The museum of cartoon art hosts a fundraiser costume party this Saturday. Come dressed as your favorite character ... or learn more first, in Program Notes.
Several arrests are pending in the Port Authority's first known case of ConnectCard fraud, the agency announced this morning.
"We know that there have been four ConnectCards that have been fraudulently reproduced," said Kevin Atkins, a Port Authority Police detective.
The ConnectCard system, rolled out late in 2012, lets riders load cash or passes on cards roughly the size of a credit card, which can be swiped at any farebox. The agency has been trying to persuade more riders to use the cards, and hasn't ruled out price changes for cash users to speed the transition.
The fraudulent cards were loaded with monthly passes and sold, Atkins said, adding they were deactivated after Port Authority noticed an unusual spike in usage on the cards.
The agency released few details, but stressed that there was no data breach, and the ConnectCard system is less vulnerable than the paper-pass system it replaced.
"We're talking with the vendor at this time to better understand the risk," Port Authority spokesperson Jim Ritchie said.
Atkins said he could not comment on the number of people the agency plans to arrest, when those arrests would be made, how long the fraud was going on or how sophisticated it was.
Atkins said "several people" have been questioned, and the charges will likely include access device fraud.
The investigation is ongoing and those with information about the case may call Port Authority Police at 412-255-1385.
Ten clergy members belonging to the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network were arrested and removed in handcuffs after they blocked the entrance to the USX Building, home to UPMC.
City police were patient with the protesters and when it became evident they would not vacate the scene willingly, they were cuffed and removed. Officers treated the arrestees — some of them elderly — carefully, asking them repeatedly if they were sure they didn't want to voluntarily leave the scene.One of those arrested was Rev. Rodney Lyde, who spoke to City Paper as he was led away in handcuffs.
"We attempted to deliver our declaration on behalf of the faith community of Pittsburgh to Jeffrey Romoff that we want UPMC to lead the way in helping people into the middle class. But Mr. Romoff didn't want to meet with us, so he sent his fine security who in turn called these fine officers and now we're being arrested," Lyde said. "I have no regrets at all. We're going to continue to push forward with what's right.
"God is on our side."
While there was talk that the protesters would be taken to the Allegheny County Jail and processed, a sergeant at the scene told CP that the protesters would be cited for criminal trespass through the mail and be given court dates. Officers then cut away the plastic handcuffs.
There have been regular protests at UPMC's Downtown headquarters for the past several months — part of an ongoing unionization campaign being led the Service Employees International Union. (Today's protest, for example, was preceded by a declaration from PIIN that "UPMC should lead the way in bringing people into the middle class by providing living wages, affordable healthcare and the environment in which people can speak with one another without harassment around the issues of good employment.") But today's event seemed to have a different tone from many other demonstrations. Some of the protesters showed a willingness to be arrested, while building security guards were more forceful in their exchanges with protesters and the media.
Those taking pictures or videos were told that picture-taking was not permitted in the plaza. In fact, a security guard tried to physically block a KDKA cameraman from filming the arrest.
Protesters said they were undaunted.
"We believe that this is such an important part of the future of Pittsburgh that many of us are willing to put our security at risk," said Rabbi Ron Symons, one of those arrested. "We believe this message has to come out from the community-at-large. We need to build a better Pittsburgh, a sustainable Pittsburgh and that comes only with sustainable jobs.
Was today's protest a sign that tactics were escalating, and that protesters would be risking arrest in the future? "I believe that it is," Symons answered, "and I believe that we are."
Lesbian, gay and bisexual seniors are more likely to face discrimination when seeking housing than their heterosexual peers, according to a report released today by the Equal Rights Center.
The report focused on 10 states — including Pennsylvania — and found that LGB seniors were often presented with higher rental prices, more burdensome application requirements, less availability and fewer amenities.
The study worked like this: Testers (who were all at least 50 years old) posed as seniors in their 60s or 70s and made phone calls seeking housing at age-restricted and mostly independent living facilities. Each facility was contacted by a LGB tester and heterosexual tester who said they lived as independent renters with their spouse, but were looking to move to a senior living community. The testers then reported what the facilities told them about fees, prices and unit availability, among other factors.
