From the 4/23/07 edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“Cracking down on drugs and pornography was big business in former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice.
When federal prosecutors in California passed on cases involving glass bongs and hard-core sex movies, Pittsburgh-based U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan swooped in and stole the show.
Critics blasted “Operation Pipe Dreams,” calling the nationwide sting on drug paraphernalia trafficking a waste of resources. Buchanan charged on, though, and in 2003 won a conviction against Tommy Chong — the Los Angeles actor made famous by the marijuana-laced “Cheech and Chong” movies.
That same year, she charged Extreme Associates and the California owners of the porn production company in the first major federal obscenity prosecution in more than a decade. Critics again wailed about resources and the government fiddling with constitutional freedoms.
The Justice Department and Ashcroft praised both cases. Buchanan was rewarded with a string of lofty posts, one of which — director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys — has landed her at the forefront of a congressional investigation into a group firing of fellow Republican prosecutors.
Buchanan will not discuss the firings or the House investigation but said the priorities of the Justice Department are those of her office — including pursuing public corruption cases. The Justice Department is reviewing a House Judiciary Committee request to speak to Buchanan and seven other Justice Department officials. She has not met with House investigators.
Democrats want to find out why the Bush administration sacked eight of the country’s 93 federal prosecutors. Democrats say they believe some U.S. attorneys were fired to interfere with public corruption cases in ways that might help Republicans.
The House Judiciary Committee has evidence that D. Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, consulted Buchanan as head of the Executive Office U.S. attorneys in 2004 and 2005 about whom to fire.
Heading the office was largely administrative and dull until 9/11, when the Justice Department began to use it to control U.S. attorneys, said Fred Thieman, a former U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh under President Clinton.
“I can’t understand why someone would want that position, unless there was some other purpose,” Thieman said.
Buchanan said she works hard and with determination, finding it an honor to serve President Bush and the Justice Department in whatever role necessary. Those who know Buchanan said she is a hard worker and does what’s needed to please her bosses.
“They ask, and she responds,” said Roscoe Howard Jr., former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. “Certainly, the objective evidence is that they like her.”
H.E. “Bud” Cummins, former U.S. attorney for eastern Arkansas and one of the eight forced to step down, said he likes and respects Buchanan. If she participated in the dismissals, though, she failed her colleagues by participating “in the completely ridiculous process of making a list of names” of people to be fired, he said.
Thomas J. Farrell, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh and frequent Buchanan critic, called Buchanan’s response to the House inquiry a litmus test for her.
“I hope she stands up for the integrity and competence of those U.S. attorneys who were fired,” he said.
Buchanan was appointed U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania by President Bush in September 2001.
Her office has opened at least five investigations into prominent Democrats over the past five years. Critics say she has ignored allegations against fellow Republicans during that time.
“It has been and remains the practice of my office to investigate and prosecute individuals who violate federal law without regard to their political affiliation,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan said all investigations and prosecutions are analyzed from a legal, not partisan, perspective.
She has prosecuted former Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio and aides in his office and former Allegheny County Judge Joseph Jaffe. An investigation of former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy ended without charges being filed.
“There’s no greater adherent to using public corruption charges against the other party than Mary Beth Buchanan,” said Jerry McDevitt, a defense lawyer representing Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, a Democrat, against charges he abused his former public office as Allegheny County coroner for private financial gain.
Allegations of improper use of office staff have been leveled against two Republican politicians in her jurisdiction, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy and former state Rep. Jeff Habay. Habay was prosecuted in Allegheny County Court. No federal charges have been filed against these men, but federal authorities are prohibited from saying whether either is being investigated. “