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Pittsburgh council members take advantage of 'walking around money'

| Monday, Oct. 28, 2013, 12:11 a.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Dana Stringe of the South side holds a pack of peanut butter crackers given by Pittsburgh City Council member Darlene Harris in Market Square on Sunday October 27, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
A pack of peanut butter crackers given by Pittsburgh City Council member Darlene Harris in front of the City-County Building on Sunday October 27, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
A pack of peanut butter crackers given by Pittsburgh City Council member Darlene Harris in Market Square on Sunday October 27, 2013.

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 bbauder@tribweb.com.

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