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Trib seeks city cell-phone bills

| Friday, Oct. 3, 2003, 12:00 p.m.

Three City Council members and Mayor Tom Murphy missed a legal deadline to surrender records for city-issued cell phones sought by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle may have destroyed her cell-phone bills rather than make those records available to the public.

"We don't let the incinerator decide these disagreements," said attorney Ronald Barber of Strassburger, McKenna, Gutnick & Potter, who represents the Trib. "There is a law in Pennsylvania that says if you believe a document is about to be part of a court proceeding, you commit a crime if you destroy it to keep it from being available for that proceeding.

"So what would happen if a public official destroyed one of these records while subject to a request• They would be taking the law into their own hands and depriving the court of the right to decide whether it is a public record," Barber said.

The Trib requested travel, expense and cell-phone records Aug. 14 from elected Pittsburgh officials, who are seeking ways to close a projected $40 million budget shortfall. In seeking the documents, the newspaper relied on the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Act. The law requires officials to respond to such requests in five business days and allows for another 30 days to fully comply.

On Wednesday, council passed a resolution that allows members to pay the bill for their city-issued cell phones to avoid public scrutiny. Every member except Alan Hertzberg, who was not present for the vote, approved the measure.

Solicitor Jacqueline Morrow said she told council members before the vote that if they paid for personal calls, they could redact the phone numbers but not the duration or cost of each call. She said she later told members they could destroy the bills if they paid for them in full and preserved the "top of the bill" showing the full amount.

"I told them they didn't have to keep that on the theory it was no longer subject to Right-to-Know," Morrow said.

"I paid to own the records," Carlisle told the Trib.

Barber said Carlisle acknowledged destroying the phone records. She declined to discuss the issue with a Trib reporter.

In a letter yesterday, Barber informed the mayor about "what appears to be a willful destruction of public records by a member of City Council, apparently with the assistance and cooperation of the City Solicitor." The letter refers to three criminal statutes related to tampering with records, tampering with physical evidence and tampering with public records.

The letter also asks Murphy to "make clear" to all city officials that a document may not be destroyed once it has been made the subject of a Right-to-Know Act request until final disposition of the request.

Barber said the Trib also would challenge in court the solicitor's recommendation that public officials can withhold cell-phone records.

"I disagree with the solicitor that the public is not entitled to know who those people were," Barber said. "The secrecy being played here makes it all the more important for the public to know who it is that council is hiding so desperately."

Even if members pay for the calls, the records should remain public because they are being made or received on the city's phones, said Teri Henning, media-law counsel at the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

"Pennsylvania courts have made it clear that itemized cell-phone records of public officials are public records," Henning said. "Obviously in most cases, these documents are public because they reflect the disbursement of public money. Even if these officials are paying for some or even all of the bills, it's my opinion the records would still be public."

Carlisle and three other city elected officials -- Murphy and council members Barbara Burns and Len Bodack -- have not provided records for their city cell phones. Every official but Murphy has provided travel receipts if they had been reimbursed.

Morrow said the mayor would provide records related to his phone, travel and expenses as requested. Burns, who did not have any travel to report, said she would provide only phone records on the condition the newspaper not publish the numbers or call them. Bodack provided his travel records but could not be reached to comment for this story.

President Gene Ricciardi, Jim Motznik, William Peduto and Sala Udin provided detailed phone records.

Peduto, who started using a city cell phone in February, already had reimbursed the city for charges above the $35-a-month phone plan before the Trib requested the phone records.

Alan Hertzberg and City Controller Tom Flaherty do not use city phones.

Tucker Sciulli, who joined council in June, used a city phone for two months but has stopped using it. He has agreed to provide records of calls made in those two months.

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