The report did not look at transgender seniors, but acknowledged that discrimination against that group is "also a widespread and serious problem."
The study conducted 200 total tests across 10 states, which varied in terms of legal protections offered to LGBT people. Overall, 48 percent of the LGB testers experienced "at least one type of adverse, differential treatment"; 12.5 percent experienced more than one form of adverse treatment.
"The rates are very disturbing,” says Don Kahl, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Equal Rights Center. "Not only does that violate civil-rights laws in many instances, [but] you can see how wrong it is on a moral basis as well."
According to the report, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers some indirect protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. But each state governs whether LGBT people are counted as a protected class with respect to discrimination in private facilities.
In Pennsylvania, which doesn't offer statewide protection from discrimination in housing based on sexual orientation, 40 percent of LGB testers experienced some form of adverse treatment. Ten percent experienced more than one form of adverse treatment.
In two of the 20 tests conducted in Pennsylvania, the LGB tester was offered fewer units. In three tests, the LGB tester was informed of deposits or fees — of up to $4,500 — not required from the heterosexual tester.
And while those numbers aren't among the highest of the 10 states included the report, over 75 percent of the Pennsylvania tests occurred in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Erie — all of which have local laws that are supposed to protect LGB seniors from housing discrimination. That makes "these high rates of [adverse] treatment even more egregious," according to the report.
Kahl acknowledges that because there were only 20 tests in each state, it's difficult to draw "definitive conclusions" about the effect of state law on housing discrimination, but he says it is generally true that states without such laws tended have higher rates of adverse treatment.
That holds true in states like Arizona and Georgia, which have no state housing protections for LGBT individuals and whose rates of adverse treatment of 80 and 70 percent respectively — the highest rates in the study. But it's not an air-tight argument.
In New Jersey, which does prohibit housing discrimination, 40 percent of testers experienced adverse treatment, tied with Pennsylvania.
It appears that senior housing accommodations will become an increasingly important issue in the wider LGBT rights movement. While estimates vary, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, there are 3 million LGBT seniors today, a number which is expected to double by 2030.
To curb future discrimination, the report recommends enacting non-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity, enforcing existing laws and education campaigns designed to inform seniors about what their rights are. It also stresses the need to fill the "data void" on discrimination on LGB seniors and calls on housing providers to adopt anti-discrimination policies.
"They’ve been subjected to growing up in a time when the LGBT community had virtually no protection," Kahl says. "Now that things are changing in a very very positive way, more of those individuals are coming out and living in the open ... There is definitely a need for housing options in this community."
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Allyson Schwartz, herself a former director of a women's health clinic, today received the endorsement of the Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania PAC.
“The Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania PAC is thrilled to announce its endorsement of Allyson Schwartz for Governor,” said Sari Stevens, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates and PAC. “Allyson has a distinguished record advocating for women’s health and economic security and will be a strong ally in the Governor’s office.”
Although she currently serves in the U.S. House of Representatives, Schwartz founded Philadelphia's Elizabeth Blackwell Center — a women's health clinic — in 1975 and served as it's director until 1988. According to a release the Blackwell Center "provided comprehensive health care services for women of all income levels, races, and backgrounds including access to fertility treatments, prenatal care, breast cancer screenings, and contraceptive services"
In a release, Schwartz said she welcomed the endorsement.
“It's unacceptable that women are still fighting to get access to the care they need in 2014 — it’s time for a powerful voice to stand up when legislators try to tell women what health care decisions they can make and push for offensive legislation meant only to create obstacles to safe, legal care,” Schwartz said.
“And it is absolutely unacceptable that Governor Corbett’s response to these obstacles is telling women to ‘just close your eyes.’ Pennsylvania women deserve better.”
The full release appears after the jump:
When I spoke earlier this week with Jack Wagner about his newly launched run for governor, perhaps the most surprising thing was how unconcerned he seemed about getting into the race while short on money, campaign infrastructure and time.
He also rejected the notion that the only reason he’s getting in the race is the belief that a single candidate hailing from Western Pennsylvania can pick up a lot of votes against a handful of Eastern challengers.
