Seven of nine defendants ranging in age from 24 to 45 who were arrested May 4 after police interrupted a late-night party beneath the Bloomfield Bridge had most of the criminal charges against them dropped Thursday afternoon during a preliminary hearing.
Dropped charges included felony offenses for rioting and misdemeanor offenses for failing to disperse. They were instead each found guilty of a summary offense of disorderly conduct for being at the park after 11 p.m. and given a $300 fine that cannot be repaid through community service.
Among the seven who received the light sentences was Lauren Jurysta, 24, of Pittsburgh, who faced a felony charge of second-degree aggravated assault. Police said she flicked a cigarette at Pittsburgh Police Sgt. Charles Henderson after calling him an "asshole" and "fascist pig."
Her arrest, police said, was the first after officers responded to a 911 complaint about a large, disorderly party under the bridge. A live band was set up and about police estimated that 100 people were at the park without a permit. Members of the party became upset and demanded to know why Jurysta was being arrested. The resulting confrontations led to the other eight arrests, according to the testimony by police officers and their supervisors Thursday.
Two of the nine defendants plead not guilty, and will go to trial.
Jason Oddo, 26, of Irwin, plead not guilty to a felony charge of third-degree aggravated assault (downgraded by the judge from a second-degree aggravated assault charge) and four misdemeanor charges: disorderly conduct, obstructing administration of law or other government, resisting arrest and possessing instruments of crime. A third-degree felony charge of rioting was dismissed.
Police said Oddo used pepper spray against a police officer who was pursuing him after Oddo ran from him to avoid arrest.
Kathleen Tierney, 29, of Braddock, also plead not guilty and will go to trial on misdemeanor charges of criminal mischief and disorderly conduct. Police said she punctured a tire on a police vehicle as she left the party.
Elise Delong, the attorney representing Jurysta, said the results of the hearing "were probably fair all around."
"They were in violation of the law," she said. "Automatically, all of them were wrong because they were in a park after 11 p.m."
The party and the arrests came a day after police reported vandalism to the nearby Sciullo Field, which serves as a memorial to Pittsburgh Police Officer Paul Sciullo, who was killed along with two other police officers in 2009, after a standoff in Stanton Heights.
Graffiti was found and vandals attempted to remove a memorial badge from the park's sign, according to news reports at the time.
Employees who survived layoffs the past several months at for-profit educator Education Management Corporation got some mixed news this week: The Pittsburgh-based company hopes to avoid further layoffs ... but is freezing wages in order to do so.
Word of the wage freeze came down Tuesday, in an email sent on behalf of EDMC management. The email, sent to City Paper from multiple sources, says the management committee "made the decision to suspend merit pay increases for fiscal year 2013" which starts July 1 of this year and ends June 30, 2013. (Employees will still have annual employee evaluations.)
The wage freeze, the email says, is happening "only after carefully reviewing and implementing a number of other measures to ensure that we are operating as efficiently as possible." The email says the company "understands the news is disappointing to us all," but hopes "most will understand that it is necessary in order to preserve the long-term strength and health of our company."
EDMC's health has been beset by numerous problems. Enrollment has lagged, and the company is fighting a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit over the company's student recruiting practices. If EDMC loses the case, it might have to repay billions of dollars in federal financial aid given to its students. EDMC is also contending with legislation being pushing by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, to limit the amount that for-profit educators can earn from veterans via the G.I. Bill.
Such problems seem to be taking a toll. Despite a stock buyback and hundreds of layoffs in January and after, EDMC's stock has fallen from $30 at the beginning of the year, to around $6.50 as of this morning.
"An important part of maintaining this commitment in the current economic environment is ensuring that the cost of education for our students remains manageable," the email reads. "In order to accomplish that goal, we're working to keep tuition as close to current levels as possible.
"In the past year we have also taken a number of steps to eliminate as much expense as possible across the company ... to minimize actions that further reduce our employee base. We will continue those efforts in the coming fiscal year."
While it appears the wage freeze will be system-wide, the e-mail did not indicate whether top executives and board members -- many of whom are tied to Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs -- will be sharing the pain. (Last year CEO Todd Nelson, for example, received a base salary of $630,000 and stock-option bonuses worth $11.5 million.) The company will report details of its executive compensation in its annual report, due at the end of August.
