Slushiegate 101: The CliffsNotes Version

It’s a mess.

A big mess.

Grant Street is in turmoil, painted with muted shades of Detroit in a color Sherwin Williams would call Grey Ethics or Shady Shenanigans.

If you haven’t been following the story, and I know many of you are just now paying attention as it’s just getting good, let’s quickly recap what has happened and why it matters and what questions are left to be answered. This is what I understand to be true and to be the timeline. I am not a journalist. REPEAT. I AM NOT A JOURNALIST. I have never claimed to be one and I will never become one. This is simply what I understand to be true based on media reports. If I’ve got a detail wrong, let me know in the comments. Don’t freak out. Chillax.

Here we go. There will be a quiz.

– In 2010 Mayor Ravenstahl came under fire for the exorbitant cost of his security detail. $200,000 in overtime in two years alone, not to mention salaries, expenses, etc. No mayor before him had ever managed to rack up such costs. It was exposed. I wrote about it in an open letter to Lukey as I often did.  In response to the scandal, I understand the mayor shrunk his security team a bit.

– In the past week, the FBI raided the special events office of the Pittsburgh Police. This is the office that handles, assigns, and bills for side work of members of the police force. When you go to a Pitt game or whatnot and you see officers? Side work. They get paid for that outside of their regular police wages. There is and has been a whole lot of controversy surrounding the special events office. That’s nothing new.

– The purpose of the raid was an investigation into the discovery that Nate Harper, police chief, or his office, had opened an account at a nonprofit police credit union and into this account, tens of thousands of dollars were being deposited — money that should have been deposited into one of the official, valid, legal city accounts. For instance, the force invoiced Pitt for side work to the tune of several thousand dollars. The payment check was then deposited into this off-the-books account no one knew about. That’s not good. That’s basically theft. Nate Harper closed the account a few weeks ago.

– Unknown figures in the city had debit cards linked to this account. Expenditures were for things like airfare, hotels, restaurant bills in places like DC and Denver and locally as well. At first, we were not told who had those debit cards.

– Luke, who originally stood by Nate Harper’s side, met with the FBI this week and on that very day, based on information he learned, asked for Chief Harper’s resignation. That was a good thing. That made me happy. Luke took new information and used it to make a new decision. A+!

– Luke stated he was not a target of the investigation, that he had no prior knowledge of the account or who had debit cards associated with the illegal slush fund. Slush fund. That’s what it was.

– Yesterday it was revealed by the Post-Gazette that it was the mayor’s bodyguards who had debit cards for the illegal slush fund account. [thud] I honestly didn’t see that coming. I’m so naive. Luke claimed he had no idea that they had the cards or that they were linked to the illegal account.

Today, it was revealed by the Post-Gazette, that a former member of Luke’s security detail claimed and would take a lie detector test to prove that Luke did indeed know of the account and the cards, and that their purpose was to avoid the scrutiny on the spending that would surely come down on Luke’s security detail in light of how much he came under fire for it in 2010. Luke says these are all lies. Then apparently someone, possibly on Grant Street, turned the Post-Gazette on to the accuser’s ex-girlfriend to lay waste to any claim the accuser might have to being an honest individual. And she did a really good job.

Who knows who to believe?

It’s a mess.

Thoughts:

1. We’ve taken a ding here. And if you love Pittsburgh, no matter how much you may personally dislike or distrust the mayor, you’ve got to want these allegations against him to be untrue. You’ve got to not want Pittsburgh’s name hanging out with Detroit’s and other cities we see as corrupt. Not that politics, and city politics, aren’t already by nature corrupt as we have only an inkling of what really goes on, but such a public smear on the name of the Office of Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh is a terrible thing. Want not.

2. If you love Pittsburgh, if the allegations turn out to be true, you’ve got to take that smear and be thankful for it because it will mean something harmful to our city has come to an end. It will be a small scar that we can learn from, rather than an internal injury we aren’t aware of until it grew out of control and became too late to repair without permanent damage.

3. You’ve got to ask yourself the questions.

Is it possible the mayor really didn’t know? If not, who would put illegal debit cards into the hands of his security detail knowing very well the resulting scandal could deeply risk the mayor’s position? If he didn’t know, is someone out to get him? To bring him down? Is he just a puppet taking a fall because someone decided to cut the strings? Very John Grisham-y.

