Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has launched a criminal investigation of county Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht for possible violations of state and federal law.
The investigation concerns $5,000 paid to Wecht by a law firm representing a man killed in 2002 during a scuffle in Mount Oliver with police.
Wecht, who recommended that Zappala pursue homicide charges in the death of Charles Dixon, earned the money by writing a report for a federal lawsuit brought by Dixon's family against Mount Oliver police. The suit was settled for $850,000.
The criminal case remains under review at the district attorney's office.
"There is evidence that the coroner is using his public office for personal, pecuniary gain. We have evidence he's making money," Zappala said yesterday.
He said Wecht's actions were "violative" of the state Ethics Act and "probably violative" of the federal Hobbs Act, "at the very least."
The Hobbs Act prohibits public officials from using their official power to obtain property or services.
Wecht was unaware of the investigation's specifics until contacted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He denied that he violated the law by writing the report and accepting payment. Wecht said he penned the report, which was about positional asphyxia, approximately two months after his office recommended that Zappala pursue charges.
"Hobbs Act? This is inconceiveable," Wecht said last night. "Is there anything improper about it? Absolutely not."
Wecht said in his years as coroner, no one has ever questioned him about receiving money for writing reports associated with lawsuits on cases that have come before the coroner's office.
Asked whether an ethical dilemma exists in recommending homicide charges as the coroner and then receiving a fee for private work on behalf of the deceased, Wecht said no.
"I'm not wearing two hats. The implication is I'm wearing two hats simultaneously. That hat is taken off and a new hat is put on. Can I don a second hat? Absolutely. There is no law that prohibits it."
Currently, the DA's investigation is being handled by Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus, who oversees the office's public corruption section. He also is in charge of an inquiry into whether Mayor Tom Murphy and city firefighters union President Joseph King broke state law in connection with the 2001 mayoral primary.
Zappala said his office is talking to other agencies to see if they might take over the Wecht investigation, but he declined to identify them.
Zappala would not say whether he has spoken with U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan about the investigation, as part of it pertains to federal law. Buchanan also declined comment.
The report at the heart of the matter deals with positional asphyxia, which the coroner's office ruled as the cause of Dixon's death. That condition can happen when pressure is applied to the back of someone in a prone position.
During a disturbance at a birthday party Dec. 21, 2002, Dixon, 43, of Altoona was restrained on the floor by police from Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver and suffocated.
"He wrote a report as an expert for the Dixon case, and his report simply outlined what positional asphyxiation was," said J. Kerrington Lewis, the attorney who represented Dixon's family.
Lewis said Wecht performed the work privately. Kerrington was subpoenaed last month by the district attorney's office to turn over a copy of the check written to Wecht and a copy of the coroner's report. Lewis said he did not see any ethical problems with Wecht's activities.
"He's rendering an expert opinion on subjects of which he is familiar because of his experience, his education, and his life's work," Lewis said.
When he appeared in court to turn over the documents, Lewis said he chatted with members of Zappala's staff about the subpoena.
"They were talking about a potential conflict of interest. I told them that Dr. Wecht prepared this report for me, and it was not, in my opinion, any conflict of interest. It was private work."
Even as Zappala's office proceeds with its criminal investigation, it has launched a broad inquiry into Wecht's private business practices and his operation of the county crime lab, which falls under the coroner's jurisdiction.
In recent days, forensic accountants working for Zappala have contacted other counties that hire Wecht privately to perform autopsies. Zappala said the information, in part, is being used to determine whether a backlog at the Forensic Laboratories Division exists because Wecht might be using the lab for processing other counties' cases.
"What that deals with is why are my cases not being addressed? Why are investigations not being pursued? Whatever assets we [the county] have, I want to know what they are and how they're being utilized," Zappala said.
"I have a 1,000-case backlog of drug cases. I haven't gotten a satisfactory answer as to why that happens," Zappala said.
Wecht is hired privately for autopsies by Armstrong, Clarion, Fayette, Greene, Indiana and Westmoreland counties. He bills about $1,100 per autopsy, according to several of the counties.
Wecht said all work is done privately. In some cases, Wecht said, county employees perform work for him after they finish their duties at the coroner's office.
"No county resources or county time are used at all. The only county people are people who do things on their own time," Wecht said. "Not one single test is done at the Allegheny County coroner's office. Not one pair of gloves [is used], not one ounce of formula or fixative. Zero, zero zero zero."
Wecht attributed the backlog at the crime lab to a lack of personnel, equipment and space.
"That's the nature of the beast. When [Zappala] says he's got no answer, that's incorrect. He's been told countless times what the situation is."
Zappala yesterday questioned whether the crime lab even belongs under the coroner's jurisdiction, saying it belongs strictly under the domain of "scientists."
Zappala's investigation comes during a time of public turmoil between the district attorney and Wecht.
Zappala is trying to block subpoenas issued by the coroner's office to police departments for information in two suspicious deaths. It also wants the coroner's office to turn over evidence and reports in the cases. Wecht wants to hold open inquests in both deaths -- proceedings to determine the manner of someone's death and whether anyone is criminally liable -- and needs the police information to proceed.
Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning ordered that both inquests and the subpoenas be stayed. Yesterday, he said during a proceeding on the issue that he would have a written ruling Friday.
Zappala believes Wecht is overstepping his bounds by trying to conduct inquests into suspicious deaths. Zappala, who referred to the inquests as "inquisitions," termed them an "anachronism." Wecht counters that it is the coroner's legal right to hold inquests.
"He's continued to try to expand his involvement into areas where, quite frankly, I don't need his help and, quite frankly, he gets in the way," Zappala said.
Zappala's investigation is not the first time Wecht has been scrutinized for mixing public and private business. In 1980, Wecht was charged with six criminal offenses after a 13-month grand jury investigation.
Wecht was accused of enlisting morgue employees between 1974 and 1979 to use county equipment during the workday to perform more than $100,000 worth of tissue tests for his private laboratory.
By the time the case went to trial, five of the counts had been dismissed. A jury acquitted Wecht on the final felony count, theft of services.
Wecht then faced a civil suit by the county that contended he owed money for out-of-town and private autopsies. After a lengthy legal battle, Wecht paid $200,000 in a 1993 settlement.
Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1962.