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Steelers shooting party inquiry questioned

| Sunday, June 13, 2010

A federal whisterblower lawsuit has raised questions about how top Pennsylvania State Police officials handled allegations of favoritism toward Pittsburgh Steelers.

In 2006, several Steelers attended a shooting party at the Greensburg state police range with troopers after practice at training camp in Latrobe.

State troopers provided the Trib with 46 photographs of the party. The photos depict a dozen or more Steelers handling state police-issued AR-15 rifles, shotguns, a tear gas launcher and pistols while mugging with personnel from the Greensburg barracks.

The Trib asked state police spokeswoman Lt. Myra Taylor to provide the names of any group outside of law enforcement that had been allowed to fire state-owned weapons or ammunition at any range over the past decade.

She declined to answer.

The Harrisburg headquarters never probed the incident. Instead, it allowed the person who authorized the party -- then-commander Maj. Frank Monaco -- to do his own investigation.

"What the Greensburg range incident proves to us is that if state police officers don't find anything out, they don't have to punish anyone who is powerful," said Bruce A. Edwards, president of the Pennsylvania State Police Troopers Association.

Union officials contend that had a trooper orchestrated the gun party instead of Monaco, a very different reaction would've occurred. Monaco, who retired in 2008, is the Plum police chief.

Monaco says the shooting party is "much ado about nothing."

A federal lawsuit filed in 2008 by retired Lt. Jim Fulmer of Bolivar contends the photographs reveal safety issues at the party, including images showing players mistakenly pointing gun muzzles at other players. He filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging that state police officials showed favoritism toward cronies.

In a deposition, Monaco said two deputy commissioners received leaked e-mail photos of the Steelers' party. He said that Jeff Miller, the department's commissioner at the time and today a security director for the National Football League, called him "and we chatted about it."

"He had no problem. No violations. Nothing covered up. There was violation of nothing. I was willing to take responsibility. Put the blame on me. Because I knew about it," said Monaco in his deposition.

According to Monaco, the Steelers wanted to shoot at the state range.

Steelers players and security said the invitation came from the police.

Monaco said he authorized the party based on the promise that players would use either their own guns or those personally owned by the troopers.

"They shot with personally owned weapons with the troopers. Not state weapons. Not state ammunition," said Monaco.

Some players told the Trib they didn't bring their own guns or ammo. Weapons are prohibited in the dormitory at St. Vincent College.

"I was given a shotgun. It wasn't mine. It wasn't my ammunition," said Steelers offensive lineman Max Starks.

Photographs showed several Steelers pointing AR-15 rifles downrange with magazines inserted. Boxes of ammunition litter their feet and the ammo locker is clearly open, with cartons stacked for use on a nearby picnic table.

Former defensive end Rodney Bailey is wearing ear protection and smiling in one photograph, the AR-15 in his hands marked with the tell-tale white sticker designating it as state property.

Monaco says there is no proof the Steelers ever fired the weapons or bullets. He said he personally investigated, and his troopers assured him that except for old targets, no taxpayer property was used.

"Even if they did• So what?" Monaco said.

In a statement released through NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, Miller said that he had "no knowledge of the firing range incident until roughly two years after it occurred."

Retired Lt. Col. Ralph M. Periandi, Monaco's direct supervisor, said he didn't learn about the incident until the late fall of 2006, several months after the party.

Periandi said it "would have made a difference about how we looked at it internally" had Monaco alleged that if state equipment were used. But he assured Periandi that no taxpayer weapons or ammo had been provided to the Steelers.

"Frank Monaco brought it to our attention," Periandi said. "He said, 'There are photos that are out there. I don't know who has the photos or e-mails that have been sent around, but Harrisburg should not be surprised by this."

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