BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White
There is no doubt in my mind that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is a busy guy. His plate overflows with thorny questions over detainees, the Defense of Marriage Act, trafficking, discrimination, corruption and dozens of other issues spanning the capital, country and globe.
That said, there is some wisdom to cleaning one’s own house before taking on the neighborhood. In that vein, Holder has no excuse for failing to have requested the resignation of U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania Mary Beth Buchanan. Nor, for that matter, having taken this long to respond to an ethics complaint filed by forensic pathologist and Buchanan victim Cyril Wecht.
Wecht is the former coroner and medical examiner of Allegheny County, PA, and a doctor and lawyer who has lent his expert opinion to autopsies ranging from John F. Kennedy to JonBenet Ramsey. An outspoken Democrat in Pennsylvania, he quickly earned the ire of the FBI and local law enforcement by investigating deaths occurring in police custody.
Buchanan’s case against Wecht was politically-motivated from the very beginning. The raid that initiated the case was eventually declared unconstitutional. The mistrial’s aftermath also reeked of federal folly, with the FBI accused of contacting jurors after the trial to find out how deliberations went, in preparation for a retrial.
Furthermore, around half of the original 84 charges were dropped before the trial even opened. Some of the more fantastic claims — such as Wecht trading cadavers in exchange for lab space rental — were never substantiated, with supposed witnesses never having been even interviewed by the prosecution. As we reported earlier this year:
Buchanan’s first attempt to prosecute Wecht ended last year with a hung jury, after which the judge on the case was ordered replaced. In May 2009, the new retrial judge threw out the bulk of Buchanan’s evidence – evidence that had been swept up in “a spectacular raid” four years earlier, as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported. To appeal the judge’s ruling against her evidence, Buchanan would have needed approval from Obama Administration Solicitor General Elena Kagan.
Clearly upset at the verdict, Buchanan held a press conference in which she insisted Wecht was indeed guilty, and that if she had another chance she’d pursue him all over again.
Countless people, from the jurors on Wecht’s case to conservative lawyers and other prominent Pennsylvanians to members of Congress have said the charges were unfounded and blatantly partisan. The former attorney general under President Reagan, Dick Thornburgh (who represented Wecht) told Congress that Wecht “would qualify as an ideal target for a Republican U.S. attorney trying to curry favor with a department which demonstrated that if you play by its rules, you will advance.”
Now Thornburgh is advocating for an investigation of Buchanan’s actions, having signed on to Wecht’s formal complaint to Holder. In fact, Wecht said that some four weeks ago, Thornburgh ran into the current attorney General at a conference and Holder told him the department is following through on it.
Wecht told me in a phone interview Wednesday that he has no idea what the hold-up is, since most everything he’s accused Buchanan of doing is a matter of public record.
“I’m pissed — I don’t mind telling you,” Wecht said. “I’m wondering what’s taking so long.”
Another question Wecht could not answer was why Buchanan still has a job as a U.S. attorney. With a typical rhetorical flourish, he said that even if someone put a gun to his head and asked for a reason for her continued employment with the Justice Department, “I can’t do it; I’d be a dead man.”
In fact, considering “the combination of her total, total unfettered political partisanship coupled with her incompetence,” Wecht can’t figure out how she got hired in the first place. “She’s nobody,” Wecht said, in reference to her career before becoming U.S. Attorney. “Nobody can really tell you how she got the job.”
She does have friends in high places. Wecht said she’s personally close to both former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as well as his predecessor, John Ashcroft. Furthermore, her husband, Thomas Buchanan, is a shareholder at the powerful lobbying firm his grandfather started, now known as Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney. Also, one of her main supporters is former Sen. Rick Santorum; Scott Horton referred to her as “Santorum’s handpicked U.S. Attorney” in a piece in Harper’s Magazine last year.
So that might explain how she got the job in the first place. But the fact that her party has fallen out of favor on both the local and national level, combined with the many controversial prosecutions in her recent past makes her job security shaky at best. She’s not even well-liked by local conservatives, according to Wecht.
“There is nobody here that has defended her,” Wecht said, noting that even conservative radio talk show hosts have called for her dismissal. But he notes that “the Republicans can’t remove her.”
That’s not saying they don’t want to; Wecht speculated that the local GOP sees her as an embarrassment. In fact, BuzzFlash noted the conservative Pittsburgh Tribune-Review also sided with Wecht, who is famous for his ardently Democratic views:
A third odd element is the recent treatment of the Wecht/Buchanan case by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, owned by conservative publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, well-known backer of the American Spectator and the Arkansas Project, which were responsible for years of attacks against Bill Clinton — including allegations that the Clintons were somehow culpable in Vince Foster’s death, a case Wecht had weighed in on as a forensic pathologist, as it happens. Surprisingly, the Tribune-Review reporters have been very kind to Wecht. Here’s an Op-Ed comment from Sunday: “Any sour-grapes comments by the prosecution to the contrary, Wecht remains clothed in absolute innocence. There is no other conclusion, no matter how it is spun. It is the American system — the best system.”
But getting rid of Buchanan won’t be easy, no matter how many people oppose her continued employment. She’s refused to even offer her resignation, a common practice for U.S. attorneys across the nation at the end of a presidential term (92 of her colleagues did so once Obama was elected). And with the widespread politicization of the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys in the Bush Administration, there’s good reason for Holder to be wary of the signals he sends in his human resources decisions. The irony in Holder taking such care to avoid any taint of the rampant politicization of the previous administration’s Justice Department is not lost on Wecht.
More broadly though, now is a time in the Obama Administration that is rife with partisan bickering, and the president surely has no desire to give more party-line ammunition to the GOP. So how could he even begin the process of dismissing U.S. attorneys without ruffling some already upset feathers? Wecht has what he calls, if you don’t mind, a “brilliant idea.” Replace the nine U.S. attorneys who took over for those fired in the 2006 attorney scandal with a slate of Republicans.
“You’d still have 84 more to give to Democrats,” Wecht said.
While the Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys reportedly petitioned the Justice Department’s transition team to avoid an en masse replacement of U.S. attorneys, in the first eight months of this administration only around a half dozen have been replaced.
Wecht wonders why Buchanan wasn’t first on the list. After all, his case is just a tiny piece of the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania’s history of misconduct, making her continued employment even more bewildering.
Her blatant witch hunt against entertainer Tommy Chong gained her plenty of negative press, but she’s initiated several other controversial cases and has almost entirely avoided prosecuting anyone who is a conservative, even when high-profile Republicans within her jurisdiction were being investigated on the national level.
Buchanan also laid the groundwork, as the director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, for the politically-motivated hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys nationwide. She was allegedly consulted as to which attorneys should be fired on political grounds, and hired Monica Goodling, who admitted to improperly using ideological elements in the hiring process at the Justice Department.
Putting partisanship aside, Buchanan is also a dangerous foe to civil liberties, angling at getting access to historical phone records and technology that uses suspects’ cell phones to target their whereabouts, despite precedent that suggests this is unconstitutional.
It’s clear that Buchanan’s position is about more than just western Pennsylvania. As Wecht pointed out, the Supreme Court may be the face of the judicial system in this country, but “federal criminal justice begins at the local level with U.S. attorneys.”
Of course, Buchanan is going to try to raise partisan hell if Holder attempts to remove her. But if we can all keep in mind that this is supposed to be about justice and not politics, her kicking and screaming will be nothing but a fitting cherry to top off her childishly ignominious career.
BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
The image featured here is borrowed from the blog Hysterical Raisins (a clever parody on the Neve Campbell movie I Really Hate My Job) and apparently copyrighted by “Nonnie.”