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$200K worth of items damaged, missing in Pittsburgh mayor's office

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 11:25 a.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Mayor Bill Peduto takes a call from Gov. Tom Corbett in the Office of the Mayor at city hall in Downtown during his first full day in office as Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. A portrait of William Pitt the Younger can be seen in the background. Peduto's chief of staff Kevin Acklin said the painting was found in storage and was damaged.

Former Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl wouldn't discuss why he took his city-owned computer tower home when he left office, but experts said on Wednesday it could have been to delete documents such as Internet history, email, photographs and personal files.

Mayor Bill Peduto said his office asked the FBI to investigate about $200,000 in property that was damaged or missing from the mayor's office. He said Ravenstahl removed his computer tower but returned it about a week later.

Among the other missing items are a Waterford crystal Super Bowl XL trophy, gifted to the city after the Steelers' win in 2006; a clock that once sat on the fireplace mantle in the mayor's conference room; and a valuable Chinese vase.

“There's approximately $200,000 in missing or damaged items,” Peduto said. “This is how we entered the office. I don't know what the intent was.”

Gerald Shuster, professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh, said Ravenstahl probably intended to delete whatever was on his computer hard drive so the Peduto administration could not access it.

“I would do it, too,” Shuster said. “I would want to make sure it was totally clean. I think he is potentially eliminating any areas that might be compromising to him even though he may have done nothing wrong.”

When Peduto took office, information technology employees were set to upgrade the mayor's computer. But the desktop PC tower was missing. About a week later, it was returned to the City-County Building, said Peduto's chief of staff, Kevin Acklin.

He said he did not know who returned the computer but said he thinks it was delivered to the information technology department.

Neither Ravenstahl nor his attorney, Charles Porter Jr., returned messages seeking comment.

Howard Stern, the former director of Pittsburgh's information technology department, said Ravenstahl could have saved information not accessible through the city computer network on his hard drive.

“You can save it on your hard drive, or you can save it to the network, or both,” Stern said. “You can also save it to an external drive. I don't know whether he saved stuff on his hard drive or not, but you can put anything you want on the hard drive.”

Stern, who now works as a management professor and co-director of the MBA program at Carlow University, said his department had a machine to erase information from old computers. He drilled a hole through the hard drive of computers that stored particularly sensitive information to be sure they could not be accessed.

Stern said Ravenstahl was the first mayor to have a computer wired in his office. He said Ravenstahl never asked him to erase anything from his hard drive. “Any mayor who would ask me to destroy a hard drive, I would not have done that without getting a legal opinion,” he said.

Russ Davis, director of computer forensics for Precise Inc., a Downtown litigation support firm, echoed Stern's assessment of what types of files could be on the hard drive.

“There could be emails stored on the computer, music files, web history, photographs, movies, you name it,” he said. “Anything you want to save, if you have the authority to do so, you can save it to the computer itself.”

The best way to ensure erasure, Davis said, is to overwrite data files on top of the deleted items. “Data is only destroyed when its overwritten with other data,” he said.

Acklin said the computer was the only item returned so far. He said a portrait of William Pitt the Younger that once hung in the mayor's office was discovered in storage with a tear across the subject's midsection. Historic chandeliers designed by the architect that made the 1917 City-County Building were damaged.

Peduto said former Mayor Tom Murphy told him the damage did not occur during his administration.

“We went into his office for about 10 minutes, and he pointed out some damage to some chandeliers and a bookcase that were damaged,” Murphy said. “I don't remember them being in that condition when I left the office.”

Murphy said he didn't know anything about missing items and said he never used a computer while in office.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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