as a paramedic and as chief of Arnold Hose Company No. 2 for the past four years. He was assistant chief for 13 years before that.

O'Leath said he would ramp up public education efforts on the drug epidemic, which shows no signs of slowing down.

“Anyone who says they have all the answers to the opioid problem is lying. We need a multi-faceted approach to the issue with public education as part of that,” he said.

Bacha countered that for a decade his office has been in the lead in bringing light to the relentless drug abuse problem. He noted he was a founding member in establishing the county's drug overdose task force and personally speaks about addiction before school and community groups and at symposiums.

“We always participate in those ... and will continue to do so. We've got to do everything we can to raise awareness,” Bacha said.

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860, or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib.

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