Then again, when Wagner sat down with City Paper prior to last year’s mayoral primary, he didn’t want to discuss strategy either. And there too, he faced questions about how an under-funded late-comer could surpass candidates who’d already been campaigning for months.
Wagner was more willing to talk about the reasons he says he got into this race, and the fact that he has run and won a statewide race, making him one of only two candidates in this race (state treasurer Rob McCord being the other) to do so.
Here are some snippets from my conversation with Wagner that didn’t get into this week’s print edition:
On Marcellus Shale Drilling
Wagner says there must be “strict oversight” of natural gas drilling because he has concerns that fracking “can potentially harm the environment.” He is against drilling in state parks and forests, and says protecting the state’s waterways from pollution from fracking and drilling must occur “without exception.” Wagner also says that drilling companies must start paying more in taxes to the state. He wants to see a severance tax in place, similar to those imposed in other major energy-producing states. “Look: Texas has a severance tax, Alaska has a severance tax. I find it odd that the revenue coming into our government is far below that of other states that are far more conservative than Pennsylvania.”
On Fuel Alternatives
Wagner says within one year of taking office he would turn the Pennsylvania Turnpike into “the first alternative-fuels road,” offering refueling and recharging stations for vehicles powered by compressed natural gas and electricity. He would also offer incentives for retailers to offer the same services within one mile of freeway exits so “you can virtually travel anywhere in the state on alternative fuels.”
On Running a Statewide Campaign and completing with Eastern Democrats
“I know what it’s like to run a statewide campaign,” says Wagner who points out that he’s “never lost a general election” (although he has lost Democratic primaries for both governor and Pittsburgh mayor). He says he is known across the state and he will appeal to the majority of Pennsylvanians that he says favor moderation like him and know him from his days as auditor general. “As auditor general, I had a stellar record of leadership and governance. I think my candidacy will be successful because of the professional job I did in that post.”
Earlier today, former Pittsburgh police chief Nate Harper was sentenced to 18 months in prison for conspiracy, theft of public funds, and tax evasion.
“We’ve spoken to [Harper] and he’s extremely disappointed and distraught,” said Bob Leight, one of Harper's attorneys.
In March of last year, Harper was indicted by a federal grand jury and in October pled guilty of directing more than $70,000 in public funds to an unauthorized credit union account and personally spending roughly $32,000. It has been almost one year to the day since he announced his resignation from the Pittsburgh police bureau on Feb. 20.
“I made a mistake,” Harper said before receiving his sentence. “It has tarnished the law enforcement community. I’m a broken man.
“I can’t tell you why I made the mistake. It was a lapse in judgment.”
It was hard to find anyone who had a bad word to say about the beleaguered Harper who served more than 35 years on the police force.
“I don’t know anyone else who has more integrity than this man,” said Bobby Hassain, a lifleong friend of Harper’s.
For this reason, Harper’s attorneys sought to have his sentence reduced from the suggested range of 18 to 24 months, to probation. They said Harper has been punished enough as a result of the public shame he has endured and will continue to endure.
Retired veteran police officers Louis Gentile and Daniel Cuneen were the first of seven witnesses to testify on behalf of Harper at the sentencing hearing. They highlighted Harper’s years of service on the force and meteoric rise to police chief.
“It would be hard to find a better cop, a better man, than Nate Harper,” Cuneen said.
Even assistant U.S. attorney Robert Cessar reflected positively on Harper’s contributions to law enforcement.
“Had I not been a United States district attorney, I’ve might’ve been one of the ones writing a letter of support,” Cessar said but added he thought the suggested sentence was fair.
Judge Cathy Bissoon agreed. Characterizing Harper’s actions as “government corruption and betrayal of the public trust,” she said “affording the defendant anymore leniency would send a dangerous message to the public.”
A tearful group of family and friends huddled around Harper as he exited the courtroom.
“I think the judge came in with her mind made up,” said William Thompkins who testified on Harper’s behalf.
U.S. district attorney David Hickton held a press conference following the sentencing hearing.
"When those who the public entrust with authority place greed over good, they must be held accountable," Hickton said.
The U.S. attorney's office is still investigating the credit union account and others involved. Hickton said Harper will not face additional charges.
