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Political Prosecution in Pittsburgh Collapses


One of the more astonishing political prosecutions in the country was brought by Rick Santorum’s handpicked U.S. Attorney, Mary Beth Buchanan. Ms. Buchanan is best known for her adversity to mail order bong businesses and other matters carefully calculated to play to a right-wing political audience. She also played a handmaiden’s role in the recent U.S. Attorney’s scandal, sending one of her deputies to Alaska as an acting U.S. Attorney there. No doubt about it, Mary Beth Buchanan is Karl Rove’s very model of a modern U.S. Attorney. She breathes fire and when she utters the word “Democrat,” the adjective “corrupt” is sure to precede it.

The case was tried before a George W. Bush-appointed federal judge, Arthur J. Schwab. The judge is also a Santorum intimate and quite close it seems to the U.S. Attorney who decided to stake her future career on the case. When his conflicts were disclosed, Judge Schwab tenaciously declined to recuse himself even though his impartiality very fairly came under question. Any sensible judge would have dismissed the case. But not Judge Schwab. He treated it as a serious civics lesson and, in a Sara Lee moment, buttered up the jurors by offering them baked goods.

The case, which just landed the Justice Department yet another black eye, was an effort to take down a high-flying Pittsburgh Democratic political figure, Dr. Cyril Wecht. His egregious crimes included using the office fax and copying machines for his own personal business; in the theory of the prosecution he was trying to set up a private business on the county’s dime. In contrast, Ms. Buchanan doesn’t seem to be trying to set up a separate business as much as setting the stage for her own political career. She may have just suffered a reversal in this aspiration, however. The trial ended with a hung jury, and today we learn that the clear majority on the jury wanted to acquit Dr. Wecht.

As it appears, the prosecution had one thing going for it: the power and force of the office of United States Attorney. When it came to evidence, the view of the jury was pretty clear: not so much. “The majority of the jury thought he was innocent, that I can tell you,” one of the jurors told the Pittsburgh Review-Tribune.

The case was previously highlighted in a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee at which charges of political abuse were leveled at Buchanan by former Republican Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, a counsel for Dr. Wecht. Buchanan and the Justice Department were unwilling to rebut the charges. The judge’s conduct didn’t go over well with the jurors. “I think the federal judge should read the federal Constitution and not cookie recipes,” one said in a well calculated swipe.

A Buchanan deputy announced at the conclusion of the trial that she would again seek to indict and try Wecht. That’s a promise to waste millions more in taxpayer dollars on a politically inspired vendetta involving paltry sums of office expenses. I’m sure that Buchanan, who is now headed on an express train for the private sector, means it. She said “We are committed to eliminating the culture of corruption that prevails when officials at the highest levels abuse the public trust.”

Would it be too much to read into that a promise by Ms. Buchanan to resign? That would certainly fulfill her commitment.

Update: Foreman Lodges More Charges
The jury foreman in the Wecht case sat down with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Not only does he feel that “this was being politically driven,” when the jury foreman heard the evidence that the prosecution assembled against Wecht and how they did it, he concluded the prosecution had been conducted maliciously with the intention of damaging Wecht’s business and reputation. These conclusions are well warranted on the basis of the prosecution’s own case. And a series of snap polls conducted in Western Pennsylvania show that by large margins the people want U.S. Attorney Buchanan, whose aspirations to local elective office are well known, to drop the matter. What we see in this case is a fairly rare instance of a majority of the citizen-jurors standing up in the face of a prosecutorial bulldozing. It’s proof that, sometimes at least, the jury system works. And Buchanan’s persistence is evidence that she is governed not by reason, but by partisan political rage.

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