Monday, October 12, 2009

The Cyril Wecht Case: When Faxing Becomes a Felony

Victims of the Bush Justice Department surely found nothing amusing about being targeted by rogue federal prosecutors. But as more information gradually emerges about the Bush DOJ cesspool, you sense an element of dark comedy.

Perhaps nothing symbolizes that quite like the absurd case of Cyril Wecht, the former Pennsylvania coroner who became famous for his discussions of forensic pathology on cable news programs. Attorney/Journalist Andrew Kreig examines the Wecht case in a new piece at Huffington Post titled "Why Did Feds Persecute Celebrity Expert Cyril Wecht? Who's Next?"

Kreig's conclusion? A growing number of Americans, from both the left and the right, are concerned about a justice system gone wrong:

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.

Why should Americans care about what happened to Cyril Wecht? A Democrat, Wecht had chaired his party's county committee in the Pittsburgh area and even run for the U.S. Senate. Wecht had made a number of enemies in political circles with his blunt comments on local issues. Not long after taking office, Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan got Wecht in her sights.

Kreig notes that Wecht sometimes sent faxes from his office on personal matters. One of those, in February 2002, was an invoice to a New Jersey group for a speech. Here's how Kreig describes the charges against Wecht:

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.

How desperate were the feds to get Cyril Wecht? Kreig tells us:

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.

You read that correctly. Cyril Wecht spent $8 million to defend charges that largely involved $3.96 worth of faxes. God only knows how much money the government spent to bring the case.

Democrats are not alone in their concern about prosecutorial abuses. Kreig writes about a recent conference hosted by the free-market Cato Institute. One of the speakers was Boston attorney Harvey Silverglate, author of Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. Writes Kreig:

(Silverglate's) 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.

The system is rife with double standards, and Kreig cites Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, of Chicago, as an example:

Fitzgerald used his office fax machine this year to send HarperCollins a threat that he'd sue on a personal basis if the company failed to destroy copies of the book Triple Cross that contained criticism that he considered defamatory.

A personal fax? When questioned, DoJ says it approves incidental personal use of fax machines by government employees.

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