Defense strikes back in Wecht trial
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Dr. Cyril H. Wecht's defense team showed yesterday that it could go toe to toe with the federal government.
For five days, the prosecution showed a steady stream of calendars, invoices and credit card statements to witness Eileen Young to bolster its case that her former boss ran his private business from the Allegheny County coroner's office and defrauded some of his clients by overbilling for airfare.
With direct examination of Ms. Young over yesterday morning, defense attorney Mark Rush used the same types of documents to show plenty of instances when the former coroner charged his clients properly, if not less than what he paid for plane tickets.
"You would think if you were engaged in a scheme of artifice to defraud ... you wouldn't undercharge them, would you?" Mr. Rush asked Ms. Young, Dr. Wecht's top administrative assistant from 2002 to 2005. "It wouldn't be a very effective scheme."
Dr. Wecht is accused of using his public office for private gain and scheming to use interstate mail and fax transmissions to systematically defraud clients for airfare and phantom limousine rides.
Ms. Young said she never tried to cheat anyone. She testified she simply billed what she was told to based on quotes for airfares given to her by Dr. Wecht or one of his private secretaries -- quotes that were sometimes too high, sometimes too low and sometimes right on the nose.
"That's the way we did it," Ms. Young said.
Ms. Young said she never reconciled her bills with Dr. Wecht's credit card statements to find errors and amend invoices retroactively.
"It was something that didn't occur to me," she said. "I was never trying to trick anybody."
"Did Dr. Wecht ever tell you, 'Hey, between you and I, let's pad these airfares?'" Mr. Rush asked.
"Oh God, no," Ms. Young replied.
In one case, Mr. Rush noted that she was off by a penny in billing a private client for a rental car.
"That one penny wasn't intentional fraud, was it?" Mr. Rush asked to the laughter of several jurors.
When Mr. Rush finally got his chance to have a crack at Ms. Young, he wasted little time in doing damage control.
He asked Ms. Young about a calendar entry for January 2004 that showed the U.S. attorney's office called Dr. Wecht during the workday to participate in a radio talk show hosted by U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan -- the very person who later signed the indictment against him.
A year earlier, an FBI agent spoke with Dr. Wecht at the office about being a keynote speaker at a fund-raiser, according to the calendar.
Mr. Rush's point was to show that while the government has charged Dr. Wecht with making money by taking calls from private clients at his county office, federal officials didn't hesitate to contact him there either for matters unrelated directly to coroner's cases.
Nor, apparently, did any number of state troopers, coroners from other counties or district attorneys, according to a lengthy review of the forensic pathologist's calendar.
Mr. Rush asked Ms. Young whether any of those officials ever balked at coming to the coroner's office to talk about any homicide case for which Dr. Wecht was consulting privately because they feared they might be laying the foundation for a federal case.
"Never," Ms. Young said.
The trial continues today.
First Published February 26, 2008 12:00 am