Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Questions Arise over Mayor's Travel Expenses

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Questions Arise over Mayor's Travel Expenses

Article excerpt

When Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl traveled to Chicago last December to speak at a forum at the University of Illinois, he took along government affairs manager Paul McKrell for a trip that would also include another, purely political leg.

When it came time to book flights and hotel rooms, the question arose: How should this be paid?

Mr. McKrell's airfare to Chicago and then to New York City and room at a Hilton were paid for with the mayor's city credit card -- to the tune of nearly $835. But since the flight ultimately brought Mr. McKrell to the Pennsylvania Society -- a highfalutin gathering held annually in the Big Apple -- part of it will be repaid with campaign dollars, the mayor's chief of staff said Monday. Mr. Ravenstahl's room and flight were paid for entirely by his campaign.

When city officials travel, deciding which credit card or account to use isn't always simple, as the Chicago and New York trips show. A lack of clear rules with regard to the use of city and campaign funds complicates that. And while city council approves other city officials' travel requests, only the controller sees the mayor's expenses.

A review of travel outlined in campaign and credit and debit card records from 2010 through 2012 indicates that the mayor traveled 18 times on the dime of the city or his campaign, including two cases in which a bodyguard paid for expenses using an unauthorized city account that has since become a subject of a federal investigation. Other official trips were underwritten with private sources -- like one to China in 2010 paid for by the Allegheny Conference.

"There are three buckets which I think someone in public office can pull money from," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of the watchdog group Pennsylvania Common Cause. "If it's a legitimate public business related to the office they represent, the public should be paying for it. If it's political activity, then it's legitimate to take it out of our campaign fund. Otherwise, if you're just traveling, every once in awhile you have to crack open your own checkbook."

Alleged misuse of public funds is at the center of the indictment last month of former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper, who is accused of shunting payments by private businesses for off-duty police work into a Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union account. He then drew on that account for $31,986 in personal expenses, according to the indictment.

Debit cards connected to the illicit accounts also ended up in the hands of the mayor's police bodyguard, Sgt. Dominick Sciulli, who said he didn't know the source of the funds. He used the debit card exclusively when he traveled with the mayor on city business, according to the mayor's chief of staff, Yarone Zober.

When the mayor travels on city business with city funds, he uses his city credit card.

The mayor's imprest fund -- an account that pays his city credit card bill -- was created by a resolution of council in 1995 under Mayor Tom Murphy. The legislation that established the fund doesn't speak to what it's to be used for. And while officials have repeatedly said it's for "city business," they could point to no city policy or legal opinion that defined its use.

City officials said state law spoke to that issue. State ethics laws bar any public official from using public funds or powers for the personal, pecuniary gain of the official or their immediate family, or for any business with which they are associated.

But the lack of rules can be problematic, as a case in Leetsdale demonstrated.

In January, the state Ethics Commission wrote an opinion on Leetsdale Borough Councilman Roger A. Nanni's use of a borough credit card, including for evening meetings at "various restaurants, bars, and other eateries/food service entities. …

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