It could cost as much as $120,000 to figure out how former Police Chief Nate Harper redirected $70,000 in city funds, says the Tribune-Review. "If they'd like to give me $90,000, I'm sure I could put it to good use," says City Council President Darlene Harris. Which sounds like exactly the kind of mindset that got us into this mess, doesn't it? (Just kidding, Ms. Harris: I know what you mean.) I guess it's sort of ironic that rooting out the alleged crimes here costs more than the alleged crimes themselves, but what are you gonna do? Insist that city employees in the future take more of our money?
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is ending his practice of demanding resignation letters from appointees, after criticism of a heavy-handed approach that Fitzgerald first articulated in our pages nearly three months ago. Give Fitzgerald credit for knowing when to back off ... and in a way, give him credit for being so upfront about what he was doing. There are plenty of other, more subtle, ways to undermine board independence ... and honestly, I can't think of a single high-profile case where an appointee bucked the will of the person who appointed him, letters or no.
Over the weekend, local professor (and very occasional City Paper contributor) Kathy Newman wrote a Post-Gazette op-ed about why she was refusing to let her kid take the PSSA assessment test. (The reason, in a nutshell: The seemingly ever-expanding testing regime distorts the whole purpose of education.) That piece drew a response from Gov. Tom Corbett's education department, but despite their efforts, it has "gone viral," earning more than 33,000 Facebook likes, over 400 comments, and plaudits from all the way over in Philadelphia. Perhaps a wave is gathering?
Could an expansion of the light-rail system maybe, possibly, take place sometime in the indeterminate future? Signs point to "perhaps".
A Pew Survey shows some ambivalence about natural-gas drilling, at least when you look on the national scale ... opinions diverge sharply based on party affiliation and proximity to the drilling jobs. (Stories like this one probably don't help the industry's cause.) The poll's most depressing finding: Despite years of increasing temperatures -- and a growing consensus that global warming is taking place -- fewer Americans now feel like it's a serious problem. We're gonna get what we deserve, folks.
And if you're looking for something to do tonight, you might want to pick up tickets to a mayoral debate sponsored by WPTS-FM, Pitt's radio station. I hope to be there myself, so agoraphobes and people with more active social lives can follow the action on my Twitter account.
First things first: The Supreme Court heard arguments in a second gay-marriage case yesterday, and you can find audio and a transcript here. The first hour or so involves a debate over standing -- the right of a party to bring a case -- and is pretty excruciating, though the court may decide to toss the case entirely on that basis. The second part deals with the merits ... and you can see why Paul Clement -- who represents the anti-equality crowd -- is as feared as he is. At times, he almost makes it sound like he's doing same-sex couples a favor by barring them from enjoying the same rights as straights. He just wants to treat gay couples in different states equally, you see. Even if that means "equally badly." In any case, this is a good time to remind folks that even here in Pennsyltucky, support for gay marriage is on the rise.
In related developments, did you know that our very own Sen. Bob Casey is one of the few Democratic Senators to oppose gay marriage equality? Are you even surprised? A group of progressive activists is trying to change his mind.
Are parking valets going rogue in Market Square? There have been allegations that a parking valet outfit, hired by the city to make dining in Market Square more convenient, have actually been making things worse -- by laying claim even to public parking spaces. The firm's ownership has political ties -- although hey, who doesn't in this town? -- and blames gripes on a "rogue" employee. But folks are riled up now. You could probably loot the city treasury and not raise an eyebrow in this town, but if Pittsburghers think you're improperly taking away a parking space? Watch out.
Concerns continue to mount over an issue we first reported earlier this year -- Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's use of undated resignation letters to keep nominally "independent" board appointees in line. Fitzgerald has now handed over the names of more than three dozen appointees whose letters he has in hand, prompting no small amount of hand-wringing in county government.
