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.