10/03/2007

Pittsburgh officer almost reprimanded for complaining about mayor

By Rich Lord
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH, Pa. A Pittsburgh police sergeant who complained that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl improperly used a police vehicle this summer was threatened with reprimand for not following the chain of command, but the punishment was later blocked.

Mr. Ravenstahl said he was not aware that the vehicle was paid for with federal Homeland Security funds when he was using it for things like business travel to Harrisburg and for his personal use, including a Toby Keith concert in August.

The Police Bureau sought to discipline Sgt. Mona Wallace, who complained about the use of the vehicle to Public Safety Director Michael Huss.

Sgt. Wallace was threatened with discipline by Police Chief Nate Harper for taking her concerns outside the bureau, only to have a reprimand rescinded by Mr. Huss, in a rare reversal of punishment meted out.

"Do I believe in the chain of command? Absolutely," Mr. Huss said yesterday. "That's critical to what we do. But understand, when an employee brings something forward -- we appreciate that the source of that vehicle was brought to our attention."

Mr. Ravenstahl, who normally uses a black Chevy Impala for official travel, said he made periodic use of a Police Bureau GMC Yukon assigned to the Intelligence Squad through late August.

"From time to time, I guess there were either issues with [the Impala], or from time to time if we would travel in groups to Harrisburg, for example, we would use that vehicle," he said yesterday, standing next to the Impala. "I know it was brought to my attention at a later date that it was an Intel vehicle bought with Homeland Security dollars. Once that was brought to my attention, we haven't used it since."

The issue came to a head after Mr. Ravenstahl used the SUV over the weekend of Aug. 18. Among other things, he took it to a Toby Keith concert at the Post-Gazette Pavilion. He said he went with his wife and friends.

Sgt. Wallace, of the Intelligence Squad, then complained to Mr. Huss, who at that time was both public safety director and fire chief. He is now a full-time director.

Sources said Sgt. Wallace was concerned that 300 miles were put on the vehicle, it was not available for police use, and it was returned in a messy condition.

Mr. Ravenstahl denied that the vehicle was messy. "Any time we exchange vehicles we always clean it out," he said.

He said he did not witness a brawl at the concert that resulted in charges that city police detectives Patrick Moffatt and Joseph Simunovic assaulted Hanover Township police officers.

Sgt. Wallace, a 19-year veteran of the bureau, would not comment.

The Intelligence Squad uses the Yukon and three similar sport utility vehicles to conduct surveillance, Mr. Huss said. Even though they are paid for with Homeland Security Department grant money, they are not restricted to fighting terrorism, he said.

"It was brought forward that the mayor had used a vehicle," Mr. Huss said. "The mayor had no knowledge of what that vehicle was for or how it had been paid for. ... The mayor hasn't used that vehicle since."

After Sgt. Wallace's complaint got back to Chief Harper, she was subjected to a disciplinary process that resulted in a recommendation of a reprimand. Mr. Huss, who sees all disciplinary action reports, or DARs, from the Police Bureau, said the percentage of those which he reverses is "small." He would not comment on the specifics of the personnel action.

Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, called it "a matter for ethics authorities, or federal contracting officials, and maybe criminal justice folks. ... The ACLU's only role in a situation like this would be if the city tried to discipline police officers for revealing what was going on."

Mr. Huss, whose office is down the hall from the mayor's, said there has been no formal change in policy related to the use of vehicles paid for with Homeland Security dollars.

"Those vehicles are not to be used for anything other than the intelligence unit," he said. "I can tell you this, no one on this floor is using them."

Since becoming mayor, Mr. Ravenstahl has on several occasions faced questions or criticism about his judgment and ethics.

In June, he played in the Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational golf tournament in Ligonier as a guest of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the Penguins, which picked up the mayor's share of the $27,000 it cost a threesome to take part in the event.

The city Ethics Hearing Board cleared him of wrongdoing in the golf outing but suggested the city's rules be tightened to avoid "perception" problems.

Mr. Ravenstahl was similarly criticized for taking a private jet trip to New York with Penguins owner Ron Burkle in March shortly after agreeing to a publicly subsidized financing package for a new arena for the team. He later reimbursed Mr. Burkle for the trip from campaign funds.

Copyright 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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