Ex-Atty. Gen. says prosecutor played politics

Times Staff Writer

A former U.S. attorney general on Tuesday accused the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh of launching public corruption probes that targeted Democratic officeholders while looking the other way when presented with evidence of misconduct by Republican officials.

The incendiary remarks by Richard L. Thornburgh, a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania as well as the top Justice Department official from 1988 to 1991, represented some of the most extraordinary testimony yet in the continuing congressional investigation into allegations of politicization of the Justice Department under ousted Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales.

Thornburgh, now an attorney in private practice, represents nationally known forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, who was indicted by a federal grand jury last year for allegedly misusing his elected position as the Allegheny County coroner. Prosecutors allege that Wecht directed employees at the coroner’s office to spend substantial portions of their time performing tasks related to his private consulting business that reportedly grosses over $1 million a year.

Thornburgh said the indictment blew out of proportion what were, at most, a series of minor transgressions. He said prosecutors targeted Wecht because he was an outspoken and highly visible Democratic figure in western Pennsylvania. The case is set for trial in January.

“We should not allow any citizen of the United States to proceed to trial knowing that his prosecution may have been undertaken for political reasons as opposed to being done to serve the interests of justice,” Thornburgh said. “Sadly, that appears to have been so in the case against Dr. Wecht.”


The U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, Mary Beth Buchanan, denied that politics had influenced prosecutions. “The prosecution of Dr. Wecht is based solely on the facts and the law. The government intends to try this case in a court of law, where it belongs and is still pending,” she said in a statement.

The possibility that political motives fueled corruption cases during the Bush administration stems from allegations turned up in hearings this summer over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year. Some of the prosecutors said they believed they were dismissed because they refused to bring cases that would benefit Republican officeholders.

The judiciary panel also heard about potential irregularities in the prosecution of a former Democratic governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman, who was sentenced to more than seven years in prison after being convicted on federal corruption charges last year. The case has drawn interest because of an Alabama Republican activist’s allegation that then-White House political strategist Karl Rove put pressure on the Justice Department to pursue Siegelman.

A third witness testified about a study showing that Democrats have been five times more likely than Republicans to be charged with corruption during the Bush administration.

Thornburgh said the Wecht case was not the only “apparent political prosecution” pursued by Buchanan. He cited a grand jury investigation into the former Democratic mayor of Pittsburgh, Tom Murphy, which resulted in no charges being brought.

At the same time, Thornburgh said, Buchanan ignored charges implicating Republicans, including allegations that a GOP member of Congress was using paid staff members in his election campaign.

“The fact that no investigation was undertaken stands out when Democrats in the western district of Pennsylvania have been investigated in such a highly visible manner,” Thornburgh said.

Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said the suggestion of politically motivated prosecutions was belied by the department’s pursuit of such figures as GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

Carr said that the study alleging partisan bias was flawed, and that its main author also had a conflict of interest because his sister is a former Democratic official under indictment for mortgage fraud.

“Your testimony . . . is the most pathetic example of innuendo and hearsay that I have seen,” Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) said in an exchange with Thornburgh.

Thornburgh acknowledged under questioning that he had no direct evidence linking anything that Buchanan had done with the White House.