A Black History Month film series continues with Sarabah , a recent documentary about a musician fighting to end the practice of female genital cutting in her home country of Senegal.
The hour-long documentary premiered at the Movies That Matter Film Festival in The Hague, Netherlands, in 2011, where it was named Best Documentary. It’s since screened at some three dozen festivals around the world and on Link TV.
The film is in several languages, including French and Wolof, with English subtitles. Watch the trailer here.
A free screening is held tonight at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — Homewood, 7101 Hamilton Ave. The show, presented by the library and Sembene: The Film & Arts Festival, starts at 5:30 p.m. A discussion follows.
About ten minutes after UPMC employee Christoria Hughes along with Revs. Rodney Lyde and Ronald Wanless asked personnel of the U.S. Steel building — where UPMC has its corporate offices — for a meeting with UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff, they were escorted out of the building and cited for trespassing by city police, Hughes says.
"I was expecting to meet with at least one of the executives of UPMC,” Hughes says, acknowledging she hadn't requested a meeting with Romoff or other UPMC representatives in advance.
The request for a meeting with Romoff was organized by the Service Employees International Union, the main organizing entity backing the unionization of UPMC's non-medical employees. SEIU sent out a press release a short time later saying the trio had been arrested. "Faith Leaders and UPMC Employee Arrested While Calling for Living Wages," the headline read.
However, Hughes says she was not handcuffed or jailed.
Hughes, who has been working as a cafeteria at UPMC Presbyterian for six years, reiterated that UPMC should raise wages, forgive medical debt of its employees and allow the unionization effort to go forward.
"I would like my children to understand that sometimes for things to change you have to go out and change them yourself," Hughes said in an interview earlier this morning.
According to the SEIU press release, "Emboldened by the news, Pittsburghers plan to protest outside UPMC headquarters and take their concerns to city leaders." Protests are scheduled tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. outside the U.S. Steel Tower and 8:30 a.m. at the City-County building.
UPMC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At 6:00 tonight in Council Chambers, there will be a public hearing on legislation introduced by city councilor Deb Gross that would create a Pittsburgh land bank.
In a nutshell, the legislation is an attempt to streamline the process by which blighted, vacant or tax delinquent land is reused. If you want a primer on the legislation, read this. If you want to read the legislation, here it is.
The legislation has drawn criticism from city councilors including Daniel Lavelle and Ricky Burgess as well as community groups that have expressed concern over how they will be involved in deciding what happens to land in their neighborhoods.
And while many of the arguments both supporting and criticizing the legislation are valid, there have been plenty of assertions from public officials and community organizations that stretch the truth. I've listed five common claims about the bill below along with whether the claim is true or not. This is far from an exhaustive list, so if there are other claims you've been hearing about the bill that you're interested in fact-checking, please leave them in the comments.
*The bill doesn't require community input over what happens to land in the land bank.
Mostly false. The bill, as introduced, requires that land is disposed in a way that is "consistent with the provisions of the City's Comprehensive Plan and any adopted neighborhood plans." In cases where there is no plan, the land bank will consult "with any community groups in the area."
(While there is an important debate about whether the bill should specify in greater detail how communities can hold the land bank accountable, and how community planning can happen in a systematic way, the claim that the bill doesn't require community input isn't true.)
*Only two out of seven board members are required to be a member of a non-profit or advocacy organization working in the field of housing or community development.
True. One mayoral appointee and one council appointee "shall be a member of a nonprofit or advocacy organization working in the field of housing or community development, or of civic associations […]"
*The mayor has control of the land bank board and can remove any of its members.
Mostly false. While the mayor appoints four of the seven land bank board members, and can remove them "at any time or without cause," he or she cannot remove the three council appointees.
*The land bank staff may have power over property in the land bank worth less than $50,000.
True. "The Board may delegate disposition authority to the staff of the Land Bank" if the property is worth less than $50,000.
*The land bank can kick you out of your house if you owe taxes.
Partly true. While the land bank can technically remove tax-delinquent occupants, both the state enabling legislation (which authorizes the creation of land banks) and Gross' bill require that there be a preference toward keeping people in their homes. Under state law, policies on owner-occupied properties "shall show a preference for keeping the former owner-occupants in their homes, whenever feasible."
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