No trouble for Buchanan to stay in line
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When Mary Beth Buchanan became U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, the Bush administration had already laid out its priorities for federal prosecutions:
Drugs, obscenity and public corruption.
In the more than five years she's been in office, Ms. Buchanan has followed that charge with diligence.
She has brought indictments against companies that sell bongs over the Internet. She has filed charges against a California company that makes explicit pornography. And she has gone after public officials accused of breaking the law.
While the firing of eight U.S. attorneys across the country has focused attention on those who didn't get with the administration's program, Ms. Buchanan has proved herself to be a perfect fit.
She's loyal, hard-working and smart.
"She is very focused to the department first of all," said one current assistant U.S. attorney, who asked not to be named. "She's not independent, and I don't think she wants to be."
But Ms. Buchanan's also a self-promoter, who, despite working very hard, alienates some people by using high-profile cases to further her own ambitions.
In the five years she's held office, Ms. Buchanan has earned three prestigious positions within the Department of Justice.
She served a one-year term as chair of the Attorney General's Advisory Committee under President Bush's first attorney general, John Ashcroft.
She worked as director of the executive office of U.S. attorneys, a largely administrative role, and she was recently named the acting director of the Office on Violence Against Women.
When first taking office, she quickly attached herself to Mr. Ashcroft and his policies -- even helping to promote the controversial USA Patriot Act in newspapers and community forums.
She earned national headlines for her prosecution of Tommy Chong, of Cheech and Chong fame, as part of Operation Pipe Dreams, in which federal prosecutors targeted head shops.
Mr. Chong was charged in 2003 with distributing thousands of bongs and marijuana pipes online through his company, Nice Dreams Enterprises.
Stanton D. Levenson, a Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney, represented Mr. Chong, an actor and comedian.
"I really thought the entire prosecution was a waste of time and money" he said. "How is that going to solve the drug problem?"
Those drug paraphernalia cases -- like the sale of obscenity online -- could have been tried anywhere in the country because the Internet was used. But they landed in Ms. Buchanan's office.
That same year, the federal grand jury in Pittsburgh indicted a California couple who run Extreme Associates, a company that makes graphic pornography featuring women being tortured, defecated on and murdered.
That case -- which was thrown out by a district judge but later reinstated by the appeals court -- is being watched by First Amendment scholars across the country. It is expected to go to trial later this year.
Paul Brysh, a career federal prosecutor who retired from Ms. Buchanan's staff in 2004, said there was some criticism of Ms. Buchanan's decision to try both the Chong and obscenity cases, noting that they may not be the best use of scarce federal prosecutorial resources.
"The Department of Justice sets priorities and goals," Mr. Brysh said. "Certainly, in the case of Mary Beth, the department wanted to emphasize obscenity prosecutions, and she followed the policy."
Thomas J. Farrell, a former assistant federal prosecutor, said the fact that those cases ended up in the Western District of Pennsylvania shows the amount of influence Ms. Buchanan has with the Department of Justice.
However, he also criticized those prosecutions as having little bearing on the safety of people living in the community.
Further, he said, the marijuana and obscenity cases brought by Ms. Buchanan "have caused this district to be ridiculed among criminal practitioners nationwide."
Aside from those high-profile cases, Ms. Buchanan has put a special emphasis on public corruption during her tenure.
In the last two years, her office has successfully prosecuted four ranking members of the Allegheny County sheriff's office, including the former sheriff.
Charges are pending against former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht, who is accused of misusing his public office for private gain.
And last summer, after a lengthy investigation into the handling of a firefighters' union contract by former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, Ms. Buchanan announced that he would not face charges.
All of the public officials she has targeted have been Democrats, in part, of course, because most officeholders in Allegheny County are Democrats.
But allegations of wrongdoing have also come up against some Republicans here over the years. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum was heavily criticized for saying that his family lived in Penn Hills -- requiring the school district there to pay the cost for his children to attend a cyber school -- while they were really in Virginia.
An employee of U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, was fired after alleging that congressional staff and resources were being used for campaign work.
And local charges were filed against then-state Rep. Jeff Habay, R-Shaler, for ordering his staff to do campaign work on public time.
None of those cases resulted in criminal charges in federal court, and Ms. Buchanan would not comment on whether there were any investigations.
A recently released study by two retired communication professors found that under the Bush administration, the Department of Justice has investigated elected Democratic officeholders and office seekers locally seven times more than their Republican counterparts.
The authors looked at 375 federal criminal cases across the country that targeted public officials from 2001 to 2006.
They found that of those, 298 defendants were Democrats; 67 were Republicans and 10 were independents.
That number comes despite a statistic that shows that Democratic officeholders outnumber Republicans nationally by only 50 percent to 41 percent, said one of the authors, Donald C. Shields, a professor emeritus of communication at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.
"Pittsburgh's a big town, but you have a hundred little towns," Mr. Shields said. "It shouldn't be hard [to find a Republican] if they're investigating fairly. They didn't just swear to uphold the law where Democrats hold office."
