Analysis: U.S. Attorney Buchanan takes a bow
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Ambitious and sincere, Mary Beth Buchanan clearly believed in every case that she pursued as U.S. attorney.
Even when she was subjected to ridicule and scorn -- as with the failed prosecution of former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht or the successful prosecution of Tommy Chong for selling bongs online -- Ms. Buchanan was no shrinking violet.
She became a darling of the Bush administration and thrust herself into the spotlight, often to her advantage -- and sometimes not.
Ms. Buchanan, 46, was known to be demanding in the office and sometimes used her assistants to further her own career, sometimes having assistant prosecutors write speeches for her.
But she is also incredibly likable -- funny, charming, occasionally self-deprecating and often captivating, unlike the public figure that was often seen at news conferences, standing stiffly before the cameras.
Last year, she took time to poke fun at herself, dressing up as a wicked witch for the annual benefit sponsored by AFTRA and the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh to raise money for local charities.
Ms. Buchanan applied all of that outsized personality to her position, which one former U.S. attorney called "the most powerful public office" in Western Pennsylvania.
Her eight-year tenure concluded at midnight -- though the office space she occupied on the fourth floor of the U.S. District Court was still filled yesterday with all of her belongings.
In an interview yesterday, Ms. Buchanan reflected on what she accomplished as U.S. attorney and what she hopes to be remembered for.
"I gave absolutely everything I had to this job so I could serve this office, and the people of Western Pennsylvania the very best way I could," she said.
As signs of her success, Ms. Buchanan points to having hired 25 new prosecutors, and giving existing employees the chance to choose in what areas to focus.
She brags about the relationships she's helped form among local, state and federal law enforcement groups, as well as the creation of education programs to combat child exploitation and fraud against the elderly.
She also cites statistics.
"The work of the office dramatically increased from 2001 to the present time," Ms. Buchanan said.
While it's true the caseload nearly doubled, the bulk of the increase -- 90 percent -- came from prosecutions for guns, child pornography, immigration and drugs.
"We took direction from the [Justice] Department in focusing on those national priorities," Ms. Buchanan said.
Those directives didn't cause any seismic shift in local operations. Ms. Buchanan had long emphasized the need for child pornography prosecutions, and while the national gun program, Project Safe Neighborhoods, began during her tenure, the office had implemented an earlier project, Operation Target, in 1999.
"Those were the areas in which I focused the resources and efforts of the office," Ms. Buchanan said.
But, she continued, none of those took away from any other prosecutions.
"There was nothing we were not able to achieve," she said. "We never diverted attention away from any other case to focus on [Justice Department] priorities."
During her eight years, there was a renewed focus on drug trafficking, and Ms. Buchanan cited a number of conspiracies broken up under her leadership, including groups in Braddock, Homewood, Aliquippa and Hazelwood.
When the people in a ring distributing fentanyl-laced heroin heard the case would be pursued federally, she said, investigators learned that the leaders of the group threw the drugs in the river.
"By that act alone, we will never know how many lives were saved by that operation," she said. "The work of the U.S. attorney's office is so much greater than what you see in the number of indictments brought."
Former U.S. Attorney Fred Thieman agrees that numbers mean very little in terms of a federal prosecutor's success. Instead, he said, it's all about impact.
Generally, the types of cases that were made priorities under the Bush administration were easy to prosecute. But experts are split on whether they are a good use of resources.
Former U.S. Attorney Harry Litman, who served under President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001, believes that lengthy federal sentences for firearms violations and child pornography can send a strong deterrent message to the community.
But, he continued, it is important for a federal prosecutor to choose those types of cases carefully.
"A very few number of cases can have a big effect," he said.
Pittsburgh Deputy Chief of Police Paul Donaldson praised the Project Safe Neighborhoods firearms program, which has provided increased training opportunities for the police, as well as enhanced the bureau's intelligence gathering.
"It's given us an opportunity to form partnerships with other state and federal law enforcement agencies and state and federal prosecutors," he said.
National priorities swing between administrations, Mr. Thieman said, between street crime and white-collar crime.
As for the U.S. attorney's efforts on fraud and white-collar crime, Ms. Buchanan mentioned a number of cases, including a McKeesport contractor convicted of false billing on jobs at PNC Park and the Pentagon, as well as the recent indictments of a number of defendants involved in the alleged $806 million LeNature's bottling company fraud.
