Review of Ravenstahl’s travel records exposes noticeable gaps, raises questions
By Bob Bauder and Jeremy Boren
Published: Saturday, March 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Updated: Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl can be difficult to track.
He went most of last week without anyone seeing him at work, after announcing the week before that he wouldn't run for re-election.
His staff members won't reveal where he was. They've declined to release a copy of his official calendar, which might shed light on his whereabouts.
Travel expense reports that department heads are required to file with City Council offer only a single mention of Ravenstahl's name between 2006 and 2012.
“He should submit his travel requests to council,” said Councilman Patrick Dowd, D-Highland Park. “If you're doing your job as mayor, you want people to know that you went to places like Harrisburg or D.C. You should be proud of those travel expenses.”
Records from his city-issued credit card show payments from some meals, hotels and a rental car during trips to Chicago, Harrisburg, Washington, New York and Brandenton, Fla., where the Pirates hold spring training.
But there's no record of the city's paying for travel, lodging or meals during some of those trips.
Marissa Doyle, a Ravenstahl spokeswoman, said the mayor was unavailable. Finance Director Scott Kunka declined repeated interview requests.
Ravenstahl has said some travel expenses were paid with a debit card that he later learned drew from one of at least two secret accounts at the police credit union. The FBI is investigating use of the accounts, which according to police finance manager Sandy Ganster contained public money that former Chief Nate Harper ordered diverted into them.
Ravenstahl said Harper gave debit cards to the mayor's police bodyguards. He has defended their use for official business.
Ravenstahl, 33, has been cagey about revealing his whereabouts since becoming mayor in September 2006.
In February 2010, he berated reporters inquiring whether he traveled to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras shortly after he acknowledged celebrating his birthday at a ski resort during a blizzard that paralyzed the city.
In 2007, he lied about traveling to New York City with Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle. Last year, he declined requests to discuss the North Side neighborhood in which he owns a home. This month, he skipped campaign and official events for days before announcing he wouldn't seek re-election.
Records from the city-issued credit card, fed by an account known as the “imprest fund” that then-Mayor Tom Murphy established in 1995, shed the most light on Ravenstahl's travel and spending.
Yet, there are noticeable gaps.
The records show no charges for travel to or from Bradenton during a trip that lasted from late February to early March 2012. The lone record of food expenses lists $34.06 spent on two beverages, two packages of frozen food and a “restaurant room charge” on Feb. 29 at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel.
There are no other receipts for food, even though Ravenstahl spent at least three days in Bradenton speaking with city business leaders and attending a Pirates game at McKechnie Field.
On Sept. 8, 2012, an Alexandria, Va.-based cab service charged Ravenstahl's card $29.46. It's unclear from a copy of the receipt bearing Ravenstahl's signature when the cab ride occurred, but there are no charges for hotel stays, food or other travel-related expenses during the trip.
Receipts don't indicate why Ravenstahl was in the Washington area, but a news release dated Aug. 27 from the mayor's office said he traveled to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to present Pittsburgh's story of economic revitalization to the White House Forum on Urban Innovation.
In late 2012, Ravenstahl's senior secretary Melissa Demme sent an email regarding an upcoming trip to Chicago to Paul McKrell, Ravenstahl's government affairs manager, and Sheri Rolewski, a clerk in the finance department. It said McKrell would accompany Ravenstahl to a speaking engagement at the University of Illinois at Chicago Urban Forum on Dec. 4 and 5. Receipts from the mayor's credit card show a $626.60 charge for McKrell's flight on American Airlines from Pittsburgh to Chicago and a $208.36 charge for a one-night stay for one adult in a room with a double bed at the Hilton Chicago.
There are no records indicating where Ravenstahl stayed, dined, how he traveled to Chicago or who paid. A call to the forum's organizers was not returned.
City Controller Michael Lamb said the mayoral credit card is a vestige of the past.
“We would encourage them to consider discontinuing that fund and just follow the travel policy with respect to everybody else,” said Lamb, who is running for mayor in the May 21 Democratic primary.
None of the 2012 trips appears on the quarterly travel reports submitted in 2012 to council through City Clerk Linda Johnson-Wasler. Ravenstahl's financial disclosure reports, which public officials are required to file each year, make no mention of any travel.
Ravenstahl's name appears once in seven years' worth of the travel reports submitted to council: a $239 charge for Ravenstahl and two others, who aren't identified, to attend the inauguration ceremony of former Gov. Ed Rendell in January 2007 in Harrisburg.
An ordinance City Council passed in 1988 requires all department heads to submit quarterly travel expense reports.
“There was a process. We followed it,” said Ellen McLean, finance director under Murphy, who declined to comment. “There weren't separate rules for elected officials.”
Former Controller Tom Flaherty, a Common Pleas judge, said council likely passed the 1988 ordinance as a reaction to travel expense abuses in the mid-1980s by employees.
“The only thing I can recall is that there was a lot of unaccountable travel back then,” Flaherty said. “It was getting out of control.”
Kunka and Public Safety Directory Michael Huss reference the ordinance in memos sent to council and department heads. In one 2008 memo, Kunka reminds department heads to submit travel expenses on time.
Bound by the ordinance?
Council President Darlene Harris said she isn't sure whether elected officials, including the mayor, are bound by the ordinance, even though the quarterly reports list her. In a report filed in August 2012, Harris and Councilman Ricky Burgess are among those listed as traveling to New York City to meet with municipal bond rating agency officials. The goal of the trip was to tell rating agencies about Pittsburgh's improved financial stability.
The mission worked, and at the time, Ravenstahl's office announced he accompanied Harris and Burgess on the trip.
But Ravenstahl's name does appear on the travel expense report. A receipt from the mayor's credit card shows he spent $448.76 to stay at Trump SoHo, a five-star luxury hotel in lower Manhattan. There are receipts with charges of $86 and $41 from a New York car and limo service.
In 2011, the only indication of Ravenstahl's travel given to City Council is a $225 expense labeled “travel with the mayor” submitted under the name of his main police bodyguard, Sgt. Dom Sciulli, who had a debit card from the credit union.
In 2010, Sciulli submitted a $267.01 expense for “travel with the mayor,” the only such expense for the year.
In 2009, Sciulli submitted expenses of $449 labeled “w/ Mayor for inauguration” and $243 for “travel with the mayor.” Retired police Sgt. Fred Crawford, who worked as Ravenstahl's bodyguard at the time, submitted expenses of $224.69 and 337.27 for “travel” or “official business” with the mayor.
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Why is Mayor Do-Little still in office? I still can't believe he was elected in the first place, but few seem to care why he has been missing in inaction for years. Maybe city residents like it that way. Next time, try electing a mayor who can and will run the city as opposed to behaving like a diva rock star. Unaccountable.