Primary 2013/Westmoreland County: Coroner's race pits incumbent against deputy he fired in '10

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The Nov. 5 race for coroner in Westmoreland County pits the incumbent against his former deputy.

Coroner Ken Bacha, 52, a Democrat from Greensburg who has held the position for 12 years, is being challenged by Christopher O'Leath, 36, of New Kensington, the Republican nominee.

Both acknowledge that Mr. O'Leath was fired from his deputy coroner position in 2010, but the two disagree on why.

Mr. O'Leath filed a lawsuit in 2011 in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh against Mr. Bacha, claiming he was fired because he refused to do political campaigning on county time. That case is ongoing.

"I was told to work on fundraisers, such as political mailers and a golf outing," Mr. O'Leath said, "and I refused."

Mr. Bacha denies that claim.

"That is 100 percent false," he said. "He was fired for six disciplinary items over several years. All were brought up in the U.S. District Court lawsuit and he has admitted to all but one of them.

"He falsified overtime sheets to get more money," Mr. Bacha said. "He was habitually late, and a female in the courthouse complained of sexual harassment."

In addition, Mr. Bacha said the most serious offense involved evidence from the office evidence room, and he said "office policies were grossly violated." He declined to elaborate because of the lawsuit but said the evidence room contained guns and drugs from deceased individuals.

Mr. O'Leath said the only time he was reprimanded as a deputy was in 2004 for an "honest mistake" when he was paid for eight hours more of overtime than he should have been. Both agree that he paid back the money.

Mr. O'Leath was a full-time deputy coroner in the office for eight years. He is currently a full-time paramedic with the New Kensington Fire Department.

Mr. Bacha said attorneys for both sides have sent information to a federal judge for a summary judgment on the lawsuit.

The coroner's office investigates all suspicious deaths in the county, which include deaths from traffic accidents, suicides and drug overdoses. In addition to the coroner, the office employs a chief deputy and four full-time and four part-time deputies.

In 2012, the office handled about 1,200 death investigations.

Both candidates agree they want to address the growing number of drug overdose deaths in recent years through increased educational and preventive efforts. The county had 78 overdose deaths last year.

Mr. Bacha, whose father, Leo M. Bacha, was the county's previous coroner, said, "My dad had only five heroin deaths in 24 years When I came into office in 2002, I had 12 of 24 overdose deaths that were heroin, and it's continued to increase."

But last year, a majority of the drug deaths were prescription drug overdoses. Of the 78 overdose deaths, Mr. Bacha said, one-third were from heroin and two-thirds from prescription drugs.

The county is expecting 100 overdose deaths this year at the current rate.

Mr. O'Leath said the number of county drug deaths is probably higher than the recorded number because people in the northern, eastern and western areas of the county are taken to hospitals in neighboring counties, and the death is reported there.

Neighboring counties also are experiencing an increase in overdose deaths.

Westmoreland County officials created a drug task force earlier this year to address the issue. The task force is made up of drug and alcohol personnel, mental health professionals and law enforcement and public safety officials. Mr. Bacha is on the steering committee for the task force, which recently presented its initial findings on some of the overdose causes.

Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Beaver County, said the increase in addiction is a result of over prescription of pain medication such as Vicodin and Oxycontin. He said doctors are now prescribing four times the number of pain killers than in 1999.

Mr. O'Leath agrees that a multi-discipline drug task force is needed to address the problem, but he would include more medical experts.

"We need to get to these doctors who are handing out pain medications like candy," he said. "This is a Western Pennsylvania problem, we need to be sharing information with other counties, too."

He noted that many heroin users take prescription drugs such as methadone to get off heroin, so he believes the root cause of the overdoses is still heroin.

If elected, Mr. O'Leath wants to increase community drug education efforts in the coroner's office.

"The coroner needs to be more visible," he said. "He needs to reach out to parents and teachers. We're not going to eliminate these drug overdoses, but we have to educate people on their causes. The coroner has a responsibility to educate and attempt to prevent death just as much as it is his duty to investigate it."

Mr. O'Leath said when he was deputy coroner, he visited 15 to 25 schools a year to give educational talks on street drugs.

Mr. Bacha said that his office has gone to schools approximately 15 times this year to present an anti-drug and alcohol program. "I do most of the presentations, but the deputies do them when I can't," he said. The office made an additional 25 presentations to emergency responders and civic groups, he said.

Both candidates agree that contracting for autopsies with Cyril Wecht, the former Allegheny County coroner, is the most efficient use of taxpayer money. He is paid $1,450 for each autopsy; 153 autopsies were done in 2012.

Mr. Bacha noted that he added a cadaver detection dog to the staff and over the past four years has acquired state grants totaling $210,000.

Mr. O'Leath noted that public service has been an important part of his life and he has been with the Arnold Volunteer Fire Co. No. 2 for 21 years, serving as an assistant chief for the past 12 years.

Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

The Nov. 5 race for coroner in Westmoreland County pits the incumbent against his former deputy.

Coroner Ken Bacha, 52, a Democrat from Greensburg who has held the position for 12 years, is being challenged by Christopher O'Leath, 36, of New Kensington, the Republican nominee.

Both acknowledge that Mr. O'Leath was fired from his deputy coroner position in 2010, but the two disagree on why.

Mr. O'Leath filed a lawsuit in 2011 in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh against Mr. Bacha, claiming he was fired because he refused to do political campaigning on county time. That case is ongoing.

"I was told to work on fundraisers, such as political mailers and a golf outing," Mr. O'Leath said, "and I refused."

Mr. Bacha denies that claim.

"That is 100 percent false," he said. "He was fired for six disciplinary items over several years. All were brought up in the U.S. District Court lawsuit and he has admitted to all but one of them.

"He falsified overtime sheets to get more money," Mr. Bacha said. "He was habitually late, and a female in the courthouse complained of sexual harassment."

In addition, Mr. Bacha said the most serious offense involved evidence from the office evidence room, and he said "office policies were grossly violated." He declined to elaborate because of the lawsuit but said the evidence room contained guns and drugs from deceased individuals.

Mr. O'Leath said the only time he was reprimanded as a deputy was in 2004 for an "honest mistake" when he was paid for eight hours more of overtime than he should have been. Both agree that he paid back the money.

Mr. O'Leath was a full-time deputy coroner in the office for eight years. He is currently a full-time paramedic with the New Kensington Fire Department.

Mr. Bacha said attorneys for both sides have sent information to a federal judge for a summary judgment on the lawsuit.

The coroner's office investigates all suspicious deaths in the county, which include deaths from traffic accidents, suicides and drug overdoses. In addition to the coroner, the office employs a chief deputy and four full-time and four part-time deputies.

In 2012, the office handled about 1,200 death investigations.

Both candidates agree they want to address the growing number of drug overdose deaths in recent years through increased educational and preventive efforts. The county had 78 overdose deaths last year.

Mr. Bacha, whose father, Leo M. Bacha, was the county's previous coroner, said, "My dad had only five heroin deaths in 24 years When I came into office in 2002, I had 12 of 24 overdose deaths that were heroin, and it's continued to increase."

But last year, a majority of the drug deaths were prescription drug overdoses. Of the 78 overdose deaths, Mr. Bacha said, one-third were from heroin and two-thirds from prescription drugs.

The county is expecting 100 overdose deaths this year at the current rate.

Mr. O'Leath said the number of county drug deaths is probably higher than the recorded number because people in the northern, eastern and western areas of the county are taken to hospitals in neighboring counties, and the death is reported there.

Neighboring counties also are experiencing an increase in overdose deaths.

Westmoreland County officials created a drug task force earlier this year to address the issue. The task force is made up of drug and alcohol personnel, mental health professionals and law enforcement and public safety officials. Mr. Bacha is on the steering committee for the task force, which recently presented its initial findings on some of the overdose causes.

Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Beaver County, said the increase in addiction is a result of over-prescription of pain medication such as Vicodin and Oxycontin. He said doctors are now prescribing four times the number of pain killers than in 1999.

Mr. O'Leath agrees that a multi-discipline drug task force is needed to address the problem, but he would include more medical experts.

"We need to get to these doctors who are handing out pain medications like candy," he said. "This is a Western Pennsylvania problem, we need to be sharing information with other counties, too."

He noted that many heroin users take prescription drugs such as methadone to get off heroin, so he believes the root cause of the overdoses is still heroin.

If elected, Mr. O'Leath wants to increase community drug education efforts in the coroner's office.

"The coroner needs to be more visible," he said. "He needs to reach out to parents and teachers. We're not going to eliminate these drug overdoses, but we have to educate people on their causes. The coroner has a responsibility to educate and attempt to prevent death just as much as it is his duty to investigate it."

Mr. O'Leath said when he was deputy coroner, he visited 15 to 25 schools a year to give educational talks on street drugs.

Mr. Bacha said that his office has gone to schools approximately 15 times this year to present an anti-drug and alcohol program. "I do most of the presentations, but the deputies do them when I can't," he said. The office made an additional 25 presentations to emergency responders and civic groups, he said.

Both candidates agree that contracting for autopsies with Cyril Wecht, the former Allegheny County coroner, is the most efficient use of taxpayer money. He is paid $1,450 for each autopsy; 153 autopsies were done in 2012.

Mr. Bacha noted that he added a cadaver detection dog to the staff and over the past four years has acquired state grants totaling $210,000.

Mr. O'Leath noted that public service has been an important part of his life and he has been with the Arnold Volunteer Fire Co. No. 2 for 21 years, serving as an assistant chief for the past 12 years.

neigh_east - electionsmunicipal - neigh_westmoreland

Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com. First Published October 17, 2013 1:14 AM


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