WASHINGTON - A former US attorney general yesterday accused the US 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 remarks by Richard Thornburgh, a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and 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 Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.
Thornburgh, now an attorney in private practice, represents forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, who was indicted by a federal grand jury last year for allegedly misusing his elected position as the coroner for Allegheny County, Pa. Prosecutors allege 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 more than $1 million a year.
Thornburgh said the indictment blows out of proportion what he said were at best 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 US 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 US 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 yesterday about potential irregularities in the prosecution of a former Democratic governor of Alabama, Donald 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 allegation by an Alabama Republican activist that then-White House political strategist Karl Rove put pressure on the Justice Department to pursue Siegelman.
Thornburgh said the Wecht case was not the only "apparent political prosecution" pursued by Buchanan. He cited a grand jury investigation into a former Democratic mayor of Pittsburgh, Tom Murphy, which resulted in no charges being brought.
Meanwhile, Thornburgh said, Buchanan ignored charges implicating Republicans, including allegations that a GOP member of Congress was using paid staff members in his campaign.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said the suggestion of politically motivated prosecutions was belied by the department's pursuit of such figures as fallen GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican from California.