Penn Hills man postpones White House protest in lieu of federal meeting about district
A Penn Hills man who threatened to chain himself to the White House front gate to draw attention to his financially troubled school district has postponed the protest pending a meeting with federal authorities.
Phil Vecchio, son of Penn Hills School Board President Erin Vecchio, was expected to go through with his pledge in Washington, D.C. on July 5.
He said he decided to forego chain himself to the gate after federal Department of Education investigators agreed to meet with him and his mother at Pittsburgh’s U.S. Secret Service building on July 15.
“I’ve agreed in good faith with everyone involved to pause all demonstrations until we see the outcome of our meeting,” he said. “If, for whatever reason, we believe that federal authorities aren’t going to seriously pursue a criminal investigation into the matter, I will be locked and chained to the gate of the White House. We hope that it doesn’t come to that, however, we are fully prepared to make the trip. Bail money is on standby, as always peaceful (protest).”
Vecchio said the U.S. Secret Service is aware of his plans.
“I totally plan on being arrested when and if we have to go down,” he said.
Erin Vecchio said Monday she was not happy with her son’s plan, but is grateful for the results.
“I quit talking to him for two days,” she said. “Now, I have to thank him. It is crazy, but it worked. God’s watching over us for some reason. We had nothing to do with this at my house. I’m showing up to tell them what I know. Philip arranged everything.”
The original promise to chain himself was made via Facebook in an effort to garner at least 1,000 signatures to his petition to Change.org in June.
Phil Vecchio seeks a federal bailout and criminal investigation into district finances. More than 1,260 people signed the petition as of Monday.
The social media comment did get federal attention. Secret Service agents visited his apartment and questioned his mother last week.
The district is about $172 million in debt largely due to the construction of the high school and elementary school in 2013 and 2014.
In May 2016, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale published a report that he described as “one of the worst school audits” he’d ever seen, citing alleged mismanagement of funds and district credit cards, among other concerns.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. launched a grand jury investigation shortly after DePasquale’s audit was released and, in February, released a two-part grand jury report that resulted in no recommendations for indictments, but blasted the district for fiscal mismanagement.
Erin Vecchio reached out to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro to start his own investigation into district finances but was denied.
She wrote to President Donald Trump seeking relief from the debt that she described as “being used for a kickback scheme involving the Penn Hills School District.”
A reply, dated June 10 from the White House, indicated her query was a local matter and not to be addressed at the federal level.
“After carefully reviewing your correspondence, we have determined that your concerns involve state or local matters,” the White House response read. “Please contact government officials in your state who can best address your situation …”
All of those inquiries and more will be discussed with federal authorities.
“We plan to provide evidence and a list of names of people that may be willing to contribute to the prosecution,” Phil Vecchio said.
Several calls to the Secret Service Pittsburgh office were not returned.
The school board recently adopted its 2019-20 budget with no tax increase, courtesy of a $3.3 million state funding boost.
The proposed tax hike was 1.9172 mills, or 6.69%. The current millage rate is 28.6646 mills, already among the highest in the region.
The boost also allowed the district to bring back six teachers and one specialist furloughed in May. The budget still included more than 20 other teacher furloughs.
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter .