WASHINGTON -- Former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh yesterday told lawmakers of his suspicions of political motivations behind the federal prosecution of former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, prompting a heated, partisan exchange with a Republican congressman.
"Your testimony, to be blunt, is the most pathetic example of speculation and innuendo and hearsay that I have seen in seven years on this committee," said Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., during a joint hearing of two House judiciary subcommittees. "It's so far-fetched I'm almost embarrassed to be an attorney listening to it."
Mr. Thornburgh, himself a Republican and a lawyer for a firm representing Dr. Wecht, vigorously defended his client, who was indicted last year on 84 counts -- including mail fraud, wire fraud, and theft from an organization that receives federal funds -- and faces trial in January.
"It is not the type of case normally constituting a federal 'corruption' case brought against a local official," said Mr. Thornburgh, who served as Pennsylvania's governor from 1979 to 1987 and was the U.S. attorney for Pittsburgh from 1969 to 1975. "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 selected office."
He argued that many of the counts represent an overly "expansive" use of federal power to criminalize inconsequential actions, such as the improper use of the coroner's fax machine for private work.
House Democrats called the hearing to look at allegations of political motivation in federal prosecutions of local officials in the wake of last year's controversial Justice Department firings of nine U.S. attorneys.
"This hearing is about the single most important issue in the criminal justice system: whether the power of the prosecutor -- the power to take away someone's freedom -- has been abused," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law.
Donald C. Shields, a professor of communications at the University of Missouri, cited statistics from a study he performed showing that, under the Bush administration, 80 percent of Justice Department's prosecutions of elected officials have targeted Democrats, while 14 percent have targeted Republicans.
"The numbers don't lie," he said. "There is political bias."
Mr. Thornburgh suggested that Dr. Wecht's case fit into that category, pointing out 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 Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio.
But her office hasn't prosecuted any Republicans, he contended -- an assertion that later was challenged by Ms. Buchanan's lawyer.
Mr. Keller, also a lawyer, then grilled the former attorney general.
"Do you, sir, have any personal knowledge of any conversation between U.S. Attorney Buchanan and the president in which they discuss that Dr. Wecht should be prosecuted because he is a Democrat?" he asked.
"I made no such statement," Mr. Thornburgh snapped. "And you should be embarrassed for mis-citing the record."
Mr. Keller continued his line of questioning: "Do you have any personal knowledge of any conversation between U.S. Attorney Buchanan and anyone on this planet in which it was discussed that Dr. Wecht should be prosecuted because he is a Democrat?"
"Obviously not," Mr. Thornburgh replied. But he noted that Ms. Buchanan had testified in a closed session with the House Judiciary Committee in June, and he didn't have access to those records.
Ms. Buchanan's lawyer, Roscoe C. Howard Jr., said in a statement released after yesterday's hearing: "Despite Mr. Thornburgh's baseless protestations, the United States Attorney's Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania does not make decisions, including decisions to investigate, based on the political affiliation of any of its subjects, targets or defendants, and it did not do so in Dr. Wecht's case."
He noted that state Superior Court Judge Michael Thomas Joyce, a Republican, was indicted in August on mail fraud and money laundering charges after an investigation led by Ms. Buchanan.
He said Mr. Thornburgh used the hearings "to advocate for his client" and called his testimony "self-serving" and "lacking in accuracy and candor."
Overall, the hearing had a bitter, partisan tone, with Republicans and Democrats also debating the conviction of Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat.
Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., noted that a federal judge had allowed Dr. Wecht's case to proceed and that no one from Ms. Buchanan's office was permitted to come to Washington yesterday to counter Mr. Thornburgh's testimony.
Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said the prosecution of Dr. Wecht is based "solely on the facts and the law."
"Mr. Thornburgh is one of Dr. Wecht's paid defense lawyers, and, notably, these same lawyers have had many opportunities to raise this allegation with the court," he said in a statement. "If they had done so, the government would have responded, and the court would have ruled whether the allegation had any merit."
Mr. Thornburgh, who served as attorney general under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, argued that Congress should tighten vague federal statutes used in public corruption cases like Dr. Wecht's.
He briefly recounted his time as the nation's top law enforcement officer, saying he made painstaking efforts to keep politics out of the Justice Department.
"I made a rather strict rule about the department speaking with one voice," he said.
He also said he was pleased by President Bush's choice of Michael B. Mukasey, a former federal judge, to replace former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who resigned last month amid questions about his handling of the firings of U.S. attorneys.
"Let me affirm my beliefs that politics has no place in the decision-making process of whether or not to charge citizens of the U.S. with any crime, federal or otherwise," Mr. Thornburgh said.
"The citizens of the United States must have confidence that the [Justice Department] is conducting itself in a fair and impartial matter without actual political influence or the appearance of political influence."
Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at email@example.com or 202-488-3479.