The odd case of Dr. Cyril Wecht

Did federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania target a state official because he's a Democrat?

By Steve Benen

Published April 11, 2008 4:38PM (EDT)

There was a point last fall at which it seemed we were constantly learning of Bush-appointed U.S. Attorneys bringing dubious, politically-motivated charges against Democratic officials. Reader R.S. reminded me this week of one of the more striking examples out of Pennsylvania.

Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh, has long been the subject of questions about partisan prosecutions. But in 2006, Buchanan raised more than a few eyebrows when she went after former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht, indicting him on multiple counts of various federal crimes, including theft from an organization that receives federal funds.

What, exactly, did Wecht do? Apparently, his transgressions included the improper use of the coroner's fax machine for private work. There was no evidence "of a bribe or kickback" and no evidence that Wecht traded on a conflict of interest.

But Wecht's a Democrat, and for a U.S. Attorney anxious to impress her superiors in the Bush administration, apparently that was enough.

This week, a jury mulled over Buchanan's case against Wecht. The case ended, at least in the short term, with a hung jury.

After fifty hours of deliberations, the jury was hung and obviously going to stay hung. Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Pittsburgh leaped at the chance for a re-trial, which has been scheduled for May.

If the view of a juror is any indication, conviction will be difficult. Rev. Stanley Albright, a juror who was excused last week when he became ill, told the AP, "I couldn't find the crime."

The jury foreman, who requested anonymity in light of the judge's request that jurors not yet speak publicly, told the Pittsburg Post-Gazette that he went into the trial with an open mind, but "as the case went on my thoughts were this was being politically driven."

You don't say.

The U.S. Attorney scandal has largely -- but not completely -- faded from public view, but I'm convinced the politicization of federal law enforcement will be remembered as the most outrageous part of Bush's domestic legacy.

Steve Benen

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