Pittsburgh council members take advantage of 'walking around money'
Pittsburgh City Council President Darlene Harris will treat hundreds of North Side kids to peanut butter crackers costing $441 this Halloween at the expense of taxpayers.
Spending her discretionary money on such things is a cheap and equitable way to provide needed help to civic groups — plus, other elected officials do it — Harris said.
Spreading around so-called walking around money is a tactic politicians statewide use to raise their profile with constituents, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Pennsylvania Common Cause, a fiscal watchdog group.
“It is all part of a taxpayer-funded incumbency protection racket,” Kauffman said.
Pittsburgh budgets $8,000 annually for each of nine City Council members to spend at their discretion. The money comes with no stipulations for its usage, solicitor Dan Regan said.
So council members spend some or all of it on “goodwill” causes: baskets for charity auctions, shirts for youth sports leagues, cash donations for parades and the like, their invoices show.
Regan said Harris' Halloween purchase is legitimate. “There's nothing that would prohibit” that, he said.
Though the practice dates back decades — the late Councilman Duane Darkins offered turkeys to constituents at Thanksgiving — some past council members went to court for misusing discretionary money.
Former Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle pleaded no contest to theft and related charges and went to prison in 2007 for a $43,000 kickback scheme that funded personal purchases, including a fur coat and money for friends.
Matt Hogue, former aide to Councilman Bruce Kraus, pleaded guilty to theft and received five years of probation last year for selling $10,000 worth of chain saws that Kraus' office bought for community groups to clean up vacant lots.
Harris said she uses her money to support community groups that otherwise couldn't pay for events and improvements.
Pete Bellisario, president of the Brighton Heights Citizen's Federation, which received some of the treats she bought for its annual Halloween festival, said Harris is a supportive politician.
“If we didn't have her, we'd have to do fundraising,” he said. “We've tried that before, and fundraising isn't the easiest thing to do.”
Harris said distributing crackers is cheaper than giving each of 21 organizations in her district a $50 or $100 donation, and it's equitable because everyone receives something to give away at Halloween.
She said she has donated the crackers for years and buys candy canes at Christmas.
“I'm not doing anything different than what other people do,” she said. “State representatives and senators pass out coloring books with their names on them.”
Kauffman said politicians should at least be honest about who foots the bill.
“Shouldn't it say, ‘Paid for by the taxpayers of Pittsburgh'?” he said of the crackers.
Councilman Bill Peduto said he co-sponsored legislation after the Carlisle scandal to limit use of discretionary money. The bill failed for lack of support, he said.
Peduto, who is favored to become mayor in November's election, used about $2,800 for a temporary office staffer, Dan Groberg of Shadyside, during his primary election campaign. He said his office needed someone to serve constituents while he campaigned to win the Democratic nomination. He has two full-time staffers.
“It really comes down, at this point, to a decision of the individual council members on how they spend these funds,” Peduto said.
Bob Bauder is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pennsylvania constables need oversight to reduce problems, officials say
- Newsmaker: Enrique Mu
- Pittsburgh student jailed after striking school police officer
- Investors eager to trade cash for green cards in immigration program
- Pittsburgh Holocaust Center finally finds permanent home
- Legal response refutes claims of late Tribune-Review owner’s children to trusts
- Bridge work to cause early morning traffic stoppages on Parkway West off-ramp in Carnegie
- Wolf appoints 7 from Western Pennsylvania to his transition team
- Body found on Clairton Boulevard in Pleasant Hills
- U.S. Marshals arrest man wanted in fatal Penn Hills shooting
- Pittsburgh police to test new ‘ShotSpotter’ gunshot-detection system