Wecht defense banned from talk of politics

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Not only did a federal judge refuse to grant a hearing yesterday on whether the prosecution of Dr. Cyril H. Wecht was politically motivated, he also forbade defense attorneys from even mentioning the subject when the former Allegheny County coroner's criminal trial begins in January.

Dr. Wecht was indicted on 84 counts, including mail and wire fraud, in January 2006. His attorneys filed a motion early this month asking for a hearing to determine if their client was a victim of "selective prosecution."

But U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab, in a 23-page opinion, refused, saying that their motion was untimely, without merit and raised nothing new.

In a section of the opinion labeled "Defendant's New Conspiracy Theory," the judge wrote that Dr. Wecht claimed earlier in his case that his prosecution was motivated by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., a fellow Democrat.

In his latest motion, he continued, Dr. Wecht was basing his new theory on Republican politics, contending that U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan charged him "as part of a plan emanating from Karl Rove to dismiss prosecutors who were not using prosecutorial powers against Democrats, or due to this particular United States attorney's assessment of how to improve her prospects for career advancement in the eyes of high-ranking Republican officials having powers of promotion, nomination or appointment."

Judge Schwab found both of those claims to be without merit.

In their motion, Dr. Wecht's attorneys listed all of the high-ranking Democrats recently investigated in federal court, including former Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio and former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy. They also listed local Republicans who faced accusations of wrong-doing but were apparently never investigated by the federal government.

Among those listed were former state Rep. Jeffrey Habay of Shaler, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair.

But Judge Schwab said that Dr. Wecht's claims about the Republicans were vague, which under the law is "fatal," in a motion for discovery.

Also yesterday, Judge Schwab denied a motion by the defense asking to disallow evidence seized during the execution of a search warrant of Dr. Wecht's office.

At a hearing in September, defense attorneys called into question the credibility of FBI Special Agent Bradley W. Orsini, who led the case. Agent Orsini had previously been the subject of discipline by the FBI for forging documents and evidence labels.

Dr. Wecht's lawyers claimed that Agent Orsini failed to establish probable cause in the affidavit for the search warrant and to corroborate a number of statements it included.

But Judge Schwab found that Agent Orsini's disciplinary history is not relevant to this case, because the defense was unable to prove that the agent lied or forged forms in Dr. Wecht's paperwork.

Further, he wrote in his 64-page opinion that Dr. Wecht's defense attorneys failed to call two witnesses who had worked at the coroner's office on the day of the suppression hearing, even though both men had been waiting in the courthouse hallway all morning.

"If in fact, [one witness] had information to contradict what Special Agent Orsini said in his affidavit ... all defendant had to do was call him to the witness stand," Judge Schwab wrote. By not doing so, the defense "left the substance of Special Agent Orsini's testimony [in that area] undisputed in all material respects."

Dr. Wecht's trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 28.

Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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