The top stories of 2008

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Here are the 10 biggest local stories of the year for the Pittsburgh region, as voted by the staff of the Post-Gazette.

1. Pennsylvania's role in the election

Pennsylvania's primary election, normally held in May, usually occurs long after major party nominees have been decided. But this year's Democratic contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was moved up to April and put the Keystone State in the spotlight. Mr. Obama's loss in that statewide race helped to persuade Republican candidate John McCain to make Pennsylvania a key battleground in the general election. Mr. Obama easily claimed Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes on Nov. 4, however, bolstering his comfortable national margin of victory.

2. Bonusgate in Harrisburg

Former state Rep. Michael Veon of Beaver County, above, was the most prominent of 10 House Democratic lawmakers or aides indicted on charges they focused on partisan election efforts in their taxpayer-funded jobs. The political corruption charges tainted the Democratic leadership, ending the longtime tenure of Rep. Bill DeWeese of Greene County as the top-ranking House Democrat. Those indicted face trial in 2009, and the attorney general's office is investigating whether Republicans should also face charges.

3. Scandal over WVU degree

The fallout from a master's degree awarded improperly to Heather Bresch, daughter of West Virginia's governor, led to resignations of several of West Virginia University's top officials. A special committee determined the degree was obtained without necessary coursework by Ms. Bresch, who was also a top executive at Mylan Inc., a company whose chairman was WVU's biggest donor. University President Mike Garrison was among those who stepped down following furor over apparent political favoritism.

4. North Shore casino rescue

Construction of the North Shore casino by Detroit-based owner Don Barden came to a halt after he encountered midyear financial difficulties. The project was imperiled until a new ownership group led by Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm invested capital, putting it back on track for completion in August 2009. Pennsylvania's slots casinos thrived in 2008, running counter to a national downturn in the gambling industry. Work also continued on the permanent facility of the Meadows Racetrack & Casino, which is to open in the spring.

5. Penguins' jubilant Stanley Cup run

A young group of Pittsburgh Penguins made an unexpectedly strong bid for the Stanley Cup after jelling in the latter part of the 2007-08 season. The always-passionate fan base of the Pens grew even broader as they easily dispatched the Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers before succumbing to the Detroit Red Wings in six games in the finals. Across the street from Mellon Arena, construction started on the Pens' future $321 million arena, expected to be ready for the start of the 2010-11 season.

6. The unresolved trial of Cyril Wecht

The trial of Dr. Cyril H. Wecht for allegedly profiting personally from his work as Allegheny County's former coroner ended in a hung jury after 22 days of testimony and 10 days of deliberations. Federal prosecutors promptly pushed for retrial of the famous forensic pathologist, but reduced the criminal counts against him from 41 to 14. The judge who oversaw the acrimonious trial was removed from the case, and the U.S. attorney's office is seeking to hold the next trial out of town because of extensive local publicity.

7. A transit strike is averted

Days before a Dec. 1 deadline, with the Port Authority ready to impose a unilateral contract and its unionized employees mulling a walkout, unusual negotiations in Washington, D.C., produced a contract settlement. Talks between the Port Authority's management and the local leadership of the Amalgamated Transit Union had reached a dead end, threatening to disrupt the lives of tens of thousands of daily riders. National labor leaders' involvement led to a settlement designed to provide long-term cost savings for the agency.

8. Inspirational cancer victims

Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch, right, and Freedom High School student-athlete John Challis both made headlines locally and acquired fans far more broadly for courageously facing terminal illness from cancer. Before his death, Mr. Pausch was celebrated for a CMU lecture that circulated widely on the Web and morphed into a best-selling book, emphasizing what's important in life. Mr. Challis was featured on ESPN and elsewhere for his unflappable two-year battle with cancer before dying in his Beaver County home at age 18.

9. Statewide smoking restrictions

After months of hemming and hawing that followed years of indifference, state lawmakers approved legislation restricting public smoking as most states had already done. Exceptions were placed in the law for bars with modest food sales, private clubs, part of casino floors and elsewhere, but anti-smoking lobbyists still hailed it as a victory for public health. In most indoor workplaces, it is now against the law to light up. Lawmakers may consider amending the law in 2009 to allow local ordinances that are even stronger.

10. The death of Myron Cope

The squawk-voiced broadcasting legend who had been adored by many Pittsburghers died at age 79 in February after battling illnesses in retirement. Mr. Cope had been one of Pittsburgh's most colorful characters as a sports announcer and talk-show host. His close association to the Pittsburgh Steelers, particularly as creator and promoter of the Terrible Towel, heightened Mr. Cope's profile for years. He was also renowned for his writing and his charity work benefiting individuals with mental disabilities.

... And the runners-up

• The Rooneys negotiate a new ownership structure for the Steelers.

• The Allegheny County drink tax is protested and reduced.

• Gang violence in Pittsburgh kills young men at a high rate, plus claims the lives of multiple innocent bystanders.

• A Wilkinsburg woman is accused of murdering a pregnant woman, and cutting the baby out of the womb to pass it off as her own.

• PNC Bank moves to acquire National City.

• The local Episcopal diocese votes to break off from the national church.

• Pittsburgh celebrates its 250th anniversary with a series of special events.

• The local housing market experiences a spike in mortgage foreclosures but, unlike much of the country, no collapse of housing prices.

• A drug suspect's wife is charged with killing an FBI agent during a raid.

• Despite public outcry, Pittsburgh school officials close Schenley High School's longtime building.

Correction/Clarification: (Published Dec. 29, 2008) Pennsylvania's primary election was held on April 22, 2008. This article as originally published Dec. 28, 2008 about the top stories of the year was unclear about when the primary was held.


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