Former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht and his lawyers yesterday accused the judge overseeing his pending corruption trial of bias against them and said they will seek to have him removed from the case.
"Regrettably, the situation has come to this," Dr. Wecht, 75, said on the federal courthouse steps. "I am not delighted that a motion for recusal has had to be submitted. But I fully concur with its submission. I feel that I am entitled to a fair and impartial trial. I believe that a statement referring to a future contempt hearing for my attorneys does not move in that direction."
Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab said that after the October trial he will hold a contempt hearing for Dr. Wecht's lawyers, Mark Rush and Jerry McDevitt, for "repeatedly ignoring" court deadlines set out in meticulous orders on how the case will proceed.
Mr. McDevitt and Mr. Rush fired back yesterday, saying they will file a motion for Judge Schwab to recuse himself for "completely unfair and unfounded attacks on counsel."
The lawyers said the judge has not maintained the required standard of impartiality.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Stallings said there's "no basis" for the defense motion, but the government will respond in greater detail after the lawyers file it in coming weeks.
Typically in such a case, the judge will deny the motion and the defense will appeal to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Judge Schwab defended his actions, saying the "zealous advocacy" that defense lawyers must render for all clients "does not permit disobedience of orders of the court."
But Dr. Wecht, in his first public statement since his indictment in January, said any action by the judge "that causes any kind of dampening of the zealous advocacy that I'm entitled to by Mr. McDevitt and Mr. Rush is not going to result in a fair and impartial trial for me."
Although a motion to recuse could conceivably delay the case, 3rd Circuit opinions in similar cases indicate that it won't. Since the legal issue to be decided is only whether Dr. Wecht gets a fair trial, the appellate judges likely will wait until it's over before making any rulings.
Yesterday's arguments were the latest fireworks in a case that has seen its share of legal bombast.
For months, the proceedings have been marked by testy exchanges in court filings and conferences between the defense and the prosecution, verbal sparring that is not uncommon in high-profile cases.
But now the judge is plainly irked.
In a 43-page opinion, he excoriated Mr. Rush and Mr. McDevitt for not following the very schedule they helped work out.
He said a hearing will determine if the lawyers should be held in contempt and, in an obvious threat, cited a specific case in which a lawyer went to jail.
The judge said the lawyers failed to file objections to the government's 1,350 trial exhibits by a deadline of May 15.
He also noted that they found time to file various suppression motions in advance of deadlines while complaining they didn't have time to review 300,000 documents in a database prepared at their request over government objections, with taxpayers footing half the bill.
The judge also took a shot at their law firm, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham, questioning why they couldn't examine the database when the firm touts its "cutting edge" technological ability. The judge said he and his small staff examined all the documents without any problems.
The judge also said a request by the lawyers earlier this month to change the schedule amounted to a delaying tactic.
Dr. Wecht is under indictment on 84 fraud counts related to abuse of his public office for private gain.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wilson said yesterday the government will seek a new indictment with additional counts by the end of the month.
The new charges are based on the same evidence already provided to the defense.
Torsten Ove can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.