Finally, a quick round-up of mayoral action. Bill Peduto releases an internal poll showing himself with a 9-point lead over Jack Wagner in the mayor's race. That result echoes a similar poll from an independent-but-fledgling outfit, but Wagner himself says he's got polling that shows a tighter race. Wagner hasn't released that data yet, however, so you're free to ignore it even more thoroughly than you'd ignore an internal poll that a candidate does release. In other news, Wagner earned the backing of state Sen. Jim Ferlo and the FOP -- with whom Ferlo has long squabbled. (For that matter, Ferlo and Wagner fought when they both served on council ... though as Ferlo pointed out to me yesterday, in those days he was an ally of then-Mayor Tom Murphy. And we know how that ended up.) Peduto, meanwhile, announced an endorsement from Ed Gainey -- a disclosure which surprises absolutely no one, but still represents the earliest endorsement from a black leader that I can think of. Also, Darlene Harris has dropped her own mayoral bid -- anyone want to bet against her endorsing Wagner too?
Remember Bradley Walker, the detective who attacked an unsuspecting motorist in 2010 during an apparent road rage incident? Remember how the city was getting sued for not removing Walker from the force prior to that point, when he had numerous complaints lodged against him? Remember how I said it would be "ironic" if the city was able to dodge the blame in court by claiming Walker was off-duty during the road-rage incident, considering a judge in another case ruled that officers are never really off-duty -- even when they accidentally shoot someone? Well, guess what: The legal system is ironic. And in other policing news, it looks like former/indicted police Chief Nate Harper was talking to the FBI much earlier than previously known. And that his side business involved more officers. Meanwhile, it's still a mystery as to where some $38,000 in public funds that weren't spent by Harper ended up.
And as if to prove over-the-top allegations against police aren't just a 'Burgh thing, Beaver County Sheriff George David is indicted for making threats against a campaign volunteer and a blogger. State Attorney General Kathleen Kane says of David, "It's not enough for law officers to simply abide by the law. They must also set a good example for others." Really? Someone should tell the Pittsburgh police!
Last week, the state's top official at the Department of Environmental Protection, Michael Krancer, stepped down -- to work as a lawyer for the energy companies he used to "regulate," of course. And who better to serve as an interim replacement than a staffer with no environmental experience, who appears to be serving only part-time? This state belongs to gas-drillers, folks. The rest of you just live here.
"Mon/Fayette Expressway advocates optimistic" reads the Tribune-Review headline. Well of course they are -- how else could they still be expressway advocates after all this time? But now they are pinning their hopes on Gov. Tom Corbett's transportation spending plan. Since, you know, all the maintenance on existing roads has been taken care of.
I've avoided offering up too many headlines concerning GOP plans to revamp the way the state parcels out votes in the Electoral College, since the Republicans can't win the old-fashioned way. Perhaps I'm as starry-eyed as a Mon-Fayette proponent, but I don't see a lot of movement on these plans, and I find it hard to believe that even state Republicans can be THAT shameless. But Democrats are taking plans being kicked around Harrisburg very seriously, and maybe they're right. If nothing else, it's a great fundraising tool! In any case, they are sounding the alarm through robocalls and e-mail blasts.
The court battle over UPMC's tax-exempt status -- challenged by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl -- is a long way off. But in the meantime, here's a primer on some of the legal questions, and a discussion of how a Supreme Court decision last year really helps the city's cause. Meanwhile, plans to basically nullify that decision are making headway in Harrisburg, where Republicans are leading the charge for an amendment to the state constitution. The amendment process is time-consuming -- it involves two separate bills passing the legislature, and a public referendum -- and the earliest such a measure could pass is 2015. But I don't think UPMC would have too much trouble dragging out a court battle to that point, do you? (Still, it's kind of funny to see UPMC's cause being championed by Republicans, who also oppose a state Medicaid expansion that would help hospitals tremendously.)
Remember how just yesterday I was saying what a nice change-of-pace it was not to have include any police-related headlines in this feature? Alas. The Tribune-Review claims that an indictment of former police chief Nate Harper is in the offing. The Trib also follows up on a KDKA story previously noted here: The lawyer for Edward Lojack Jr., who claims to have been roughed up by Pittsburgh police on St. Patrick's Day is pointing to a similar incident involving the same officer three years ago. Oh, and the jury has that trial involving former detective Bradley Walker, so one way or the other there's another headline coming down the pike.
