About a dozen FBI agents yesterday seized computers and logbooks from the Allegheny County coroner's office as part of an apparent probe into whether Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht has inappropriately commingled his public and private business.
The agents swept in about 9 a.m., declining to sign the visitor's log at the front counter, and began going through computer hard drives and files in the building's administrative offices on the second floor.
About the same time, another group of agents hit Wecht's private law firm in the Strip District and seized autopsy files.
Agents interviewed at least six people yesterday at the coroner's office, including Chief Deputy Coroner Joseph Dominick, Deputy Coroner Edward Strimlan and histologist George Hollis. Last weekend they interviewed several coroner's employees at their homes, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
David Armstrong, who is acting as counsel for the coroner's office, said the agents executed two search warrants at the coroner's headquarters on Fourth Avenue, Downtown.
The search warrants were under seal by a judge, and Armstrong did not release documents left by FBI agents itemizing what was seized.
Armstrong said about 20 logbooks dating back to 1998 were taken. Those apparently are handwritten logs filled out by deputy coroners outlining what they do and where they go during their shifts.
Agents also confiscated two computers, one belonging to the coroner's office and the other belonging to Duquesne University's Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law.
Armstrong said he remained in the dark about exactly what the FBI is investigating. The federal probe first came to light last month, about six weeks after Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. announced that his office was investigating Wecht for using his public office for personal gain. At that time, Zappala said he believed that Wecht possibly violated federal law.
Wecht maintains a private law practice, conducts private autopsies under contract with other counties and serves as a consultant on high-profile death investigations.
Armstrong said he pressed two assistant U.S. attorneys for information about the FBI's probe yesterday afternoon, but they would not reveal anything to him.
"I want to know what you're investigating," Armstrong said he told them. "It's too early," he said they replied.
The FBI declined comment, as did U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan.
Armstrong said he advised the coroner's employees to cooperate with investigators and provide access to whatever they requested.
"I told them, 'You cooperate completely. Let them open what they want to open. Let them take what they want to take,' " Armstrong said. "Do not interfere. Do not hide anything."
In contrast to that conciliatory approach, top officials in the coroner's office were clearly irritated by the arrival of the agents on a day when two preliminary hearings in high-profile homicides drew a horde of media.
Both Dominick and Solicitor Timothy Uhrich suggested it was an unlikely coincidence that a supposedly secretive investigation would be carried out in plain view of television cameras.
Agents questioning coroner's employees yesterday asked about various topics including whether coroner's employees ferried guest lecturers at Duquesne's Wecht institute between the campus and the airport.
Megan Tressler, a spokeswoman for Duquesne University, said, "We have no knowledge of search warrants or other details of the investigation."
For several hours, stern-faced agents -- most of whom ignored the pack of reporters gathered on the second floor -- walked back and forth among the offices of administrative assistants Eileen Young and Kathleen McCabe. They carried boxes, books, cameras and computers.
Wecht, who arrived at his office after lecturing to a group of high school students in Fox Chapel, said, "I just came in. I have to find out what's happening." He disappeared behind his door and remained there the rest of the afternoon before heading out of town.
Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1962.