In recent weeks, the Department of Justice has come under intense scrutiny over whether the firings of eight U.S. attorneys in December were politically motivated. Members of Congress are questioning, among other things, whether the Republican appointees were dismissed for failing to pursue public corruption cases aggressively against Democrats before last year's elections.
Locally, Ms. Buchanan denied that politics ever plays a role in her charging decisions.
"I investigate cases brought to my attention without regard to the political affiliation of the subject," she said. "Public corruption is nonpartisan, and we investigate it wherever we find it."
Most local criminal defense attorneys agreed with her statement, even Martin Dietz, who represented former Sheriff Peter DeFazio. Mr. DeFazio retired in the wake of the investigation of his office.
"Most of the investigations that have been rumored to be politically motivated have resulted in guilty pleas," he said.
Former U.S. Attorney Fred Thieman, who served during President Clinton's first term, praised the investigation into the sheriff's office, but he stopped short of that when talking about the lengthy inquiry into Mayor Murphy's actions.
"I think that case went on way too long and under way too tenuous a theory," he said. "If political promises are corruption, then put a fence around the country."
It's not the role of the U.S. attorney to set labor policy, Mr. Thieman said, referring to the requirement in the nonprosecution agreement with Mr. Murphy that he cooperate with federal, state and local officials in identifying flaws in Pennsylvania's collective bargaining law.
But another former U.S. attorney and federal judge said he saw no problem in the deal struck in the Murphy case.
"You can negotiate time, fines, forfeiture -- why not terms?" asked Robert J. Cindrich, U.S. attorney from 1978 to 1981 under President Jimmy Carter.
Overall, the number of prosecutions brought by Ms. Buchanan's office over the past several years has gone up. In fiscal year 2001, charges were filed in 280 cases. Last year, that number was 507.
But Mr. Thieman argues that the quantity of cases is not always an accurate measure of a prosecutor's success.
What is, he said, is looking at the number of "impact cases," which involve large conspiracies and complicated theories. He pointed out that the county district attorney's office handles 17,000 cases with about 100 prosecutors.
"With more than 40 attorneys in the local U.S. attorney's office, whether it's 300 or 600 cases, you're a drop in the bucket unless you're focused on the complex cases that exceed the resources of local prosecutors."
Almost every conversation about Ms. Buchanan touches on her hard-driving ambition.
She says that characteristic has been with her forever -- long before becoming U.S. attorney. In high school, she said, she was a cheerleader, but at halftime would slip into her uniform to join the marching band.
While Ms. Buchanan, who is the top federal law enforcement official in the area, is known for finding the spotlight, she often seems stiff when she's in it.
Because of her requirement that assistant prosecutors not speak to the media -- and that she's asked them to write speeches for her -- there is some resentment in the office.
Once, after the sentencing of Terrance Cole for running a large cocaine ring, Ms. Buchanan had her spokesperson call local newspaper reporters to scold them for quoting the line prosecutor who tried the case instead of her.
When a message was passed on that if Ms. Buchanan wanted to be quoted, she'd have to show up in court herself, she did just that.
She appeared in court to represent the government at a routine status conference in the Wecht case just a few days later.
But First Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert S. Cessar, who has worked under five U.S. attorneys, defended the rule that only Ms. Buchanan speaks to the media. "We've all got to speak with one voice," he said, noting that only Mr. Thieman allowed assistants to be quoted.
In her new role in the Office on Violence Against Women, Ms. Buchanan has been traveling a great deal -- spending at least as many days out of the Pittsburgh office as she does in it.
Just last week, she spent two days in Asheville, N.C., before flying back to Pittsburgh on Tuesday evening, only to leave again Wednesday morning for San Diego for the rest of the week.
Despite her travels, Ms. Buchanan says that her No. 1 focus continues to be serving the people of Western Pennsylvania.
"My travel has not been an impediment to the effectiveness of the office," she said.
No matter the political power or recognition that comes from national appointments, Mr. Thieman said, the U.S. attorney's first duty and obligation should be to the office.
He was offered a position on the Attorney General's Advisory Committee under President Clinton but declined it, saying that he'd rather focus his efforts on the local office.
"The U.S. attorney can significantly impact a community for the better. That takes a full-time person doing a full-time job," he said.
In defining Ms. Buchanan's legacy, Mr. Farrell quoted Leo Dillon, the chief of the federal prosecutor's criminal division. He says that the true legacy of a U.S. attorney is in the assistants that are hired, because they stick around long after administrations change.
He noted that Ms. Buchanan has been able to increase staffing because of a higher number of prosecutions, and she's hired talented attorneys.
"Therefore, whether you like her or not, she probably will end up being one of the most influential U.S. attorneys we've had," Mr. Farrell said.Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Mary Beth Buchanan at Pittsburgh International Airport this week. She was bound for San Diego, Calif.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published March 18, 2007 12:00 am