WASHINGTON -- Former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh today engaged in a heated exchange with House GOP members over the federal prosecution of former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, with one Florida Republican calling his suggestions of political motivation behind the case "pathetic."
"It's so far-fetched I'm almost embarrassed to be an attorney listening to it," said Rep. Ric Keller during a joint hearing of two House judiciary subcommittees.
Mr. Thornburgh, himself a Republican whose law firm is representing Dr. Wecht, vigorously defended his client, who was indicted last year on 84 counts, including mail and wire fraud, as well as theft from an organization that receives federal funds. He faces a trial in January.
Mr. Thornburgh, a former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. attorney in Western Pennsylvania, argued that many of the counts represent an overly broad use of federal power to criminalize inconsequential actions, such as the improper use of the coroner's fax machine for his private practice.
"It is not the type of case normally constituting a federal 'corruption' case brought against a local official," he said. "There is no allegation that Dr. Wecht ever solicited or received a bribe or kickback. There is no allegation that Dr. Wecht traded on a conflict of interest in conducting the affairs of his elected office."
House Democrats called today's hearing to look at allegations of political motivation in federal prosecutions of local officials in the wake of last year's controversial firings of nine U.S. attorneys.
When Mr. Thornburgh suggested that Dr. Wecht's case fit into that category, Mr. Keller argued that the former attorney general had no hard proof. Mr. Thornburgh acknowledged that, but he cited statistics from a study by two University of Missouri professors showing that the Bush administration has been seven times more likely to prosecute Democrats than Republicans.
He also noted that Mary Beth Buchanan, the current U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, has targeted several high-profile local Democrats: Dr. Wecht, former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, and former Sheriff Pete DeFazio.
"During the same period not one Republican officeholder was investigated or prosecuted by Ms. Buchanan's office. Not one," he said
More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.