Timeline: The investigation and trial of Cyril H. Wecht
Share with others:
Former Allegheny County coroner Cyril H. Wecht is on trial in federal court, accused of fraud and related charges. Below is a timeline of how that case has developed over the last two years.
It is revealed that Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. is investigating Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht for possible criminal violations.
The investigation began over concerns about a $5,000 payment made to Dr. Wecht for writing a report used in a civil lawsuit about a man killed in a 2002 struggle with Mount Oliver police.
Dr. Wecht had recommended to Mr. Zappala that homicide charges be filed in the death of Charles Dixon.
Mr. Zappala said Dr. Wecht was using his public office to gain privately, saying it was possibly a violation of the state Ethics Act and possibly a violation of the federal Hobbs Act.
Dr. Wecht denied any wrongdoing.
• Story: "Zappala probing payment to Wecht," Feb. 12, 2005
Dr. Wecht's private attorney, David Armstrong, confirms that federal authorities had begun an investigation into his business practices.
• Story: "U.S. inquires into Wecht's activities," March 25, 2005
A dozen FBI agents search the Allegheny County Coroner's office, as part of an investigation into whether Dr. Wecht has inappropriately mixed his public and private business.
At the same time, another group of agents performs a search of Dr. Wecht's private offices on Penn Avenue in the Strip District, seizing dozens of boxes, including autopsy files.
• Story: "Wecht's offices raided by FBI," April 9, 2005
After county voters approve row-office reform, Dr. Wecht becomes Allegheny County's first appointed medical examiner, with the caveat that if he is indicted, he will resign.
• Story: "Deal lets Wecht keep his job," Dec. 30, 2005
A federal grand jury hands up an 84-count indictment against Dr. Wecht, charging him with mail and wire fraud, as well as trading unclaimed bodies in exchange for use of lab space at Carlow University.
Dr. Wecht is also accused of using county resources, like office equipment, vehicles and employees to run errands for himself and his private business, as well as creating false travel agency bills to inflate the cost of airfare for his private clients.
That same day, Dr. Wecht's resignation as medical examiner takes effect.
• Story: "Wecht indicted by grand jury," Jan. 21, 2006
Former Governor and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who is a part of the Wecht defense team, goes on CNN's Larry King Live and denies that his client committed any criminal wrongdoing, and, at worse, he is responsible for "accounting irregularities."
"I'm not prepared to say that every nickel and dime was accounted for 100 percent accurately," he says. "This is a matter of proper accounting and can be solved by having an independent audit made of the finances of the office and of Dr. Wecht. And he's more than eager to pay back anything that that audit indicates might have been improper."
• Story: "Wecht lawyer says charges are, at worst, accounting errors," Feb. 8, 2006
U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab rules that the government must turn over to the defense two disciplinary reports on the FBI's lead agent in the case, Bradley Orsini. The reports were initially filed under seal.
Dr. Wecht's attorneys file a motion asking Judge Schwab to remove himself from the case, claiming that he is biased against their client.
• Story: "Wecht's lawyers want federal judge to get off his case," June 17, 2006
Judge Schwab issues an opinion denying the defense request for him to step down.
• Story: "Judge in Wecht case won't withdraw," July 21, 2006
Dr. Wecht's attorneys file a petition with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asking that Judge Schwab be removed from the case. They alleged bias, and that the judge has failed to follow the law in the case.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hears oral arguments on a number of issues before it, including the request to remove Judge Schwab from Dr. Wecht's case, and the unsealing of Mr. Orsini's disciplinary reports.
• Story: "Lawyers for Wecht, U.S. clash" Sept. 13, 2006
The appeals court stays Dr. Wecht's trial -- scheduled to begin Oct. 16 -- pending its decision on the request to remove Judge Schwab.
• Story: "U.S. appeals court freezes Wecht's trial," Sept. 19, 2006
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules in a split 2-1 decision, that Judge Schwab should remain on the case.
Further, it orders that the court unseal -- and make public for the first time -- Mr. Orsini's disciplinary reports.
