Deal lets Wecht keep his job

He'll go from elected coroner to appointed medical examiner, agreeing to step down if he is indicted in ongoing investigation

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Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
County Executive Dan Onorato, left, checks with county solicitor Mike Wojcik during a news conference yesterday on the appointment of Dr. Cyril H. Wecht as interim medical examiner.
Click photo for larger image.

The new face of row office reform is an old hand: Dr. Cyril H. Wecht.

Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato yesterday announced that Dr. Wecht, who served as coroner from 1970 to 1980 and again from 1996 to now, will become medical examiner when the elected row office of coroner is phased out Tuesday and transformed into an appointed position.

Mr. Onorato, however, termed Dr. Wecht's role as "interim," and said the appointment was predicated on Dr. Wecht's willingness to step down if an ongoing federal investigation results in an indictment or plea agreement.

A one-page letter to that effect was signed Wednesday on Dr. Wecht's behalf by one of his attorneys -- the coroner was out of town on a cruise and was unable to sign the letter or be reached for comment -- and has what Mr. Onorato called the "force of law."

  
Dr. Cyril Wecht

"This was the best compromise I could come up with to be fair to Cyril and also be fair to the taxpayers of Allegheny County," Mr. Onorato said during a news conference.

In making his choice for the county's first medical examiner, Mr. Onorato said he could not ignore the investigation, but also could not ignore Dr. Wecht's credentials or the fact that he has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

In February, it was disclosed that District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. had opened an investigation into whether Dr. Wecht improperly mixed his private practice with public duties.

A federal probe of that same issue began soon after and is ongoing. Numerous people have testified before a grand jury and investigators have descended on the coroner's office and Dr. Wecht's private law firm to seize records.

"I'm not going to beat around the bush here, and we have to deal with those issues," Mr. Onorato said. "If an indictment comes, he would resign immediately."

In naming Dr. Wecht, Mr. Onorato opted to keep in place an internationally recognized forensic pathologist, but one who comes with conspicuous baggage. He said it was a "tough call."

Dr. Wecht has not been charged. Federal investigators have targeted his top aide, Chief Deputy Coroner Joseph Dominick, advising him that he is a "subject" for potential prosecution.

"He did receive a target letter, but there's been no further movement to initiate prosecution against Joe Dominick," Mr. Dominick's attorney, Wayne DeLuca, said yesterday.

The U.S. attorney's office declined comment on the investigation.

But Mark Rush, a Downtown lawyer who is part of Dr. Wecht's defense team along with former Gov. Dick Thornburgh, said the pair have a meeting scheduled for next week with U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan.

During that meeting, Mr. Rush said he and Mr. Thornburgh "will want to present to them some of our thoughts on the investigation, the federal statutes that may or may not be at play and share with Ms. Buchanan our position on how this investigation should be concluded."

In May, voters approved the creation of the office of medical examiner as part of an overhaul of the county's system of government. The coroner's office was eliminated and will officially disappear Tuesday in favor of an appointed medical examiner.

Mr. Onorato pushed for the referendum on row office reform. But when faced with having to choose a medical examiner, he had a quandary in light of the investigation of Dr. Wecht: The medical examiner has a fixed five-year term and can be removed only by Common Pleas Court.

In other words, Mr. Onorato would be powerless to fire Dr. Wecht if he were indicted.

Mr. Onorato said Dr. Wecht was always his top choice -- one so clear that the chief executive did not feel compelled to mount an intense national search for a medical examiner.

Dr. Wecht is lauded by both Republicans and Democrats, according to Mr. Onorato. He is world-renowned. And he is homegrown.

"You don't need an exhaustive search committee if you have people who meet the qualifications," Mr. Onorato said. "I always go local first."

As the months went by, Mr. Onorato said he anticipated a quick resolution to the investigation so he would know whether to go with Dr. Wecht. But when things dragged on, he was forced to make the appointment.

The letter signed by Dr. Wecht was Mr. Onorato's contingency plan -- a clean, safe way to handle a possibly messy situation. Mr. Onorato said he did not want to deny Dr. Wecht the job simply because he is under investigation. But he also did not want to have his own hands tied.

"Do we really want to have the very first medical examiner, to have the chief executive petition the judge to remove him? That's not healthy. I made sure that's not going to happen. If, God forbid, Cyril gets indicted, we have a very clean way to remove him," Mr. Onorato said.

"Could you imagine if I don't have this letter and, God forbid, there's an indictment, and this goes on for two years and I can't remove him? Can you imagine how rough that would be?"

Mr. Rush said it was the coroner's idea to accept an interim appointment and step down under certain circumstances.

"Dr. Wecht volunteered that should he be indicted he would immediately resign because that's in the best interests of the residents of Allegheny County," Mr. Rush said. "They're entitled to have a medical examiner and a medical examiner's office that is not besmirched by an indictment."

If Dr. Wecht steps down, Mr. Onorato has in hand a list of four potential candidates to replace him. The names -- some local, some not -- were assembled after the county manager and solicitor sought input from professionals in the medical field.

Mr. Onorato released neither the names of the other candidates nor the identities of who was consulted. Similarly, he declined to release the letter.

But Mr. Onorato read what he said were the pertinent portions:

"I would voluntarily and immediately resign from the interim appointment if the ongoing federal investigation results in a grand jury indictment, a plea agreement or some other agreement that would result in me being disqualified from holding public office in the future," the letter says.

"I recognize that the office of medical examiner has a law enforcement function, and I would in no way wish to compromise the office's responsibilities by continuing in the role of interim medical examiner while a federal investigation is pending."

Another portion of the letter disclosed by Mr. Rush compels Mr. Onorato to appoint Dr. Wecht to fill out his term on a permanent basis if there is no indictment, or "should an indictment be returned and the charges dismissed by a favorable jury verdict or otherwise."

Dr. Wecht will start at his current coroner's salary of $64,000, but that will likely be adjusted upward next year to between $100,000 and $110,000, Mr. Onorato said.

Dr. Wecht's appointment was well received by several Republican members of County Council. Both Douglas Price of Carnegie and Vince Gastgeb of Bethel Park said they thought Dr. Wecht was a good choice and deemed the letter a prudent move by Mr. Onorato.

"It's unfortunate that there's going to be a cloud over the new medical examiner's office," Mr. Price said. "However, [Dr. Wecht] does have the qualifications and the knowledge for the position."


Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.


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