Richard L. Thornburgh, who served as attorney general under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, accused the Justice Department yesterday of prosecuting a prominent Pennsylvania Democrat for political reasons, one of a series of cases singled out by House Democrats as examples of alleged GOP meddling at the Justice Department.
Thornburgh, who served as attorney general from 1988 to 1991 and whose law firm represents Cyril Wecht, a nationally known coroner from Pittsburgh, testified yesterday that Wecht had been indicted for mail fraud and a "hodgepodge" of other charges by overzealous prosecutors keen on pleasing political appointees in Washington.
"He has always been a contentious, outspoken, highly critical and highly visible Democratic figure in western Pennsylvania," Thornburgh told the House Judiciary Committee. "In other words, he 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."
Thornburgh also said that Wecht "was not the only apparent political prosecution in western Pennsylvania," pointing to three high-profile cases of other local Democrats brought by U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan of Pittsburgh.
The testimony came as part of a special hearing focused on alleged political prosecutions of Democrats by the Justice Department, which has come under intense criticism from Congress this year for the controversial firings of nine U.S. attorneys and for its role in setting aggressive detention and interrogation policies.
The hearing also was held as the Senate is considering whether to approve the nomination of former federal judge Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general to succeed Alberto R. Gonzales, who resigned in August in the wake of the uproar over the prosecutor firings and other controversies.
In another case highlighted yesterday, Democrats alleged that Alabama Republicans pushed for the prosecution of former governor Don Siegelman, who is serving an 88-month sentence after being convicted on corruption charges.
Justice Department officials strongly object to claims that local Democratic politicians have been unfairly singled out for prosecution, pointing to criminal cases against former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (Calif.) and other prominent Republicans.
"It has been -- and remains -- the practice of the department to investigate and prosecute individuals who violate federal law without regard to their political affiliation," said Justice spokesman Peter Carr.
The administration and GOP lawmakers also sharply criticized a study highlighted yesterday by Democrats, that, based on newspaper and Internet reports, suggests a 5 to 1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans targeted for investigation by the Bush administration.
In the Pittsburgh case, Wecht was indicted on 84 charges related to allegations that he misused his public office as coroner for private gain. The charges include an alleged agreement to provide a local university with unclaimed cadavers from the county morgue in exchange for his private use of lab space.
Thornburgh, who was a two-term Pennsylvania governor before he became attorney general, was particularly critical of Buchanan, who has served in a series of senior Justice Department positions and was close to Gonzales's inner circle.
"The citizens of the United States must have confidence that the department is conducting itself in a fair and impartial" manner, "without actual political influence or the appearance of political influence," Thornburgh testified. "Unfortunately, that may no longer be the case."
Buchanan said in a statement issued through the Justice Department yesterday that the case against Wecht was "based solely on the facts and the law." She said it was "unfortunate" that Thornburgh aired his criticism in Congress rather than in the courts.
"Every investigation and prosecution is overseen by career prosecutors and experienced agents who analyze evidence from a law enforcement, not a partisan, perspective," Buchanan said.
In the Alabama case, Siegelman was convicted last year of accepting $500,000 from the chief executive of HealthSouth, Richard M. Scrushy, in exchange for appointing Scrushy to a state hospital board. Siegelman won election as governor in 1998 but was narrowly defeated in 2002 by Republican Bob Riley, who still holds the seat.
A GOP lawyer from Alabama, Jill Simpson, has told House Judiciary Committee investigators that a key Republican strategist in that state told her that former presidential adviser Karl Rove had pushed to bring corruption charges against Siegelman. Simpson also has alleged that Bob Riley's son, Rob, boasted about a Republican judge who would "hang Don Siegelman," according to an affidavit released by the Judiciary Committee.
Rob Riley and others named by Simpson have denied the allegations. Bush administration officials also have rejected Simpson's account, and the White House has said Rove had no involvement in the case. Louis V. Franklin Sr., the acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Alabama in the Siegelman case, says that Siegelman was under investigation prior to the alleged conversations recounted by Simpson.
G. Douglas Jones, a former Siegelman lawyer who served as U.S. attorney in Birmingham during the Clinton administration, testified yesterday that federal prosecutors assured him in 2004 that charges against Siegelman were unlikely -- but the case was revived later that year during a "top-to-bottom review" ordered by Justice Department officials in Washington.
"The charges that we were told had been 'written off' were obviously now back on the table, and for the first time it appeared that agents were not investigating any allegations of a crime but were now fishing around for anything they could find against an individual," Jones said.
Franklin and other career prosecutors in Alabama say they were not pressured by the White House or Justice Department political appointees in the case.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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