by Chris Potter
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has been in office for a couple months now. But in this town, you're nobody until you've gotten an angry letter from Cyril Wecht, longtime Allegheny County coroner, and living legend. Fitzgerald's letter, as we reported earlier, came in the mail this week. So ... mazel tov, Mr. Fitzgerald!
"I've been having a lot of people come up and tell me about how they've gotten letters from Dr. Wecht," says Fitzgerald, somewhat ruefully.
Wecht, who was forced to resign as coroner in 2006 thanks to former US Attorney Mary Beth Bucahanan's misbegotten attempt to prosecute him, was seeking to reclaim his old position. But his letter claims Fitzgerald torpedoed that effort, on the basis of "artefactual, meaningless reasons." Those reasons, Wecht wrote, were a policy requiring any outside work to be cleared by the county manager, and requiring Wecht to "request permission in advance of any public comments or news media interview that I might be asked to give."
Wecht contends that the current medical examiner, Karl Williams, has conducted outside work -- a fact which makes Fitzgerald's position "blatantly hypocritical," Wecht wrote.
"This letter is not intended to ask you to reconsider your decision," Wecht wrote. "As far as I am concerned, your decision is final, and I have accepted it. However, I believe that I am entitled to a full and candid explanation as to how you arrived at that decision."
Fitzgerald was loath to discuss the matter in too much detail. Personnel matters, he noted, are ordinarily confidential, and he declined to answer some of Wecht's more pointed requests for an explanation (such as "I want to know who -- besides a small cabal manipulated by little Stevie boy Zappala behind the scenes, and some other personal Wecht-haters -- have influence you to make this decision.")
"I want people to be candid when they talk to me" about potential hires, Fitzgerald says, "and not be dragged into a public discussion." Still, he says, "Dr. Wecht for whatever reason decided to do this, so I'm kind of forced to reveal things I don’t ordinarily do." Suffice it to say, however, that it's just as well that Wecht didn't expect his letter to change Fitzgerald's mind.
Fitzgerald confirms that the two did discuss the possibility of Wecht's return, and Fitzgerald says he agrees that Buchanan's prosecution of Wecht -- which cost Wecht his county post in the first place -- was unfair. (Fitzgerald points out that as county council president, he pushed for legislation to name the medical examiner's laboratory after Wecht.)
Still, Fitzgerald also confirms that Wecht would have had to bend to certain conditions. "He was offered the opportunity to come back, under the proviso that any outside work be approved by the county manager. That's the same rule Dr. Williams and everybody else in this administration has. It's not about Cyril."
Fitzgerald noted that while the coroner was once an independently elected office, county row-office reform had placed it under the county executive's authority. "And the people who work in my administration need to share my vision and my goals. With all these positions, you have to be part of a team." What's more, Fitzgerald says, where the ME position is concerned, he had to be sure of a candidate's team spirit on the front end: By law, once the ME is appointed, he or she serves a five-year term and can only be removed by court action. "I don't have the ability to remove that person, so if he decides to do something I totally disagree with, I can't do anything about it -- unlike the head of public works, or any other department."
Fitzgerald confirms that Wecht would have had to clear media appearances as well. "Anybody in the administration who is putting out a message in public has to clear that with our director of communications, Amie Downs. That was also part of the discussion. That was not acceptable to Dr. Wecht. It was like: 'What if they need me on the air in five minutes and I can't get ahold of her?' Well, there's nothing that CNN is going to need that is going to move this county forward."
In his letter, Wecht writes that he "would be willing to [follow the media policy] despite my concern about the need for timely response, and my question as to what in-house overall expertise you and your staff possess to determine what should be said about matters that have nothing to do with Allegheny County Government." Fitzgerald says that Wecht's "position has changed," since the time the two discussed the matter.
Fitzgerald also forcefully rejects Wecht's surmise that "your rejection of me" might be related to Wecht's willingness to investigate potential police misconduct.
"No, absolutely not," Fitzgerald says.
Wecht's letter notes that since he departed his county post, the county ME office has not conducted a single coroner's inquest -- a legal proceeding carried out to investigate cases where the circumstances of death are murky. Wecht held numerous such proceedings, often in cases involving police shootings, though there were efforts to rein in that authority even before Wecht left the county.
Clearly, Wecht isn't going to be hired back, which means there likely won't be more inquests in the future. Given lingering doubts about the justice system's ability to police its own, that may be a problem in its own right. We may also have to get by with fewer colorful exchanges between county officials in the media. And that, one suspects, is part of what Fitzgerald is hoping for.