Federal prosecutors approached defense lawyers for forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril H. Wecht last week to talk about resolving his criminal case, just days before U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan's scheduled closed-door interview with House Judiciary Committee investigators.
Dr. Wecht's attorneys allege that Ms. Buchanan, in the spotlight for her role in the expanding investigation into the firings of U.S. attorneys and vetting of candidates, is trying to quell what they have all along characterized as a political prosecution.
"None of this is coincidence," said defense attorney Jerry McDevitt, of the timing of the prosecution's request to meet. "She wants to make sure we keep our mouths shut while she's down there before Congress."
The U.S. attorney's office rejected that notion.
"While preliminary plea negotiations are routine in every white-collar case, it is inappropriate and unethical for lawyers for the defense or the prosecution to comment on such discussions, whether or not they have occurred," said Margaret Philbin, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office.
As an example of what they termed Ms. Buchanan's political motivation, Dr. Wecht's lawyers said yesterday that she tried to have their client, at the time the Allegheny County medical examiner, arrested at home rather than letting him self-report, because she termed him a flight risk to Israel.
In addition, they cite the fact that she obtained an indictment of Dr. Wecht before questioning Carlow University's president to corroborate a central claim in the charges against him.
Dr. Wecht, a world-renowned forensic pathologist, was indicted on Jan. 20, 2006, on 84 counts that accuse him of misusing his public office for private gain. Included in the allegations are charges that he had an agreement with Carlow to provide the school with unclaimed cadavers from the county morgue in exchange for his private use of lab space there.
The case has been on hold since September, when the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument on several matters, including whether U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab should be removed as the presiding judge in the case.
The court ruled against the defense on that motion, but appeals of that decision have not yet been filed.
In the meantime, Ms. Buchanan, who served as director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys from June 2004 to June 2005, had been scheduled to appear today in Washington for a closed-door meeting with House Judiciary Committee investigators.
The interview was postponed yesterday until June 15.
The request to talk to Ms. Buchanan was submitted to the Department of Justice in April. She was included on a list of several to be questioned regarding how the list of those to be fired was compiled.
Then last month, Monica Goodling, who was hired in the executive office by Ms. Buchanan, testified under immunity to the House committee that she improperly vetted job candidates for career prosecutor positions by considering their political leanings.
Dr. Wecht's defense attorney Mark Rush said that they hadn't had discussions about settlement in the case for months when Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen S. Stallings called him on May 30 and asked if they could meet. They met the next day at a coffee shop at the Omni William Penn Hotel.
"He said, 'I have an idea. Perhaps we can get others to help us resolve this case. We'd all be remiss if we didn't try,'" Mr. Rush recounted.
Then, Mr. Stallings proposed that former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who has been representing Dr. Wecht in the case, and Robert L. Eberhardt, of the U.S. attorney's office, get together to see if they could restart a dialogue between the two sides, Mr. Rush said.
The two sides have all along been split, the defense said. The prosecution would take nothing less than a guilty plea to a felony charge, while the defense wants the entire indictment to be dismissed.
On Tuesday, Mr. Rush and Mr. McDevitt met with Mr. Eberhardt. According to Mr. Rush, Mr. Eberhardt asked if they could collectively reach a "creative solution" that would serve the interests of both parties.
Despite their talks, none of the issues was settled, Mr. McDevitt said.
The defense attorneys continue to assert that Dr. Wecht's is a political prosecution. They say that Ms. Buchanan wanted to take him into custody and walk him in front of media cameras -- what's called a "perp walk" -- rather than letting him turn himself in.
At a meeting 15 days before the indictment, on Jan. 5, 2006, Mr. Thornburgh asked Ms. Buchanan if, in the event Dr. Wecht was charged, he would be allowed to surrender himself instead of being arrested.
"She said, 'No. We believe he's a risk of flight to Israel," Mr. Rush said yesterday. "Dick and I, we were shocked."
Another lawyer for Dr. Wecht, J. Alan Johnson, sent a letter to Ms. Buchanan on Jan. 17 that read in part: "You expressed a concern to Messrs. Thornburgh and Rush that Dr. Wecht has a passport and may attempt to flee to Israel. Your concern is unfounded."
Then, on Jan. 18, when Dr. Wecht's lawyers learned an indictment was imminent, Mr. Thornburgh called Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty to discuss the issue of self-surrender.
Later that night, Mr. Rush said, he got a phone call from someone in Mr. McNulty's office who said that the Department of Justice would not intervene in Dr. Wecht's indictment but that he would be allowed to be arrested by summons.
The U.S. attorney's office yesterday flatly denied that the Justice Department had any involvement in that issue.
"The decision to allow Cyril Wecht to voluntarily surrender, rather than be arrested, was made before the indictment and solely by U.S. Attorney Buchanan at the recommendation of the assistant U.S. attorneys prosecuting this case," Ms. Philbin said.
Another issue raised by defense attorneys yesterday was the fact that no federal officials interviewed the president at Carlow University -- who was a party to the contract with Dr. Wecht to use lab space at the school -- until eight months after he was indicted.
Though prosecutors referenced an agreement between Dr. Wecht and the school in the indictment, they didn't interview its president, Sister Grace Ann Geibel, until Sept. 27, 2006, said Carlow's attorney, Charles B. Gibbons.
The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on that issue. But Mr. Gibbons confirmed yesterday that Mr. Stallings and lead FBI Agent Bradley Orsini didn't talk to her until just three weeks before Dr. Wecht's trial was originally scheduled.
Paula Reed Ward can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2620.