Is Michael Lamb really in a position to criticize at this point? He’s running for mayor and he’s also the current lead overseer of all things financial when it comes to the management of Pittsburgh’s money.  My advice to the mayoral candidates is to lay off a bit. We are well aware of what this could mean for Mayor Luke without it being shoved in our faces all “NEENER NEENER NEENER!” Here’s your comment, “I love Pittsburgh, and for Pittsburgh’s sake, I hope these allegations against the mayor are false. I’d prefer to win the office of the mayor standing on my good name and my strong platform and ethics, rather than on the crumbling remains of Luke Ravenstahl’s administration.”

Is Nate Harper the fall guy? What benefit at all did he really derive from the illegal slush fund? I couldn’t think of one. Can you?

It’s a mess. And it’s going to get messier because this isn’t a city investigation capable of being swept quietly away; it’s the FBI and we are just at the beginning of this bumpy road.

One thing is certain … the mayoral debate on March 17 is going to ROCK.

I cannot freaking wait for the verbal sparring. I bet it gets so great at one point that the moderator involuntarily goes all…

snap





33 Comments

  1. Cole
    February 22, 2013 10:49 am

    Great cliff notes version of the current situation in the City.



  2. Rob Pfaffmann
    February 22, 2013 10:54 am

    Agreed, this IS great Journalism and the kind of summary that is needed desparately so often with these complex issues.



  3. AngryMongo
    February 22, 2013 10:56 am

    We need Harvey Dent.



  4. Brandon
    February 22, 2013 11:01 am

    As a business owner in this city, which I love with all my heart and I was NOT raised here, this story is not surprising. It IS surprising that it’s now out in the open, but the corruption is not. The depths that the corruption reaches is staggering, and its just plain sad.



  5. Sooska
    February 22, 2013 11:05 am

    More like “Visit Pittsburgh! Or as we say, West Philadelphia” or “Pittsburgh: The 21st Century Philadelphia” Thanks Lukey et al



  6. dand
    February 22, 2013 11:18 am

    At first I read the title as “sushigate”, and was slightly disappointed when re-read it. But then I read the content and left satisfied.

    Also, isn’t it a little bit ridiculous that the mayor of Pittsburgh requires a security detail involving bodyguards plural?



  7. tehamy
    February 22, 2013 11:24 am

    As an accountant, my first question is to Lamb. How is it that invoices sent, funds received and then no one questioned why payments weren’t made? How did his office not find this? What about the City’s auditors? How did they not find it? It’s clear that something is not right in how these activities are accounted for.

    I waffle on what I think Luke knew. Part of me thinks that he HAD to have known. The other part of me thinks that perhaps it really was just an ignorance is bliss type of thing. These guys all of a sudden have credit cards and he just figures that it all good. Of course as mayor, you would think that he would want to know what’s going on, but I think the Luke has proven in the past that he isn’t that kind of mayor. At worst, he was in on it and is lying. At best, he had his head in the sand and didn’t ask question so that if it ever came out, he could deny any knowledge.



    • Julia
      February 22, 2013 12:42 pm

      Regarding your comment about the auditors, both internal and external –

      If the invoices never went beyond the police chief’s office, it’s my thinking that Lamb wouldn’t have known. He could have questioned, mind you, and he could have been lazy and not followed up … but if the invoices were meant to be hidden, then they would be hidden.

      External auditors have a responsibility to issue an opinion on the overall financial statements as to whether they have reasonable assurance that controls are operating effectively, as well as reasonable assurance there are no material misstatements. There are tests a CPA can perform on internal controls to check for fraud, and the CPA can make suggestions to management in a post-planning discussion, but ultimately, if someone wants to commit fraud, they will commit fraud.

      Especially when you have multiple people in collusion, it’s not the auditor’s responsibility at that point. In fact, it could be almost impossible to catch on financial statements sometimes. It’s the organization, and its culture of unaccountability and dishonesty. And who has the most impact on an organization’s culture? The CEO. Or in our case, the Mayor.



  8. Jen
    February 22, 2013 11:41 am

    Since the “Luke needs a 24 hr bodyguard” issue has been a <i?“Flames, on the side of my face” type of issue for me, I don’t find it surprising that the useless spending is tied into the slushie spending.

    Because who wants folks trying to account for money that you don’t want tracked…it can cramp your style. As in, when you’re taking cookies from the cookie jar and you don’t want anyone to know, just hide the damn cookie jar. [I don't know how deep Luke is in on this, I'm finding his (feigned) ignorance/ shifting blame is hilarious.]

    It makes sense that Luke wanted the state budget oversight board to leave the oversight to the city now, eh?

