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Cleared Homestead mayor wants bank account back

| Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 4:56 a.m.

Homestead Mayor Betty Esper has been cleared of wrongdoing by the state Attorney General's office and is fighting to regain control of a First Commonwealth Bank account.

Esper's Spirit of Christmas account was frozen in November because of a potential dispute between the mayor and borough.

The mayor said at the time that she received a letter from the bank stating it must receive a court order or a letter from borough Solicitor Bernie Schneider before the funds could be freed.

A complaint was filed at the Allegheny County District Attorney's office, initiating an investigation.

“We received a complaint some time ago regarding the mayor,” district attorney spokesman Mike Manko said on Monday. “Because of the relationship between the office and the mayor, we were asked to send the complaint to the Attorney General's office, which we did. It is our understanding that the complaint was found to be without merit.”

Esper said on Tuesday afternoon that she received a phone call last month from investigators advising her that their inquiry is complete and no further action by the Attorney General's office is necessary.

“We neither confirm nor deny investigations,” the attorney general's spokesman Dennis Fisher said.

“I'm waiting for a letter,” Esper said on Tuesday afternoon. “I got a phone call. I never cared. I know I'm innocent. I wasn't worried.”

Tensions between the mayor and council about the account came to a boiling point at Thursday night's council meeting, prompting two executive sessions to cool things down.

“That account is mine. All the checks in that account went to Betty Esper,” the mayor said during the meeting. “If there's a check in that account that says Homestead borough, take it out.”

Esper said the Spirit of Christmas account was in her name from 1990 through 2008, when the borough's tax identification number was attached to the account.

“I believe that the effect of those paperwork changes was to change it into a borough account,” Schneider said. “That's going to have to be resolved by a third party. While we're in that dispute, until that dispute gets resolved, we're proposing that you and the council work together on these matters so that the account can be used as it was intended to be used, to benefit the children.”

“We don't want the kids to miss out,” Councilman Donald Turner said during the meeting.

Council voted 6-1 on Thursday to authorize borough manager Ian McMeans to accompany Esper to First Commonwealth Bank to withdraw funds for a bus trip to Idlewild Park in August. Councilwoman Zaneta Hines dissented.

Councilors agreed to pay for the trip should the bank not release the funds.

Esper reluctantly accepted the measure, but said on Tuesday that future cooperation with the borough is unlikely.

“Anytime I want to use anything for the account I should go through them for I guess approval since their name's on the account?” Esper said. “I told them it would be a cold day in hell before I go to them for approval.”

She maintains the borough never put a penny into the account used to support the Historic Steel Valley Christmas Parade, Homestead Community Days and other borough activities.

“They've never gotten involved in anything I did,” Esper said.

Councilors argued with the mayor on Thursday night about respect and bank card usage.

“Don't tell me about respect,” Esper said. “There's nobody that got more respect in this town than me ... I'm sick of it.”

“When we receive it, we'll give it,” Hines said.

“This current council hasn't shown the mayor respect,” Councilman Drew Borcik said.

Hines read from a borough code book, which indicates the mayor is required to provide to council an itemized statement of money used and its purposes at least once a month.

Hines said the mayor has not done that.

“Tell this community where that bank account has been used,” Hines said. “Has that bank card been used on everything related to this borough? Tell them. Give them a copy of your bank statement.”

“All you got to do is go down to the bank and get it,” Esper replied.

Esper later said she used the bank card at a gas station, Rivers Casino and the Meadows Racetrack and Casino.

The mayor noted those transactions were done with her money she deposited into the account.

Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1965, or mdivittorio@tribweb.com.

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