The appeals court also lifts a local rule prohibiting attorneys on both sides from speaking to the media about the case.
Dr. Wecht's attorneys allege selective prosecution, claiming that their client was charged as part of a larger effort by the Republican administration in Washington, D.C., to go after Democrats nationwide.
U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan denies those allegations.
• Story: "Motive of Wecht deal talks questioned," June 7, 2007
The disciplinary reports of lead FBI agent Bradley Orsini are unsealed, revealing that he had been punished while working in New Jersey for forging other agents' names and initials on chain-of-custody forms, evidence labels and interview forms.
In September 2001 Mr. Orsini was demoted and received a 30-day suspension without pay for a series of violations that occurred from 1993 through 2000.
• Story: "Wecht investigator's discipline file opened," July 12, 2007
The chair of the U.S House Judiciary Committee, as part of its investigation into whether federal cases were being brought based on political affiliation, requests documents from the U.S. Department of Justice related to the prosecutions of three high-profile Democrats, including Dr. Wecht.
• Story: "Wecht charges prompt inquiry," July 19, 2007
Former Gov. and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh goes to Washington, D.C., to testify before two House Judiciary subcommittees about the prosecution of Dr. Wecht, which he claims is politically motivated.
Mr. Thornburgh, a Republican, is a member of the defense team.
• Story: "Wecht arguments go to Washington," Oct. 24, 2007
Judge Schwab issues an order forbidding Dr. Wecht's defense lawyers from claiming -- or even mentioning -- during the upcoming trial that the charges against their client are politically motivated.
In addition, the judge rules that the jury hearing the case will remain anonymous. He later says that he based that decision on what he called "unprecedented" media coverage.
• Story: "Wecht defense banned from talk of politics," Nov. 27, 2007
• Story: "Judge keeps shield on jurors' names in Wecht case," Dec. 22, 2007
Three local news organizations, including the Post-Gazette, file a challenge of the order requiring an anonymous jury with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming that such a move is not necessary and violates the First Amendment.
• Story: "Media challenge juror secrecy in Wecht case,"
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen S. Stallings files a motion seeking to reduce the number of charges against Dr. Wecht from 84 to 41. In his motion, he claims that the move would "streamline the proof and timing of the trial."
He also says investigators had made "recent discoveries that certain individual packages set forth in the mail fraud counts ... may have been hand-delivered" rather than mailed.
The same day, Dr. Wecht's attorneys file a second motion with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals requesting that Judge Schwab be removed from the case. This time, they base their petition on "deep-seated favoritism in favor of the government and antagonism toward the defendant."
• Story: "Feds plan to drop 43 counts in Wecht fraud case," Dec. 29, 2007
The appeals court rules that Judge Schwab will remain on Dr. Wecht's case, without issuing any formal, written opinion on the matter.
• Story: "Appeals court backs judge in Wecht case," Jan. 4, 2008
Judge Schwab grants the government's motion to dismiss 43 of the 84 counts against Dr. Wecht, but also rules that the counts will be dismissed "with prejudice," which means that they cannot be refiled at a later date.
• Story: "43 of 84 Wecht charges dropped," Jan. 5, 2008
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules that the jurors to be seated in the Wecht case will not remain anonymous. Instead, a three-judge panel rules that the names of the jurors must be released before the group is sworn in.
The ruling is in response to the media's challenge of an anonymous jury.
• Story: "Jurors in Wecht case won't be anonymous," Jan. 10, 2008
Jury selection in the Wecht case begins when a group of 65 potential jurors are brought in to the federal courthouse to fill out a 24-page questionnaire.
Attorneys on both sides will then review the questionnaires, weed out those people who should obviously be excused from the pool, and then go on to question the others.
The lawyers do not get to know the jurors' names until the group is down to the smaller pool from which 12 jurors and six alternates will be chosen.
• Story: "Jury selection begins in Wecht trial," Jan. 11, 2008
First Published January 27, 2008 12:00 am