Earlier this week, there was a flurry of reports about a strange-bedfellow partnership between environmental groups and the natural-gas drilling industry: Representatives from both sides had hashed out a certification process for trying to elevate environmental standards at drilling sites. Well, turns out the Sierra Club is not amused. "The majority of natural gas must stay in the ground if we want any chance of avoiding climate disaster," says a spokesperson for one of the nation's most prominent environmental groups. And somewhere, a gas company executive is smiling.
In other drilling news, you probably don't recall, but some time ago a Washington County property owner and a gas driller settled a lawsuit alleging environmental problems on the site. But the settlement, and other court documents, were sealed -- over media objections. Now that material has been unsealed, and -- surprise! -- the papers suggest lax DEP oversight ... carried out in part by a DEP employee who then went on to work for Range Resources, the very company who was operating the well in question. (Hundreds of court documents are unveiled for your reading pleasure here.)
Oh, and maybe you heard that the state House passed a bill privatizing liquor stores? Now it goes to the Senate, where the troubles really begin. But in the meantime, enjoy this story, complete with a somewhat disconcerting close-up photo of Republican House leader Mike Turzai.
Oh, and my condolences to Pitt fans everywhere.
The big news yesterday, obviously, was Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's plan to challenge the tax-exempt status of UPMC. Plenty of coverage out there of course; a decent primer is here, with some discussion of the long-term political implications here. Stay tuned for plenty more. For now, I'll just observe that in the past week, the mayor has been grousing about police conduct and tilting at the UPMC windmill. People are going to speculate that he's pitching for a job at Highmark when he leaves office next year ... but looks to me like, if anything, he's angling for a column at City Paper.
A bill currently idling in a state House committee would make it a crime to photograph or document what goes on at a farm without the permission of the owner, report our friends at PublicSource. The most obvious motive for the legislation is PETA-style videos of mistreated chickens, but in the Age of Marcellus, could the measure also keep gas drilling under wraps?
In other ideas-you-wish-legislators-would-keep-to-themselves news, pro-choice groups are sounding the alarm about bills to prohibit coverage of abortion in insurance policies offered by state "insurance exchanges". The exchanges, set up by Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul, allow people to buy insurance if they can't get it from their employer ... so naturally this is an opportunity for Republicans to press an anti-choice agenda.
Contrariwise, most folks will be excited that a bill to advance the privatization of state liquor-store sales is poised to advance farther than it has at any time in living memory. The state House could take a vote as early as this afternoon ... though the Senate may be a harder sell. And this is Pennsylvania, so the real action is always out of sight. Apparently, part of the GOP calculus here is trying to ensure that Gov. Tom Corbett's first term isn't a complete embarrassment.
An unusual coalition of environmental groups and natural gas drillers unveiled a plan to minimize the impact of natural-gas drilling. It relies on drillers seeking a newly created environmental certification at drill sites around the state. We'll have more on this in a bit, but for now, it's worth noting that the program is strictly voluntary ... and Range Resources, one of the region's most active drillers, wasn't at the unveiling.
Political analyst Stu Rothenberg says Pennsylvania is key to Democrats (very slim) hopes of retaking the US House of Representatives next year. He cites two districts in particular as ripe for a Democratic coup ... but neither are around here. While Rothenberg acknowledges that Keith "Regular Guy" Rothfus isn't on the list, he notes that Rothfus' district was carried easily by Mitt Romney last year, and says the chance of a Democrat victory here "doesn't look promising."
Wait a minute ... did I actually get through one of these without mentioning the city's police department? JOB WELL DONE, GUYS.
In today's installment of copwatch ... a couple stories touch on the police bureau's "reckoning period" policy, in which prior disciplinary issues have a sort of statute of limitations, after which they can no longer be considered when setting punishment for later infractions. It may complicate the city's attempt to address concerns about Detective Frank Rende, whose behavior toward St. Patrick's Day revelers has apparently drawn the attention of the FBI. While Rende admits a lapse or two in his career, he says his record is otherwise spotless ... and it's not clear that a decade-old incident (in which he had a sexual encounter with a woman who called police to her home) can be used against him now. Meanwhile, in a federal courtroom yesterday, former police chief Robert McNeilly groused that the reckoning policy made it hard to gauge the disciplinary problems of a cop like Bradley Walker, whose employment by the city in spite of dozens of citizen complaints has become the subject of a lawsuit. In the latter case, Walker's supervisors noted that while there were multiple instances in which complaints against him were upheld, he also got multiple Officer of the Month citations.
