A lawyer for former Allegheny County Medical Examiner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht admits there may have been "accounting irregularities" committed by his client but denies there was any criminal wrongdoing.
In an appearance Monday night on CNN's "Larry King Live," both Dr. Wecht and one of his high-profile lawyers, former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, answered questions about the charges brought by federal prosecutors last month in an 84-count indictment.
Dr. Wecht is charged with misusing his public office for private gain.
"I don't think there's any question that there's some accounting irregularities here and probably some inappropriate use of county employees, because Dr. Wecht is, as he said, he's a man of many parts," said Mr. Thornburgh.
He went on to outline several of Dr. Wecht's ventures -- including his own private pathology business as well as his affiliations with local universities.
"And I'm not prepared to say that every nickel and dime was accounted for 100 percent accurately," he went on.
Because of that, he sees this as a potential civil case, not a federal public corruption case.
"This is nothing like that," he said. "This is a matter of proper accounting and can be solved by having an independent audit made of the finances of the office and of Dr. Wecht. And he's more than eager to pay back anything that that audit indicates might have been improper."
U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan declined to comment on Dr. Wecht's appearance on "Larry King Live."
Even though the indictment enumerates 84 counts, Mr. Thornburgh told Mr. King that there are really only five charges. The rest are repetitive counts, tracing each mailing or fax that was made.
"I question whether this is the highest and best use of federal criminal investigative and prosecutive resources, and I suggest that it isn't," Mr. Thornburgh said.
He called the charges against Dr. Wecht "draconian" and said using them to solve bookkeeping and accounting problems is "overkill."
"And I think the fact that a lot of these more colorful charges are included, which have very little relationship to the heart of the indictment, indicates that the prosecutors recognize that they don't have that much of a case," Mr. Thornburgh said.
One of the charges made by the government is that Dr. Wecht traded unclaimed cadavers from the coroner's office for free lab space at Carlow University from June 2003 through December 2005.
But Dr. Wecht discounted the allegation, saying there was never such a trade.
"And this is such a spurious, insulting allegation because this is a major Catholic university."
Dr. Wecht said he had lab space at Carlow from February 2003 through September 2004 before any bodies "ever came out."
"He'd received the room space long before there was a document discussing cadavers," said Mark Rush, another attorney representing Dr. Wecht. "It wasn't a quid pro quo."
In the indictment, the prosecution states that Dr. Wecht's private company grossed nearly $9 million from 1997 through 2004.
"There's a lot of recitation about how much money he's made in his private practice," Mr. Thornburgh said. "There's a lot of recitation about mails and faxes that have been sent, but no indication whatsoever as to what the alleged loss was to Allegheny County and to the coroner's office."
A spokesperson in the U.S. attorney's office said the amount of loss is still being calculated.
Yesterday, Mr. Rush said there has "never" been any talk of a plea between the two sides. Instead, Dr. Wecht looks forward to going to trial, he said, "because he's innocent."
At one point during the CNN segment, Mr. King asked Dr. Wecht to explain the charges against him that he overbilled his private clients by jacking up airfare prices and charging them a "limousine" fee when he really traveled to the airport in a county vehicle.
"Those will be addressed, I can assure you," Dr. Wecht responded. "There is a good solid explanation for each one of those allegations."
Paula Reed Ward can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2620.