Famous coroner Wecht to be county's first medical examiner
PITTSBURGH - Dr. Cyril Wecht, Allegheny County's coroner and a well-known forensic pathologist, was named the county's first-ever medical examiner.
But Wecht has agreed to resign immediately if he is indicted under an ongoing federal investigation into whether he improperly used county staff and resources to further his private pathology practice.
"I've known Dr. Wecht for a long time, and I don't think anyone would dispute that he's nationally renowned," County Executive Dan Onorato said Thursday, after announcing Wecht's appointment to a five-year term. "Unfortunately, there's this cloud out there that needs to be resolved."
Onorato called the post "interim" because of the possible charges against Wecht, who signed a letter Wednesday pledging to quit if he is indicted, enters into a plea agreement or is otherwise unable to complete his term.
"It could be five years and it could be an immediate resignation," Onorato said at a news conference.
Known for consulting on high-profile cases ranging from JonBenet Ramsey to Lacey Peterson to Elvis Presley, Wecht was the elected county coroner from 1970 to 1980 and took office again in 1996. He also teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University.
The position of coroner was eliminated as the result of a referendum during the May primary, when voters approved cutting the number of elected offices in an effort to streamline government and make it more accountable to the executive.
Wecht's attorney has said the pathologist is under federal investigation, and that prosecutors are looking at whether he improperly used county staff and resources to work on private cases. FBI agents searched Wecht's office in April and seized computers and private files.
Wecht, 74, has said he is careful to not do private work on county time. He said his private consulting duties have been well known for 30 years and have never been questioned.
Onorato said Wecht's agreement was the "best compromise" he could reach between taxpayers and the pathologist.
Three or four other qualified candidates - whose names were not disclosed - were considered for the position, and a replacement would take over for Wecht in the event of his resignation, said Onorato, stressing that such a change would be "smooth and immediate."
Wecht, who was out of town when the appointment was announced, will continue to earn about $64,000 a year as medical examiner. But the position's salary will likely be increased to about $105,000 to $110,000, Onorato said.
In 1981, Wecht was cleared of criminal charges that he used his staff to do private work on county time during his first tenure as coroner. He challenged a related order to reimburse the county for $252,000 in that case, but eventually agreed to pay $200,000 after a decade of litigation.