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Ravenstahl hires attorney to represent him in federal investigation

| Friday, March 1, 2013, 2:00 p.m.

A high-profile criminal defense attorney acknowledged on Friday that he represents Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in a federal investigation of a secret credit union account used by his bodyguards and tied to police brass.

“There's nothing sinister about the fact that he retained counsel,” said Charles J. Porter Jr., who accompanied the mayor to a two-hour interview last week with the FBI. “He was advised that he's nothing more than a fact witness.”

Porter declined to discuss the questioning. He said federal authorities have not told Ravenstahl that he is the target of the probe and they have not spoken since.

In announcing his decision not to seek re-election, Ravenstahl said the federal investigation is not behind his decision to step aside.

“I know without a doubt that I've done nothing wrong,” Ravenstahl said. “I know folks won't believe that, but over time the facts will come out.”

Chief of Staff Yarone Zober said then-police Chief Nate Harper established at least one account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union. Authorities are investigating whether the accounts had city fees collected as a result of off-duty security details. Debit cards were issued to Harper and seven others, including bodyguards assigned to the mayor.

Ravenstahl's office released transaction records for one bodyguard on Friday in an effort to show money was not spent on alcohol, personal trips and other extravagances as former bodyguard Fred Crawford claims. Transaction records from others' cards were not available.

Crawford says Ravenstahl directed his bodyguards, including him, to use the cards to hide purchases of alcohol and other improper expenses from open records requests submitted by the media. Crawford is out of the country.

“This is important. This card was never used for the mayor himself. That was never the idea behind it,” Zober said. “That's sort of in direct contrast to Fred Crawford's statement.”

The FBI visited Joe Mama's restaurant in Oakland on Friday, searching for a receipt from June. It's unclear if the search was connected to the debit card investigation, said Joe Mama's director of operations Vic Bovalino.

Bovalino said Ravenstahl and other city officials patronize Joe Mama's, but they are not regulars.

“All I know is that (FBI agents) were looking for a receipt from June,” Bovalino said. “They said it was part of an investigation.”

Staff at several bars Ravenstahl frequents said his visits, almost always with bodyguards, are unremarkable.

”He's just a normal customer,” said Patrick Simbeck, general manager at McFadden's Restaurant and Saloon on the North Shore. “There's never a problem with payments; they don't get out of control. The bodyguards do not drink.”

Simbeck could not say how often the mayor visits.

“The bar doesn't shut down because the mayor's here,” he said.

Ashley Ronan, manager at the nearby Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery, said Ravenstahl and a group of people visited twice last summer, sat outside, paid their bill and left.

Staffers at two North Hills bars — the Rochester Inn in Ross and Fox & Hound English Pub and Grille in Ross — said Ravenstahl visits occasionally. They said they never have problems.

Zober said the Mayor's Office has a letter that states Harper opened a credit union account labeled with the initials “I.P.F.” and requested eight debit cards. Ravenstahl forced Harper to resign last week after meeting with federal investigators.

Zober said the cards that Harper requested were issued in the names of Ravenstahl's three bodyguards — Sgt. Dom Sciulli, Sgt. Matt Gauntner and Crawford — and five other top police officials. They are: Harper, Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson, Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant, clerk Tammy Davis and Sandy Ganster, manager of the personnel and finance office. Ganster spoke to federal investigators last month.

Zober declined to produce a copy of the letter because it is unsigned. He said Sciulli, who continues to act as the mayor's bodyguard, obtained the statement from the credit union.

Harper's attorney, Robert Del Greco, declined to comment.

Gauntner obtained a letter from credit union CEO Karen Janoski that states he never used the debit card.

Warner Macklin III, who is handling media inquiries for Davis, said he does not know who issued her card.

“I do not know if that card was ever used,” said Macklin, who referred further questions to Davis' attorney, Francis Rapp Jr. Rapp could not be reached for comment.

Sciulli's statement shows 15 charges between Jan. 22, 2009, and Nov. 11, 2011. None is larger than $500, and many appear to reflect hotel stays and gasoline purchases on the way to or from Harrisburg and Washington. The charges total $1,812.

“If this were some kind of scheme where cards were issued to do improper, illicit things, it would kind of stand to reason that all three of them would be using them in that same way,” Zober said. “One never even opened the card; one used it 15 times almost entirely for travel to either D.C. or Harrisburg; and the third we're working our darndest to try to get the records to prove the same.”

Sciulli accidentally made two personal charges to the card but reimbursed the city, Zober said.

Bobby Kerlik and Jeremy Boren are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Kerlik can be reached at 412-320-7886 or Boren can be reached at 412-320-7935 or Staff writers Margaret Harding and Chris Togneri contributed to this report.

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