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Federal probe of secret police accounts 'hogties' Pittsburgh

| Thursday, March 7, 2013, 12:03 a.m.

Three weeks after federal investigators subpoenaed records at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union, city officials say they don't know how much public money might have gone into two secret debit card accounts or how to get it back.

They said they feel powerless in the face of an expanding FBI investigation to determine if someone diverted money from what should be a roughly $4.2 million pool generated since 2008 by a $3.85-per-hour fee that businesses pay to hire off-duty police officers to provide security or traffic control.

“The hope is there” to recover any missing money, Tony Pokora, the assistant finance director, said. “We're kind of hogtied until the FBI finishes its investigation. We wouldn't do anything until the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office finishes their investigation.”

That should not be the case, said Butler defense attorney Al Lindsay, a former federal prosecutor.

“That doesn't seem to have much merit,” Lindsay said. “The mere fact that it's under investigation by the federal government shouldn't stop them from conducting a thorough investigation.”

Lindsay said city officials might be wary of stepping on investigators' toes, but waiting for an investigation to conclude could take months or years.

Federal officials won't discuss what they're investigating. FBI agents also seized records from the police finance and personnel office and the special events office that oversees off-duty assignments.

It's unclear if the credit union offered to shed light on where money in the accounts originated. The city has gotten some debit card records by having employees who had them — including Sgt. Dom Sciulli, one of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's bodyguards — request them from the credit union.

Credit union CEO Karen Janoski did not return a call seeking comment. Neither did City Solicitor Dan Regan, who has said the city has asked for credit union statements that would show how money was spent through eight debit cards linked to up to two accounts.

Ravenstahl could not be reached.

The mayor forced former police Chief Nate Harper to resign last month amid the federal investigation. Ravenstahl's office said last week that Harper requested the cards, which were issued in his name and the names of seven other police department officials, including three police bodyguards assigned to Ravenstahl.

What's missing is a full accounting of how much money went into the accounts and where it came from. One was opened in 2004 before Ravenstahl became mayor; the other in 2009, more than two years after he took office. Ravenstahl on Friday dropped his re-election bid.

“The administration is appropriate to be cautious about how they respond to this issue,” said state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, a Ravenstahl ally and potential mayoral candidate. “I believe the administration is doing their best to get to the bottom line of the facts.”

City Controller Michael Lamb said no one has established that any money is missing. He previously said the credit union is not an authorized city bank and diverting money there would be theft.

In a criminal case, police and the courts would be responsible for recovering any lost money, said Lamb, who is running for mayor.

“If there's been city money diverted to an authorized account, that money has to come back to the city,” Lamb said. “That would be part of a restitution order that the perpetrator would pay.”

Lamb's auditors are examining police department invoices, including those issued by the special events office.

He said the invoices are numbered, so auditors are matching them to checks and trying to match the checks to deposits in the police “premium pay” account. Money from that account pays police officers for overtime they accumulated while on duty. The city perennially exceeds the amounts budgeted. For example, premium pay topped $8.8 million in 2009 and $8.5 million in 2010, but the city's annual budgets — a projection of the year to come — has pegged premium pay at $7.3 million each year.

Council President Darlene Harris questioned whether the city has legal authority to seize money from a private bank account. She speculated the city would need court action to do that.

“I think we have to let the (FBI) investigation finish before we get involved touching anything,” Harris said. “I think you have to let those who are investigating finish their job.”

Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or Staff writer Bob Bauder contributed to this report.

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