... And here's another guy who claims to have been mistreated by police on St. Patrick's Day. But fear not, my friends: an internal investigation is underway!
Will Mayor Luke Ravenstahl challenge the tax-exempt status of UPMC? Looks like it. Could it be that Ravenstahl meant it when he said that not running for re-election would free him up to take on some issues he might not address otherwise? Stay tuned.
Good luck with that: Undocumented students -- generally the kids of immigrants who came to the United States illegally -- want Harrisburg lawmakers to grant them in-state tuition at state universities, rather than charging them out-of-state rates. There's opposition from the Republican-controlled state House -- though He Who Shall Not Be Named (R-Cranberry) does not appear in this story. But there appears to be at least some bipartisan support for the measure, and similar legislation exists even in Texas.
A California group releases a report that says Gov. Tom Corbett is the nation's best-paid governor ... but that's only on paper. Corbett, like Ed Rendell before him, has declined cost-of-living adjustments the law enables him to take, so he's actually only the sixth-best paid governor in the country. Still, the salary hasn't dissuaded others from casting an eye at his job: Rendell's former environmental secretary, Kathy McGinty, is said to be considering a bid. With already-declared John Hanger in the race, that's potentially two former environmental chiefs in the field.
There is going to be, like, a hundred bajillion dollars invested in Downtown, thanks to a new wave of development that will include a Downtown apartment building with a rooftop pool. Finally!
Here we go again. After the whole freakin' city saw this video of Pittsburgh police detective Frank Rende going off on some dude during St. Patrick's Day, Mayor Ravenstahl is taking action. He wants Rende fired. If that happens, it will be only 13 years after Rende was given a "last warning" from a supervisor ... despite some controversies in the meantime. But I'll believe it when I see it. Ravenstahl hasn't had great luck with these ultimatums (Eugene Hlavac, anyone?) ... and maybe we remember the LAST time a cop was accused of acting up on the South Side?
But hey, let's not single out Rende here. The city is also in the midst of a federal lawsuit concerning its alleged inability to discipline another city cop ... this one who accosted an unsuspecting motorist off-duty. On the bright side, maybe, the city did manage to terminate the officer in question, and it only took 32 civilian complaints. Baby steps, people!
Meanwhile, Highmark is apparently STILL trying to work out a severance package for ousted CEO Ken Melani. The most shocking news -- the guy earned a BONUS last year?
A bipartisan group of Pennsylvania governors is lining up behind the idea of having judges be appointed, rather than elected. I know what you're thinking: You elect one Supreme Court justice who gets nailed on ethics charges, and everyone wants to make a big deal about it. But as former Gov. Ed Rendell puts it, in these races, "Voters have no idea who they’re voting for anyway."
Speaking of choices that don't necessarily turn out the way you'd expect ... Democrats in the state Legislature are seeking to rework the laws governing charter schools, which they say drain public schools of revenue with little in the way of results. They're promising to release a report documenting various abuses by Philadelphia-area schools this today.
The Tribune-Review's Salena Zito scores a major journalistic coup by being the first reporter to land an interview with mystery mayoral-candidate A.J. Richardson. Story comes complete with photograph of candidate's facial tattoos.
Sen. Pat Toomey goes to CPAC -- a key gathering of right-wingers -- and says right-wing stuff. For example, it's the fault of us lefties that Wall Street had to make billions of dollars scamming the American people with mortgage-backed securities! I hope you're all ashamed of yourselves. Also, something about how we don't want to end up like the Greeks.
Did you know that Pennsylvania's cyber-charter schools -- those gee-whiz online schools that were supposed to help save out kids -- are all failing to meet federal progress standards? That and other concerns may help explain why some legislators expressed misgiving about the programs in a hearing on funding the programs. I confess a fondness for these stories, because they tend to feature "educational reformers" giving the same answers they once refused to accept from traditional public schools. As in the charter backer who, addressing concerns about subpar test scores, said, "The one thing you know about data is data does not give you the story behind the numbers." Try using that on your next algebra test.
