WASHINGTON (CNN) - Former attorney general and prominent Republican Richard Thornburgh Tuesday accused the Justice Department of an improper political prosecution in indicting one of his clients, who was then a local Democratic official in Pittsburgh.
In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Thornburgh was praised by Democrats and criticized by fellow Republicans when he told the panel that Cyril Wecht, the former elected Allegheny County coroner, was indicted by a federal prosecutor whom he believed was "trying to curry favor" with the Bush Administration.
A grand jury indicted Wecht in 2006 on 84 counts of wire fraud, mail fraud and theft. The prosecution in the case accused him of cheating the citizens of Allegheny County and the clients of his private forensics firm.
Thornburgh, who served as attorney general under the first President Bush, raised broader doubts about the fairness of the Justice Department, saying the department must act "without actual political influence or the appearance of political influence."
"Unfortunately, that may no longer be the case," Thornburgh said.
The claim was lauded by Democrats who called the hearing to focus attention on what they assert is a pattern of selective prosecutions aimed squarely at Democrats.
"Today we heard compelling testimony from a Republican former attorney general of the United States describing his deep concern that the Deaprtment of Justice has misused its prosecutorial powers for political purposes," said Chairman John Conyers, D-Michigan.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, praised Thornburgh as "an honest conservative" who was "trying to save the country."
But Thornburgh's assertion brought stinging criticism from Republicans.
"Your testimony to be blunt is the most pathetic example of hearsay and innuendo. It is totally ridiculous," said Rep. Ric Keller, R-Florida.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, told Thornburgh his advocacy for his paid client could damage the entire Justice Department.
"I would certainly hope not," Thornburgh replied.
The Justice Department issued a statement rejecting the charge and listing several prominent Republicans who have been prosecuted.
"It has been and remains the practice of the department to investigate and prosecute individuals who violate federal law without regard to their poltical affiliation," the statement said.
In Pittsburgh, U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, who brought indictment against Wecht, blasted Thornburgh and Wecht's defense team for taking their grievance to a public forum rather than into court.
"For whatever reason, they have refrained choosing instead to air it in a forum where they know the government lawyers cannot respond and where there is no member of the judiciary to consider and decide the matter," Buchanan said.
The case against Wecht is scheduled to go to trial in Pittsburgh in January.
– CNN Justice Producer Terry Frieden