Pittsburgh police suspend employees who had company with former Chief Harper
Officials scrambled to protect the image of Pittsburgh's police department a day after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl forced Chief Nate Harper to resign amid a federal investigation.
Acting police Chief Regina McDonald suspended three police employees less than 24 hours after Public Safety Director Mike Huss surprised her by offering her the department's top job in a phone call.
Earlier Thursday, Ravenstahl said he spoke to outside candidates to name McDonald's permanent replacement and acknowledged for the first time that his three bodyguards were issued debit cards connected to a controversial police credit union account.
“The reality is this is an unfortunate situation for the city, and it's something that we hope we're able to deal with,” Ravenstahl said. “We've begun to do that and get it behind us as quickly as possible.”
McDonald said Officer Tonya Montgomery-Ford and civilian payroll clerks Tamara Davis and Kim Montgomery will be on paid administrative leave until the FBI completes its investigation of the police bureau, a decision she made in concert with Ravenstahl and Huss.
“It's something I felt needed to be done, and they agreed,” she said.
Montgomery-Ford, 43, of New Homestead and Davis, 46, of the Hill District are among the subordinates with whom Harper teamed to form an outside consulting business that drew the scrutiny of investigators.
“She was pretty saddened … to receive this notice without any explanation of why,” said Warner Macklin III, a spokesman for Montgomery-Ford. He said the FBI has not questioned her.
Davis and Montgomery could not be reached.
Kim Montgomery is Montgomery-Ford's mother. Corporation filings list Tonya Ford as president of D&T Enterprises LLC, which received about $7,000 from the city in 2011 for providing catering service and merchandise, according to city invoices. One of the contracts was for “D&T Enterprise Catering By Kim” to provide dinner for a police program.
Ravenstahl said he asked Harper to resign on Wednesday after meeting with FBI agents and prosecutors for two hours. He would not say what they told him about their investigation of how the police bureau handled money collected from businesses that hire off-duty officers.
Harper could not be reached. He has not been charged with any crime. Through his attorney on Wednesday, he denied any wrongdoing.
Officials said he is eligible for a yearly pension of at least $53,000. State law allows forfeiture of pensions only when public officials are convicted of certain crimes.
Part of the investigation focuses on whether public money went into or was spent from two accounts at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union. Two top police officials said someone opened debit cards in their names connected to the accounts without their knowledge.
Reporters asked Ravenstahl if he or his security detail of three officers personally benefited from using debit cards connected to the accounts. Ravenstahl said his security officers — Sgt. Dom Sciulli, Sgt. Matt Gauntner and Fred Crawford, now retired — were issued debit cards.
“Mine was never activated. I never saw it,” Gauntner said.
Ravenstahl said he did not know until this week that the cards were connected to the credit union, and he questioned the officers. He said he's confident there was no inappropriate spending.
The officers used the cards for lodging, food and other travel expenses during trips Ravenstahl took to Harrisburg, Washington and elsewhere.
Ravenstahl reiterated that he is not a target of the FBI investigation. He said the same goes for his security officers.
The mayor said he wants a new police chief “with no relationships, with no ties, with really no history” to the embattled department.
“Given the issues surrounding the bureau, it would be my preference to identify somebody from the outside with a clean slate,” Ravenstahl said.
He said he spoke to more than one candidate but identified none.
McDonald said she was watching the 6 p.m. news on Wednesday, waiting for the full story on the police chief's resignation, when she got a phone call from Huss telling her the mayor wanted her to lead the department. The call was a surprise.
Ravenstahl said he chose and supports McDonald despite criticism that she oversaw the special events office FBI agents visited last week.
McDonald said she has cooperated with the FBI and an audit by the City Controller's Office.
“The misuse of funds did not occur in the special events office,” McDonald said. “The allegations of the misuse of funds are in the personnel and finance office.”
Her first day as chief included interviews, paperwork and questions from the FBI.
“I'm not a target,” McDonald said. “I wasn't informed I was a target.”
McDonald oversaw the personnel and finance office until 2010, when the chief determined the manager would report directly to him. She said she did not know the reason.
In the same year, the special events office began making copies of every check paid into the office. Prior to that, the office received copies from personnel and finance.
“We've made sure everything is documented and there's a paper trail for everything,” McDonald said.
McDonald would not say whether the office noticed discrepancies in its records or how much — if any — money is missing nor comment on the credit union account.
She said she is working to change the secondary employment program, and she has been working with the law department to do so. One of the changes she would like to see is that all officers are paid through the city, taking away the option for businesses to pay officers directly with cash or check.
She said she also wants to eliminate schedulers — officers who assign details to other officers — and run all details though the secondary employment office.
“We want to make sure it is being professional, and there's no misappropriations, and nothing is being done that shouldn't be done,” McDonald said.
A federal investigation of Harper became public in January centering on whether the chief was involved in awarding a contract to a shell company set up by his one-time friend Art Bedway, 63, of Robinson, owner of Carnegie-based Victory Security. It's unclear how or whether that investigation is linked to the FBI probe of spending.
Staff writer Bobby Kerlik contributed to this report. Jeremy Boren and Margaret Hardingare staff writers for Trib Total Media. Boren can be reached at 412-320-7935or firstname.lastname@example.org. Harding can be reached at 412-380-8519 or email@example.com.