Tears streamed down Alejandra Cruz's face as she stared at a letter from PNC Bank. Standing outside of the bank's Downtown headquarters, she shook her head.
The bank, she said, would not renegotiate the mortgage on her family's Minneapolis home which was foreclosed.
"This is hard," she said.
Cruz, 26, and her brother David, 20, traveled to Pittsburgh today to meet with the bank and ask them to help the family get back into their home. The Cruzes say an online banking glitch on PNC's end caused them to miss an automatic monthly mortgage payment. After the payment was missed, they say, the bank assessed nearly an additional month's mortgage in fees, which the family could not pay. During the foreclosure process, a third-party nonprofit in Minneapolis got involved to help, but did not deliver the proper paperwork to the bank nor communicate with the family. The Cruzes subsequently lost their home to Freddie Mac, who now owns the property.
Since then, the Cruzes have been supported by Occupy Homes Minnesota, and a fierce battle has been underway for the home at 404 Cedar Ave. Signs of that struggle traveled to Pittsburgh today, including the broken door of the home that sheriff's deputies kicked in during a raid at 4 a.m. May 25.
"My family has never asked for anything for free," Alejandra said, noting her family has lived in the home for seven years. "We can pay the mortgage."
In addition to the action in Pittsburgh, actions were planned in Minneapolis and New York in conjunction with the Occupy movement. About 30 people gathered in Market Square this afternoon for the rally, many with Occupy Pittsburgh, before the group marched to PNC's headquarters on Fifth Avenue, chanting phrases like "Whose house? Cruz house!"
"In seven years, they have not missed a payment. That's what's so outrageous about this," says Marina Antic, with Occupy Pittsburgh, who led today's march. "PNC prides itself on being a community bank in Pittsburgh. It's time for them to live up to that promise."
We've contacted PNC and will post their response when we hear back. In the meantime, the Cruzes were headed back to Minneapolis this afternoon to determine their next move, said Anthony Newby, with Occupy Homes Minnesota and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, and who accompanied the Cruzes in the PNC meeting.
Newby said the family's plans were unclear, but that they were in temporary housing and were optimistic they could get back into their home.
"We're not giving up. This is more than the just the Cruz family," said Newby. "This is a fight for the future of housing in our country."
Newby said the Cruz's situation was just a symptom of greater ills, particularlyg banks doing business with third-party nonprofits who often do more damage than good.
"PNC never got the documents [from the nonprofit] but PNC says this is not unusual," Cruz said. "We asked, 'Why are you doing business with people who will lead families onto a path of losing their home?' ... We didn't get an answer."
Holding signs that said "285," "Our kids need teachers," and "Our city needs these jobs," several dozen educators, parents and children gathered in front of the Pittsburgh Board of Education Wednesday afternoon to protest education cuts and attract media attention for the 285 teachers furloughed by the Pittsburgh School District in May.
Jessie Ramey, the founder of the blog Yinzercation, which details the reasons to be against Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett's cuts in state education spending, led the group in chants for "adequate, equitable and sustainable public funding of education."
"We're here today because our children need their best teachers in the classroom, not the unemployment line," she said.
Amanda Godley, a parent of an 8-year-old soon-to-be fourth-grader who attends Colfax in Squirrel Hill, said she was worried that class sizes will increase.
"We're really concerned that the Governor is decimating education," she said.
Michelle Boyle, a parent of two daughters, a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old who attend Fulton in Highland Park, said she felt the teachers have been doing what the state has asked of them, improving test scores and making significant improvements.
"The state government is not holding up its end of the deal," she said. "What the governor is doing is criminal."
The protest, which started at about 6 p.m., was brief. By quarter to 7 p..m., the signs were collected and stashed.
City police arrested nearly a dozen people today during a protest of pending Port Authority service cuts and Gov. Tom Corbett.
After marching through Downtown to rally in front of UPMC and Corbett's Pittsburgh office, a group of protestors sat in the intersection of Fifth and Wood chanting After giving demonstrators three verbal warnings, officers placed plastic ties around their wrists as the demonstrators shouted, "Public transit needs a fix! We know how: Tax the rich!"
