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Mayor says police bank accounts paid for hotels, travel, food for G-20 summit

| Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, 11:36 a.m.

Top police officials said on Tuesday that debit cards were issued in their names from the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union that they never saw nor used.

The revelation was made as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl acknowledged that thousands of dollars from several credit union accounts paid for hotel rooms, food, trips and condominium rentals for him and others during the Group of 20 economic summit in 2009.

“There are hundreds if not thousands of expenditures on those accounts, from what I understand,” Ravenstahl said. “We're talking about two, three, four or five (accounts) now. We want to do a thorough analysis and find out where the money was spent, was it appropriately spent, who used it, who had debit cards and really get all those questions answered.”

Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson and Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant said they recently learned someone put their names on debit cards.

“Until recently, I was unaware of the existence of the card, and as I have been informed it has never been used,” Donaldson said in an email. “I have not seen the card. I was alerted to its issuance by the investigators.”

“I have never seen the card, I have never used the card, and I never authorized a card in my name,” Bryant said. She said she made “inquiries” about the card but declined to elaborate.

In an investigation that blossomed in scope since a grand jury probe of police Chief Nate Harper became public last month, federal investigators copied records at the credit union last week and seized at least nine boxes of documents from police headquarters in the North Side.

Harper, 60, of Stanton Heights could not be reached.

The credit union board president said investigators looked at an account Harper's office opened. Donaldson said the headquarters search centered on money from the special events office, which coordinates moonlighting by officers.

Assistant Chiefs Regina McDonald and George Trosky and former Assistant Chief William Bochter said they had no cards in their names.

Ravenstahl said it appeared money meant for an account in the special events office went to the credit union instead.

“I don't know if, for whatever reason, the chief or somebody else felt that those funds could be used elsewhere, but again, that's part of what we're taking a look at,” he said.

In 2007, the city began charging businesses an administrative fee of $3.85 an hour to hire off-duty police officers for security. The money was intended to cover litigation expenses if someone sued the city because of officers' moonlighting activities. The fee generated about $700,000 annually.

“To the best of my knowledge, those funds still should be going towards that effort,” Ravenstahl said.

At least one account dates to 2004, before Ravenstahl became mayor in 2006 and appointed Harper chief. City Solicitor Dan Regan said he was told the accounts were closed, but he does not know when or by whom.

Elizabeth Township police Chief Robert McNeilly, the Pittsburgh chief from 1996 to 2006, said he was unaware of accounts at the credit union for police use.

“I never heard of it,” McNeilly said.

In September 2009, the University of Pittsburgh paid $5,675 to the police credit union account. Jerry Cochran, Pitt's executive vice chancellor, said the school hired police officers to guard expensive equipment in a mobile laboratory used to teach schoolchildren about medical science.

Ravenstahl said he does not know who spent money from the credit union accounts on travel, dining and lodging in Virginia, Denver and Washington. Records show the trips match with ones Harper took in 2009 and 2010 to attend chief conferences and a police memorial ceremony officers attended.

Ravenstahl said he believed in 2009 that money to rent condos Downtown for him, Harper and Public Safety Director Michael Huss came from state and federal reimbursements. He said he's uncertain why the money came from a credit union account and who decided that.

“All I know is I stayed there for two nights and stayed there because there were threats of protests on my house, the public safety director's house, the chief's house, and we wanted to make sure we could get out of our homes and be here for the events,” Ravenstahl said. “To me, that's appropriate; nothing wrong with that. Why this account was used, I don't know.”

Ravenstahl said he stayed at 151 First Side on Fort Pitt Boulevard. Huss and Harper stayed in separate Downtown locations, said Joanna Doven, Ravenstahl's spokeswoman and Huss's wife.

Spending from the police credit union account in May 2010 matches the timing of a trip officers made to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Wall in Washington to honor three Pittsburgh officers and a Penn Hills officer slain in 2009.

Among the attendees were Harper, Donaldson and Sgt. Eric Holmes, whom Harper later promoted to commander. Harper formed a security consulting business with Holmes and three others in the department.

Spending vouchers show hotel rooms booked for nine police officials in the Holiday Inn Rosslyn at Key Bridge in Arlington, Va., for May 13-15, 2010. The bill totaled $2,213.52. The only payment authorized directly by the city treasurer was $209.46 for Harper's lodging.

Discretionary funds paid for lodging and meal expenses in Washington during a law enforcement conference Harper attended.

Fire Chief Darryl Jones said no discretionary spending account exists at the Pittsburgh Firefighters Federal Credit Union. The mayor's Office of Management and Budget must approve money to attend professional conferences.

“Everything goes through the city's general fund with us,” Jones said.

Ravenstahl on Monday selected former Washington County District Attorney Steven Toprani to review the police bureau's practices. Ravenstahl said he sought the review upon learning that Harper formed private security firm Diverse Public Safety Consultants LLC with four subordinates.

A federal grand jury is investigating whether Harper helped award a contract to a shell company set up by his one-time friend Art Bedway, 63, of Robinson.

Jeremy Boren and Margaret Harding are Trib Total Media staff writers.

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