Buchanan to leave U.S. attorney post

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Mary Beth Buchanan, who has served as U.S. attorney in the Western District of Pennsylvania for eight years, will resign effective Nov. 16.

In a statement issued by her office, Ms. Buchanan gave no indication what her future professional plans might include.

"It has been a tremendous honor and privilege to serve the people of Western Pennsylvania and this great nation," she said. "After more than eight years in the best job anyone could ever have, I am looking forward to the next chapter of my professional career."

It had been rumored that Ms. Buchanan is pondering a run for Congress against Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless next fall, but she has never confirmed that.

Ms. Buchanan was away with her husband yesterday, and office spokeswoman Margaret Philbin said the prosecutor plans to take an extended trip to Australia after she steps down.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert S. Cessar is expected to serve as acting head of the office until a formal nomination for the position is made by President Barack Obama and then confirmed by the Senate.

Attorney David J. Hickton is believed to be the front-runner for the seat.

During Ms. Buchanan's tenure, she was well-known in the law enforcement community for bringing various groups together, including through the creation of a number of task forces. Over the years those have targeted guns, child exploitation and street violence. Just last year, she created a mortgage fraud task force that has resulted in dozens of convictions.

Ms. Buchanan also points to a number of public corruption convictions -- most notably in the Allegheny County sheriff's office -- as evidence of her success.

Since her appointment by President George W. Bush, Ms. Buchanan steadily followed the marching orders handed down from the Department of Justice, serving in a number of high-profile positions, like the attorney general's advisory committee, as the director of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, and in the Office on Violence Against Women.

But Ms. Buchanan, who traveled a great deal throughout her administration, also was roundly criticized for some of her prosecutorial decisions.

She brought indictments in two high-profile obscenity cases -- one involving pornographic films depicting murder and rape, and another involving only written words, securing convictions in both.

She filed charges against comedian Tommy Chong for selling bongs online. In that case, she secured a guilty plea in the case, along with a nine-month prison term.

Probably the most well-known -- and most unsuccessful of Ms. Buchanan's criminal cases -- was the indictment and ultimate dismissal of the charges against former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht.

The federal grand jury indicted the forensic pathologist in January 2006.

His first trial ended with a hung jury in April 2008. The U.S. attorney's office immediately announced it would retry the case, but before that could happen, the judge newly appointed to the matter threw out much of the relevant evidence.

Ms. Buchanan was forced to drop the charges, but still she would not clear Dr. Wecht of any wrongdoing. Instead, in June, she said if she could have a do-over, she'd bring the case again.

Stephen S. Stallings, the former assistant U.S. attorney who took the lead during the Wecht trial, yesterday called Ms. Buchanan "misunderstood."

"I think a lot of people underestimated her ability to accomplish what she set her mind to," he said. "A lot of times, that's the kind of characteristic people look for in a prosecutor."

But Mr. Stallings' nemesis in the Wecht case -- defense attorney Jerry McDevitt -- believes Ms. Buchanan brought the taint of politics to the U.S. attorney's position.

"I think her tenure has stripped that office of its reputation," Mr. McDevitt said.

Dr. Wecht called Ms. Buchanan's departure "overdue."

Throughout his criminal case, he criticized Ms. Buchanan's tactics in his case.

It took more than three years before the charges against him were dropped and cost him millions of dollars in attorney's fees.

"What happened cannot be undone," he said. "It would be absurd and extremely hypocritical of me to say, 'All's over and forgiven.'

"I don't wish her well."

But there are those in law enforcement who praise Ms. Buchanan, not only for her dedication to serving justice but her hard work and ability to bring people together.

"She had a very good demeanor with everyone, with the ability to pull all the different agencies together," said David Bosch, the assistant inspector in charge of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's Pittsburgh Division. "You don't have that in all the other areas of the country."

Ms. Buchanan was instrumental in putting together a Child Safety Day at the Pittsburgh Zoo each year. Volunteers from various law enforcement groups -- including Ms. Buchanan -- would go to the zoo on Mother's Day and provide services like fingerprinting and photographing children.

The information would then be placed on a thumb drive and given to the parents, so if they ever need the information in the event their child is lost, it is immediately available.

"On every occasion, she was there," Mr. Bosch said.

That had a positive impact on the community and allowed law enforcement to reach out to thousands of people, he said.

Frank Monaco, a former major with the Pennsylvania State Police and now the chief in Plum, has worked with Ms. Buchanan in a number of roles. He praised her for helping to get funding for saturation patrols in the city of Pittsburgh after the shooting death of Cpl. Joseph R. Pokorny Jr. in December 2005.

"It never would have happened without her," he said. "I'll be sorry to see her go. She was, by far, the most prosecution-oriented U.S. attorney I've ever worked with."

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


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