Pittsburgh police officers' side jobs will test new Mayor Peduto
By Margaret Harding and Andrew Conte
Published: Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, 9:50 p.m.
Pittsburgh police Lt. Thomas Atkins netted more than $110,000 last year by scheduling and working off-duty security details for venues that included Rivers Casino, PNC Park and Consol Energy Center, records show.
But a change in rules that started under the Ravenstahl administration threatens Atkins' lucrative business by ending payments for cops who schedule officers to moonlight at bars, sports venues and private events.
The powerful police union, which originally agreed to amend the policy, is fighting the issue in what likely will be a first major test for Mayor Bill Peduto.
How much Atkins earned in moonlighting is known only because he went through the city payroll office, where records are available to the public under the state Right to Know Law.
Other schedulers worked off the city books, receiving payments directly from outside employers and often in cash. Atkins declined to talk about his work, calling it an internal matter.
“It's totally wrong for any city employee to sell the services of another city employee and to profit from it,” said Public Safety Director Mike Huss, a Ravenstahl administration holdover. “… You have these schedulers that were making money off the backs of other officers. It's wrong. We stopped it.”
More than 100 officers work as schedulers, including Fraternal Order of Police Local 1 union President Mike LaPorte, who lines up shifts for five bars and a jewelry store.
City documents prepared by his outside employers show he was supposed to be paid by cash and check for hourly rates of $25 to $38. LaPorte told the Tribune-Review that those documents were incorrect and he never received any money for scheduling others.
“The majority of officers don't make a red cent” by scheduling other officers, LaPorte said. “But the officers who do charge a scheduling fee, schedule a lot of officers. To say they aren't allowed anything for their time, there's an argument there.”
Peduto said last week that he was not prepared to comment. Based on their discussions last fall, Huss said, he expects the mayor will support the rule changes for schedulers that were made in response to the corruption scandal that led to the federal conviction of former city police Chief Nate Harper.
In response to a request from the Trib, Huss produced a letter signed by LaPorte that makes the secondary employment language in the FOP contract “null and void.”
The Peduto administration faces other issues with the police union, such as the city residency requirement for officers, which has gone to arbitration, and negotiating a contract.
The issue of secondary employment became a focal point when Harper pleaded guilty to diverting about $70,629 from the police Special Events Office into secret accounts at the police credit union and using about $31,987 to buy meals, booze, gift cards and other items.
The money came from an hourly cost recovery fee, now set at $4.38, that the city charges per officer for businesses to hire moonlighting cops. The fee is intended to cover workers' compensation and legal claims that arise from those details.
The new police policy standardized how much officers can charge for details, based on their rank. It ends the practice of businesses paying officers directly and in cash.
“I think that's a good thing,” LaPorte said. “It's a little bit of an inconvenience, but who cares? We are, and we should be, perceived as above reproach in all aspects. We have to maintain that image.”
The cash practice came out of an arbitration ruling but made a bad impression, Huss said. It was up to individual officers to report their earnings to the Internal Revenue Service.
The problem when an officer schedules outside details for others is that it establishes the perception of corruption and the opportunity for it to happen, said Sam Walker, a retired professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“There needs to be some tight regulation and supervision,” he said. “It's not clear who's running the department in terms of scheduling officers' time.”
Many scheduling agreements obtained by the Trib through a Right-to-Know request are incomplete, and some officers say inaccurate. Before the revamped policy was introduced, secondary employment rules were largely based on policy started after a 2006 arbitration award. The practice goes back to the 1970s.
Other supporting documents do not exist. Officers were supposed to report monthly on the hours spent on scheduling, according to the city's secondary employer form.
Lt. Ed Trapp, who recently started overseeing police special events, said, “No such [scheduler] forms exist.
“None was made, and none was kept. I guess no form was made to do it on,” he said.
Records provided by the law department showed at least 35 secondary employers left blank or did not fill in the space where they were supposed to report the rate they pay schedulers, the Trib found. Others had words like “varies,” “to be determined (TBD),” “same” and other responses.
Rivers Casino did not say on its form how much it pays Atkins, while Consol listed his scheduler rate as $12 paid through city payroll. The rate did not distinguish whether that was an hourly rate or not.
All off-duty details go through city payroll now so that a breakdown is generated showing base pay, off-duty, overtime and other premium pay, Huss said.
Atkins made $111,191.39 from off-duty details in 2013 as part of $115,000 in total premium pay. That was in addition to his base salary of $77,440 in 2013, according to city payroll records.
Travis Williams, chief operating officer for the Penguins, said the hockey team prefers Atkins because he has been working with them for years and schedules officers who understand the Consol arena's unique traffic and pedestrian issues.
”Rivers has been very satisfied with the scheduling process for off-duty police officers,” said Craig Clark, the casino general manager.
The union filed an expedited grievance over the secondary duty pay rate and elimination of the scheduler fee, meaning its complaint bypasses the police chief and goes straight to the law department.
Assistant City Solicitor Wendy Kobee said she contacted the union to set up dates for a meeting in the week after she received the grievance, but union members could not agree to a time and never followed up with her.
Officer Howard McQuillan, the FOP grievance officer, did not return messages seeking comment.
Margaret Harding and Andrew Conte are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Harding can be reached at 412-380-8519 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Conte can be reached at 412-320-7835 or email@example.com.
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