    ***

    Right now, the only thing that matters is if Luke gets the Allegheny County Democratic Committee nomination on March 10. Because, it doesn’t matter what you have done, it only matters if you’re the endorsed democratic candidate in the city!



    • Sara
      February 22, 2013 3:59 pm

      As a former ACDC member who did NOT vote for Luke to get the endorsement the last time(s) around (and was in the vast minority) I am pretty confident that he’ll get it again. Overall they are still pretty stacked with Luke lackeys (and they don’t have me anymore, haha). I’d be shocked if he didn’t. Pleasantly shocked, but still. Especially with Lamb and Peduto splitting the anti-Luke bill, though agree that Lamb’s not doing himself any favors here and the quieter Peduto stays, the better.



      • Bram R
        February 23, 2013 2:42 am

        ACDC ward leaders and majorities have been getting beat regularly on the city council level. State rep, sometimes. It’s the $64,000 question whether the official endorsement could prove every bit as ineffectual for a citywide race. If you ask me, Ravenstahl’s real advantage is with the ACCD, the Allegheny Conference of Community Development.



    • Emme Kay
      February 23, 2013 1:52 pm

      Great Clue reference!



  9. Ben
    February 22, 2013 12:11 pm

    It’s embarrassing no matter how you slice it. Great column, Ginny!



  10. mfj
    February 22, 2013 1:30 pm

    “Ravenstahl ’13. NOT the Target of a Criminal Investigation.”



  11. cmm
    February 22, 2013 1:58 pm

    Nate Harper has as much to gain by a slush fund as anyone else…..free reign to spend someone else’s money on whatever with no accountability. You don’t think that the city would reimburse an employee for a bar tab do you?



  12. Toni
    February 22, 2013 2:42 pm

    Sorry Ginny but your wrong. I ADORE Pittsburgh, love it with my whole heart. And I want this Mayor GONE. I love Pittsburgh so much that I want that boy idiot out. He’s a stain and a blight on this city.

    Have you forgotten past news articles on this azz?

    * Barges into a Golf tournament so he can rub elbows with Tiger Woods.

    * Has that expensive security posse of his go to not 1, not 2, but ALL the Penguin cup games…including the ones in Detroit, so he can “represent”.

    * When asked where he went when he was missing for something like 2 weeks, snarled at a reporter “Next you’ll want to know what kind of underwear I’m wearing!” ( My choice is underroos)

    * Was partying, with I believe Michael Huss at Seven Springs for his birthday when he declared Pittsburgh in a state of emergency and a man died during the snow storm as an ambulance failed to reach him and he was told to walk across a bridge?

    * Made sure no leak of his pending divorice proceedings saw the light of day until AFTER he won the last election.

    *He and his ex retained a lawyer ready to sue for slander anyone who opened their mouth to hint at the shinanegans that most probably lead to his divorice.

    *Flew to NY in a private jet and stayed in a penthouse while refusing to devulge the facts to reporters who inquired.

    The list goes on and on.
    I don’t care if the ex security guard has 56 kids to 48 women. He may indeed be scum….doesn’t make the boy who would be king lily white and pure. I can TOTALLY see how this Mayor would try to circumvent having to devulge how where and why his posse spent the money.

    All I can hope for is that the fireman and the police unions who love pushing that little D button come election time remember that this Mayor, the day after he stated he was standing behind Harper, so swifty threw him off and demanded a resignation without giving anyone a detailed explanation. There are other Democrat runners in the Mayor race….can we please elect an adult this time?



  13. Rita
    February 22, 2013 2:55 pm

    Gotta love how everyone loves and trusts a source if it plays into the side of the story they want to believe. All of a sudden this former bodyguard (Fred Crawford) is a trusted source? There is a big problem with using him as a source. In 2006 this same bodyguard was reprimanded for giving someone his police special events password to get more work side work. The whole current scandal appears to involve the special events account. Does nobody want to believe that this former bodyguard has an agenda? He maybe wants to try and help his friends that have been hiding the way they handle this account?

    Funny the Post-Gazette didn’t do their homework from their own paper. That is because they want the headline to scream we have a scandal almost as good as Watergate!

    Mayor pulls public safety nominee – October 11, 2006
    http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/local/neighborhoods-city/mayor-pulls-public-safety-nominee-454130/

    “The bureau now has a computerized system that officers use to sign up for side jobs providing security at private businesses. Passwords limit the number of lucrative side jobs an officer can take on, and allow the bureau to track employees’ moonlighting.