Sgt. Eugene Hlavac said city police arrested 11 who will be taken to Allegheny County Jail and charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing highways. Moments before the action, Mel Packer -- who led the rally and was arrested -- said, "We'll show them what congestion will really be like if they cut transit service."
Packer was among nearly 200 who marched in opposition of a pending 35 percent Port Authority service cut that includes nearly 500 layoffs, a fare increase and massive cuts to the paratransit program ACCESS. The cuts are due to the authority's $64 million operating budget deficit, a result of a statewide transportation funding crisis.
Labor groups, Pittsburghers for Public Transit and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 were among those rallying. The group stopped at UPMC's headquarters in the U.S. Steel Building, contending that if the nonprofit paid taxes, there would be more funds for transportation. They then marched to Corbett's offices on Fifth Avenue.
A statement handed to reporters said that among those practicing civil disobedience were members of Occupy Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers for Public Transit. They were doing so, the statement said, "to protest the Corbett administration's decision to cut funding for public transit, an assault on our community."
The statement continued:
"In blocking traffic today, we call attention to the far more seriously blocked traffic we'll all face every day due to cuts in public transit. Current bus riders with cars will have to drive, adding to the cost of commuting, creating more traffic jams and filling our lungs with even more dangerous levels of pollutants ... We must disobey a government which knowingly damages its citizens. We disobey the law and accept the consequences today to highlight the corruption of our political system. We uphold a greater ethical imperative to stand with the 99% and true democracy."
Though the demonstration was peppered with criticisms of businesses like UPMC, ire was directed toward Corbett for not addressing transportation funding across the state, despite recommendations from his own advisory committee. Outgoing Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 president Pat McMahon called Corbett "the only obstacle" to achieving a funding solution for roads, bridges and mass transit.
"You can blame corporate America and they should pay their fair share, but today only one person -- Gov. Corbett -- needs to nod his head," McMahon shouted into a bullhorn in front of the governor's office. "Until he gives the nod, it won't happen."
In its ongoing campaign for same-sex marriage rights, the Mayors for Freedom to Marry Campaign has received the support from Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
Earlier today, Ravenstahl signed a statement asserting that he "proudly stand[s] in support of the freedom of same-sex couples to marry ... I look forward to working to build an America where all people can share in the love and commitment of marriage with the person with whom they share their life."
He discussed that pledge in an interview with City Paper this afternoon.
How did you come about this decision? Earlier in the year, a Post-Gazette article quoted your office as saying you did not support it.
This is actually a position I've had for some time. This isn't obviously an issue that crosses my desk on a daily basis. It is something that I believe. It is something I'm proud to now sign the Mayors for Marriage Equality, and join fellow mayors in the state and across the country in the effort. Hearts change, minds change. I had numerous discussions with members of my staff who are gay, friends who are gay, and as I said, hearts change and mind change, and mine has changed.
What have you heard from constituents on this? Have you been contacted about this previously?
Again, this is something I've felt for some time. I think the heightened awareness with the President's recent endorsement of same sex marriage is something I think perhaps brought it across my desk more so then before. We're focused on running the city, creating economic development opportunities. This isn't something normally that mayors deal with. I'd say the increased awareness and increased dialogue around the president's decision is when I was asked to formally sign on.
Who asked you to sign on?
There were constituents, some people would send emails. I know my LGBT task force has you know, communicated to me their interest in me signing onto the pledge. When I go the meetings, this is one of the issues that we've talked about … [T]his is a position that I've taken and I thought it was important to communicate that to the residents of the city.
In PA, same-sex marriage is illegal already. Is there anything advocacy-wise you're planning on doing or supporting legislatively?
Not necessarily from a legislative standpoint -- you know, signing on was a personal decision that I made. Obviously when I'm asked, I'll voice my support, but in the short term we don't have any plans for any local legislative action. Throughout the course of time … we'll see if anything is appropriate but at this time there are no plans for anything other than signing the pledge.
It's a divisive issue in the political realm; what backlash do you expect from this?
It's a personal decision, not a political one. Some folks will agree, others will disagree. I felt it was appropriate to state my personal opinion. I didn't consider the political ramifications. It's something I felt I had to do.