In 2008, Ms. Buchanan also created a mortgage fraud task force that's led to dozens of arrests.
As for public corruption, she prosecuted Allegheny County Judge Joseph Jaffe, who was convicted of soliciting payments from attorneys before him.
Also during her term, four people in the Allegheny County Sheriff's office were convicted in a corruption case.
"This single prosecution dramatically changed the way business is done in many of the elected offices in Allegheny County," she said. "If the public doesn't have confidence in its elected officials, then our entire system of justice will fail."
But Ms. Buchanan is still sensitive about the most highly visible loss of her administration: the failure to secure a conviction in the corruption case against Dr. Wecht.
In the trial, a jury could not reach a unanimous verdict. After several months of appeals, a federal judge threw out crucial evidence for the retrial. Ms. Buchanan had to dismiss the charges.
Still, she won't apologize for bringing the case.
"The U.S. attorney should do what he or she knows is the right thing to do, regardless of how it impacts them personally," she said. "I've never wavered from that, and I sleep well at night."
Ms. Buchanan said that it's unfair for anyone to judge her.
"There are some people who want to make the Wecht case so much more than it was," she said. "I never made it personal, and I never will. That's one defendant out of 5,079."
Throughout the Wecht case, his defense attorneys tried to make the case political, alleging the charges were brought because he was a Democrat. They also tried to relate the case to a national scandal involving the firing of nine U.S. attorneys for allegedly political reasons.
While those connections never gained much traction, Dr. Wecht's lawyers had an easy time making the insinuations.
Ms. Buchanan long had close ties to the Bush administration.
She was widely regarded as a favorite under Attorney General John Ashcroft and held a variety of positions within the Department of Justice.
She served as the chair of the attorney general's advisory committee and was the director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. Later, she became the acting director of the National Office on Violence Against Women.
"I was asked to be in these positions because I did a good job, and was a hard worker," Ms. Buchanan said. "When the attorney general comes to you and asks you to take on an extra responsibility, you say, 'Yes, sir,' and then figure out how to get it done."
But those appointments kept her traveling quite a bit. There were times when Ms. Buchanan was in the Pittsburgh office only a few days out of each month.
But yesterday, she said those travels never hindered the work done in Pittsburgh.
"I never abdicated the responsibility I was given," she said. "There was nothing that didn't get done during the time I was holding two positions. I'm a really, very hard worker."
A close relationship to the administration can be both good and bad, said John Smietanka, a former U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, Mich., who worked under three presidents.
"It depends on how they use it," he said.
Having an "in" with Washington could mean obtaining more resources, avoiding bumps in the large bureaucracy and bringing attention to your home district.
But it can also mean criticism that the top prosecutor isn't in the district enough and has lost touch with the needs there.
During his tenure, Mr. Thieman tended to ignore Washington, D.C. He chose not to serve on the attorney general's advisory committee when asked. But, he continued, that doesn't make his decision the better one.
"I don't think there's any right or wrong on that," Mr. Thieman said.
Former U.S. Attorney J. Alan Johnson said that when he was in office during the Reagan administration, federal prosecutors were much more independent.
"We had a good bit of autonomy, and I don't think that's the case [now.]"
With Ms. Buchanan's departure, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert S. Cessar will become the acting top prosecutor. President Barack Obama has still not named a formal nominee for the position, though Pittsburgh attorney David Hickton is believed to be the front-runner.
As for her professional plans, Ms. Buchanan would not be specific. She said she has several options, and that over the next several weeks, as she vacations in Australia, she will consider them.
When asked about her dream job, Ms. Buchanan said she already had it.
"It's hard to imagine another position that will rival this one in the satisfaction of knowing you did a job well and had a positive impact on the lives of others," she said. "It's always hard to leave a job that you love. Particularly, when it's been so much more than a job."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Nov. 18, 2009) Mary Beth Buchanan participated in "Off the Record," the annual benefit sponsored by AFTRA and the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh to raise money for local charities. An incorrect sponsor was given in this story about the departing U.S. attorney as originally published Nov. 17, 2009.
First Published November 17, 2009 12:00 am