    In May of this year, Officer Fred Crawford signed a memorandum confirming that he had given Detective Rende permission to use his password and work his side jobs.”



  14. fran
    February 22, 2013 3:18 pm

    Ok, after this post, can I give more to kids? Well done.

    Ravenstahl has always been a young face for the old machine.



  15. Toni
    February 22, 2013 3:20 pm

    And I say again, this guy may be the biggest scum bag out there……but that doesn’t mean that Lukey is lily white and pure. Prison cellmates are BOTH scumbags……doesn’t mean when 1 scumbag rats the other out he isn’t giving relevent or correct information.

    Fred Crawford may be scum…and he MAY have an agenda…but then again he may be scum and is telling the truth. And looking at Lukey’s past actions regarding HIS lying and his filtering of information…I could see where he would want information kept under wraps.

    Fred’s scum. Mayor’s scum. The difference is that Fred does little to impact the city where Lukey is an embarassment.



  16. Carpetbagger
    February 22, 2013 5:12 pm

    Now I want a slushie. A cherry slushie.



  17. Meghan
    February 22, 2013 7:34 pm

    If he knew – what an arrogant dumbass. If he didn’t know – what an ignorant dumbass. Eithwe way – who wants a dumbass running the city?



  18. Meghan
    February 22, 2013 7:34 pm

    If he knew – what an arrogant dumbass. If he didn’t know – what an ignorant dumbass. Either way – who wants a dumbass running the city?



  19. Dan (Not Onorato)
    February 22, 2013 8:17 pm

    The fact that this City hasnt had a republican mayor since…well since forever…shows you the corruption has been around since…well since forever.

    I agree though the debates will be awesome!



  20. Bram R
    February 23, 2013 2:45 am

    Can we leave Detroit out of it in the future please. Only serious comment. Great post.



  21. bucdaddy
    February 23, 2013 2:50 am

    Every state’s citizens like to think they have the most corrupt government on the planet, but as a West Virginian, I have to hand it to you: This fuss even manages to overshadow the Ories getting convicted (again?). Maybe it was intended to.

    I love this line, from the PG:

    Mr. Mabon said the word “acquittal” never came up in the room while jurors deliberated.

    “Actually, we never even talked about that,” he said.

    Only in Pennsylvania. And maybe Chicago.

    It’s true once again that you get the government you deserve.

    Man, it’s been a REAL LONG TIME since we sent Arch Moore away.



  22. Ready2retire
    February 23, 2013 7:58 am

    Great article Ginny….
    Look, political office is not the most lucrative position a person could pursue. the Mayor of Pittsburgh earns 100,000 per year….certainly not “chump change” , but certainly not a salary that would attract the best or brightest. Other political offices can be “jumping off” posts…making $150,000 per speech after being President of the US helps rationalize that salary (and, well, there is a bit of power there that may be considered attractive)

    Are there politicians sitting in chairs too big for them? Sure. IMO, if the pay was better, the quality of the candidates would improve. Until then, we get these sad situations where underqualified people fail on a big stage…a stage they should be viewing instead of performing on.



  23. MattDC
    February 23, 2013 1:58 pm

    Well, this is all news to us ex-’burghers. I have no detailed grasp of the facts, so I’ll just blurt out my two big picture reactions: (1) It hardly seems like corruption on a grand scale, and barely worthy of notice in a bigger city. Now if the debit card transactions were tied to drug money laundering or Colombian prostitutes on Secret Service detail, well THEN you got a story; (2) a little slush fund controversy might actually put Pittsburgh on the map as a big city. Local political corruption is never desirable, but it’s as American as apple pie. I love coming from the home of Mr. Rodgers, but Fred never had his ring kissed by the chairman of the DNCC in a close national election.



  24. Emme Kay
    February 23, 2013 2:02 pm

    I’m slightly bitter that he gets multiple bodyguards and the public library I used to work for didn’t even get a security officer. I bet I’ve been threatened with bodily harm as often than Lukey has.



  25. don
    February 24, 2013 8:56 pm

    Detroit, Chicago, DC and Pittsburgh. You get the government you deserve when you vote. When it is local that is your cross to bear but Pittsburgh helped elect obama and that hurts the entire Nation.



  26. Fran
    February 26, 2013 7:27 am

    According to local media outlets, Lamb knew about the accounts 3 months ago. Maybe we’ll lose 2 out of the 3 mayoral candidates?



  27. Callser
    February 28, 2013 10:48 am

    BREAKING NEWS!! Lukey may not seek re-election. I WONDER WHY??!!