Here's your daily round-up of embarrassing police-bureau headlines -- let me know if you guys are getting bored with this. A police commander says she thought using forfeited drug money for stuff other than narcotics investigations was cool. Turns out it's not, but maybe there's no reason a police officer should know the law. Story contains intimations that maybe City Controller/mayoral candidate Michael Lamb could have been a bit more proactive about raising red flags here. Meanwhile, another $8,000 in seized drug money has disappeared entirely! Assuming it was ever there in the first place, which maybe it wasn't! It's hard to keep track of this stuff, you know. And finally -- because I know you've been worried -- former police chief Nate Harper will be getting a $63,000 pension. Money well earned, obviously.
And in other who-watches-the-watchmen news, maybe oversight at the Shuman juvenile detention center isn't everything it could be either.
Joseph Brimmeier, who just a few months ago nearly became the head of our Port Authority, is one of eight people named in a grand jury presentment alleging a "pay-to-play" scheme at the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Lots of coverage out there, though I'm particularly enamored with this piece about how local firms -- including Orbital Engineering and PNC Bank -- feature into the scandal. One amusing tidbit is that one local exec "testified that he gave architectural work to a firm started by Brimmeier's sister, Jan Brimmeier, after she was fired by another company that had a contract with Pintar's firm. Pintar, who could not be reached, said turnpike Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich recommended the boss' sister." This would presumably be the same Jan Brimmeier who claimed not to know that her own firm was also bidding on a Port Authority contract during the time her brother was on its board.
There's apparently no longer any room for Doubt in city cops' narcotics division. Commander Cheryl Doubt, who headed up that division until yesterday, was transferred to the records department in the wake of her criticizing acting police chief Regina McDonald in the Post-Gazette. Meanwhile, City Council is delaying action on proposed legislation dealing with off-duty security assignments for officers.
Once again, the 911th Airlift Wing will remain in operation, ensuring continued employment here for 2,000 folks ... and ensuring a steady stream of press releases for US Rep. Tim Murphy the next time it's threatened with closure.
Apparently, you can still earn a state pension even if you, like, run over somebody with a stolen car and then shoot them. While lawmakers and other state employees can lose their pensions for crimes involving their official capacity, your run-of-the-mill murders and such don't trigger such sanctions. But rest assured, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe is on the case.
And just to help set your weekend calendar ... some 200,000 people are expected to participate in Saturday's St. Patrick's Day parade ... though my guess is that the actual number is 100,000, and everyone is seeing double. If that's not enough bacchanalia for you, don't forget that there's a mayoral debate scheduled in East Liberty. Originally it was going to feature Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, City Councilor Bill Peduto, and City Controller Michael Lamb. I have no idea who all is coming now.
The Disability Rights Network has filed a federal lawsuit against the state's prison system, alleging that the Department of Corrections has tossed some 800 prisoners with mental-health problems into solitary confinement, thereby "exacerbat[ing]their mental illness. Making things worse, the suit alleges, when prisoners act out as a result of their deepening illness, prison authorities interpret those symptoms as further evidence of rule-breaking. Some tough reading here.
Here's your daily round-up of headlines about the Pittsburgh police bureau: The Post-Gazette reports -- surprise! -- that some money in a drug-asset forfeiture account may have been misspent. And acting police chief Regina McDonald may share some of the blame! McDonald, meanwhile, was grilled by council yesterday, concerning the reassignment of officers in a controversial unit that reported to previous chief Nate Harper. And DA Steve Zappala is making recommendations to improve oversight of off-duty police security work.
How much are the state's corporate tax breaks costing the rest of us? Nearly $3.2 billion a year, according to the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Police Center.
And how much does fracking cost our environment? Hard to be sure, but there are worrisome signs of damage to state rivers and streams.
As you've probably heard by now, a left-leaning polling outfit finds Gov. Tom Corbett polling behind just about any Democrat you can think of, frequently by double digits. Only one-third of voters approve of his job performance, and a plurality of Republicans would prefer someone else to be the party's nominee. It's the latest in a long series of bad polls for Corbett, though another poll finding shows that large numbers of voters have no idea who the potential Democrats are.
Here's the video of the proposal!
Always nice to see people passionate about 18th century history bring it to life through…
I wonder if a personal reason is involved in his dislike for Range. Interesting that…