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Mayor faults Harper for account, cards

| Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, 11:51 a.m.
Acting Pittburgh police Chief Regina McDonald
Acting Pittburgh police Chief Regina McDonald
'It is a sad day' said Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to the media when announcing that he asked Pittsburgh Police Cheif Nate Harper to resign Wednesday, February 20, 2013.  Heidi Murrin  Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
'It is a sad day' said Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to the media when announcing that he asked Pittsburgh Police Cheif Nate Harper to resign Wednesday, February 20, 2013. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on Friday heaped blame on ousted police Chief Nate Harper for opening a secret discretionary spending account at the police credit union and giving debit cards from those accounts to the mayor's bodyguards.

“They simply were given cards, and assumed at that point as a normal employee would assume that when the chief gives out a card, that it is a legitimate city account,” Ravenstahl said in a wide-ranging interview alongside Public Safety Director Mike Huss, who has largely remained silent on the controversy until now.

Robert Del Greco Jr., Harper's attorney, declined to comment. Harper has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing.

The comments mark the first time Ravenstahl revealed at least part of his motivation for forcing Harper, 60, of Stanton Heights to resign on Wednesday, ending his 36-year career as a police officer amid a federal investigation into police spending.

Asked if he blames Harper, Ravenstahl said, “Yeah, it's created a ton of questions that are of course being raised of me and us, and it's created a number of allegations about me and us that are simply not true.”

Ravenstahl said the most startling allegations came this week from Fred Crawford of Morningside, a former member of the mayor's inner circle of police bodyguards.

Crawford, who retired in 2011, said Ravenstahl and Huss knew about the account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union and relied on it to conceal out-of-town expenses and those of his bodyguards from media scrutiny under the state's Right-to-Know law.

“Fred Crawford and his statements are a complete lie,” Ravenstahl said. “His motive to me is pretty clear. He left here as a disgruntled employee.”

Crawford is out of the country and could not be reached.

Two top police leaders said they recently learned of the existence of debit cards in their names. Members of the command staff said they were surprised to learn of the cards, which draw from accounts not authorized for city money.

“It must have been something only they knew about,” said Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly, a frequent critic of the Ravenstahl administration. “They wouldn't have wanted me to know.”

Cmdr. Cheryl Doubt, who heads the narcotics and vice unit, said that at one point she suggested using credit cards to cover expenses.

“To find out there was this kind of stuff going on is disappointing,” Doubt said. “I think we could've done that in a way that was justified and legal.”

Revelations about the cards' existence and their use by Ravenstahl's security — which coincided with FBI searches at police headquarters and the credit union — have drawn questions about spending by the mayor during trips on which guards accompany him.

His current bodyguards are Sgt. Dom Sciulli and Sgt. Matt Gauntner. The mayor's office declined to grant an interview with Sciulli, who was returning from a personal trip to Thailand. Gauntner said he never used the card in his name.

Payroll records show Gauntner made $101,207 in overtime pay from 2010 through 2012 on top of his base salary of $72,985 a year. So far this year, he has made $7,348.20 in overtime.

Sciulli made $91,753 in overtime pay during the same period in addition to his $67,330 base salary. So far this year, he has made $4,259.33 in overtime.

Crawford earned $22,095 in overtime pay in 2010, the last year he worked on the security detail.

Records show Ravenstahl used his official, city-issued credit card during trips to pay for airfare, meals and hotel rooms used by members of his staff, including Chief of Staff Yarone Zober, policy manager Gabe Mazefsky, Sciulli and government affairs manager Paul McKrell, Ravenstahl's campaign manager in 2009.

He said the budget office told him the card was for his use alone.

From 2007 to early 2013, credit card expenses totaled almost $22,000. Spending on the card is capped at $10,000 a year.

City Controller Michael Lamb audits the expenses. In two instances over dozens of trips, the mayor used his card to pay for Sciulli's hotel room. Most of the time, the charges covered travel expenses for Zober and McKrell.

The mayor's office could not tell the Tribune-Review how many times Ravenstahl has traveled out of town since he took office in 2006. It's unclear how much he and his guards drew from credit union accounts during trips.

“There were times, at least early on, that I did pay for Dom or Yarone or other staffers on that (city-issued) card. They then said you can't do that, at which point, Dom went to the chief and requested an opportunity to use police funds because he couldn't use my funds, and I told him to handle it with the chief,” Ravenstahl said. “That's who he reported to, that's what he did, that's the request he made. Of course we had no idea that this account wasn't a city account.”

Ravenstahl said credit union accounts should never have been created or used for any purpose.

Credit union CEO Karen Janoski could not be reached.

Sandy Lazzara, who retired as CEO in April, said an account was opened while she was there. She would not say who opened it, how much money was in it, how many cards were associated with it or what it was used for. She said the account never triggered cash transaction reports, which are generated for deposits of more than $10,000 in a day. She said it wasn't a “big-used account.”

“No abnormal flags have ever arisen on the account,” Lazzara said. “It was an ordinary account.”

She said there are 6,000 accounts at the credit union, and she doesn't remember any tellers raising questions about the chief's office account.

“Usually, you remember the trouble ones,” Lazzara said.

Lamb, who is running against Ravenstahl and City Councilman Bill Peduto in the Democratic mayoral primary, is skeptical.

“I don't see how you can go and open up an account with a check from the city of Pittsburgh, even at a mom-and-pop shop like that, without anyone questioning it,” Lamb said.

City Solicitor Dan Regan said the Ravenstahl administration has been unable to get records from the credit union to review transactions. The mayor said federal authorities during an interview on Wednesday showed him a report of Sciulli's account activity.

Jeremy Boren and Margaret Harding are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Boren can be reached at 412-320-7935 or Harding can be reached at 412-380-8519 or Staff writers Bobby Kerlik and Brian Bowling contributed to this report.

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