Like many government employees, Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht of Pittsburgh sometimes sent faxes from his office on personal matters. On Feb. 12, 2002, for example, he sent a New Jersey group a bill for a speech.
Four years later, the Justice Department used that fax for one of 84 felony charges against Wecht, thereby forcing his resignation after 20 years. The charges included 27 felonies for sending personal faxes, along with allegations over mileage vouchers, office stationary, permission for students to study autopsies, and requests for staff help.
Nationally, more than 95% of those who are federally accused in the U.S. now plead guilty. But Wecht, widely known as a TV analyst on celebrity deaths, had the means to fight hard to clear his name and stay out of prison.
Dr. Cyril Wecht in Lab
Court rulings and prosecution errors ended Wecht's ordeal last June. By then, the 78-year-old had spent $8 million on legal fees over three years, putting him $6 million in debt currently. Authorities dropped the majority of charges against him just before trial in 2008. Thus, most of the charges were about 23 faxes, whose total out-of-pocket cost to the county was calculated by the defense as $3.96.
Cases like this are creating bipartisan alarm nationally among legal experts who believe that DoJ increasingly abuses its vast powers. I've seen the change after covering DoJ fulltime as a newspaper reporter from 1976-1980 in DoJ's better days, and now as a researcher of such cases nationally. Wecht and former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman were among panelists at a recent forum on the topic, with video here.
The conservative Washington Times columnist Tony Blankley introduced two authors of recent books about such problems. A former prosecutor, Blankley said that political leaders from both parties have for years enabled federal prosecutors to use vague laws to target individuals in an arbitrary fashion.
His theme: The average U.S. professional unwittingly commits three felonies daily " thus enabling Feds to pick and choose whom to prosecute, with scant review by courts, defense attorneys and the news media. His book provides compelling case studies illustrated by defendants fighting to prevent their ruin from "creative" prosecutors using vague or seldom-enforced laws in health care, high-tech, legal affairs, financial services, labor, media and national security.
Another dimension comes from a recent Obama administration legal opinion that reaffirms government authority to review a federal employee's electronic messages.This suggests that the Feds will find it even easier than in a "fax" case to gather evidence against those who use workplace computers, cellphones and email for personal messages. Any probes would obviously capture evidence also about those who receive messages from government workers.
And this is not just at the federal level. We know from the Wecht case that the Feds assert jurisdiction to monitor employee messages within a county that receives $10,000 or more in federal funds. There's scant reason to think the Feds wouldn't scrutinize targets also at the city or town level.
Celebrity Death Expert
A Democrat, Wecht formerly chaired his party's county committee and ran for the U.S. Senate. For more than 35 years, Wecht has also been providing TV commentary about the deaths of celebrities spanning the demise of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Often controversial, he's contradicted official reports that President Kennedy was assassinated by a lone gunman, and he suggests that JonBenet Ramsey's father was a sex deviant involved in her death.
His blunt comments on local issues clearly irritated some officials who chafed also at his overlapping roles as a coroner, consultant, political organizer and medical school professor.
As coroner, he earned $64,000-a-year, and resigned promptly after indictment. His successor's pay was $175,000. That difference pays for lots of faxes and stationary.
As context, the Justice Department's longtime official policy is to use its authority in careful proportion to the public interest. In a famous 1940 speech, Attorney Gen. Robert Jackson warned the nation's U.S. attorneys against "the most dangerous power of a prosecutor: that he will pick people that he thinks he should get, rather than pick cases that need to be prosecuted."