Analysis: Demoted Commander's Case Still Unsettling | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Analysis: Demoted Commander's Case Still Unsettling

There are already a few ironies in Pittsburgh Police Commander Catherine McNeilly's lawsuit against the city. For starters, the allegation that got her demoted from commander to lieutenant -- and that rocked city government last year -- may be the hardest charge to prove.

And her suit could raise questions no one wants to answer.

The lawsuit stems from an e-mail McNeilly sent to City Council and other officials on Oct. 9, after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl nominated Dennis Regan to head the city's public-safety department. Regan, the e-mail contended, had interfered with McNeilly's attempt to discipline Officer Frank Rende -- whose sister lives with Regan. After the e-mail was leaked to the press, Ravenstahl began an investigation of both McNeilly and Regan, a close associate of late mayor Bob O'Connor.

Ravenstahl claimed that the investigation found "no conclusive evidence" of wrongdoing by Regan, though Regan resigned anyway. McNeilly was demoted for e-mailing confidential information about an officer, a violation of department policy. Her attorneys, however, argued that she was being punished for speaking out about wrongdoing, a violation of "whistleblower" laws and McNeilly's speech rights.

During two days of testimony before federal judge Donetta Ambrose, numerous allegations were lodged against Regan. Among them:

-- Former police chief Dom Costa told city investigators that Regan demanded Rende be promoted to detective -- despite Costa's misgivings -- at an Aug. 16 meeting.

-- Police officers in Zone 3 reported that Regan appeared at their station last spring, demanding to see zone commander RaShall Brackney. Brackney had warned a South Side business, Duke's Tire, not to do work out in the street; Regan allegedly told officers that Duke's had "friends in the mayor's office" and that police "need to leave them alone."

-- According to documents filed by McNeilly's attorneys, Regan had sought to overturn discipline against a police sergeant, downgrading a termination to a five-day suspension.

Those allegations drew headlines during McNeilly's hearing, but they played little part in her original e-mail.

That e-mail claimed that "on at least 37 occasions during the past four years, Officer Rende used sick days and then worked" side jobs for extra money. But the e-mail contended that McNeilly's attempt to punish the officer "was subsequently 'withdrawn' (without my consultation or input)." McNeilly suspected interference by Regan; her e-mail, the suit argued, urged council to ask whether Rende's discipline "had been interfered with ... for improper and perhaps personal reasons."

Based on the evidence, the answer may well be no.

Costa told investigators that while Regan gave an "order" to promote Rende, he had no role in deciding discipline. City attorney Hugh McGough, meanwhile, testified that there were legal reasons not to discipline Rende. According to the police contract, discipline must be enforced within 120 days of an infraction. By raising years-old allegations, McGough testified, McNeilly "only call[ed] attention to the bureau's failure to notice [abuse] in a more timely fashion." Rende also hadn't received counseling prior to the discipline, as the contract requires.

But McGough also testified that Regan's "influence was being felt everywhere," and Ambrose was clearly disturbed by allegations regarding Brackney and other incidents. On Jan. 11, Ambrose ruled that McNeilly "had a good faith belief that Regan had improperly interfered in Police Department matters" when she sent the e-mail.

Ambrose reversed McNeilly's demotion, and added, "[T]his case is not about corruption in the Police Department. It is about allegations of wrongdoing and improper ... influence by officials within the Mayor's office."

Vic Walczak, an ACLU attorney who represented McNeilly, agrees. Even if McNeilly's initial suspicions were misplaced, he says, "She has exposed the stench" involving Regan's alleged interference elsewhere.

"If it was just Regan, that would be one thing," Walczak adds. But the city "tried to cover this up," by punishing McNeilly. "It raises concerns that there's more than just one bad apple."

As evidence, Walczak notes that the city's investigation of Regan was handled by acting solicitor George Specter ... even though Costa claimed Specter was present during the Aug. 16 meeting with Regan. Specter's report to the mayor doesn't confirm or deny his presence. Instead, it merely concludes that "there is no absolute way in which to determine [who] is telling the truth" about whether Regan pressured Costa.

"Why is the mayor asking a material witness to investigate this?" Walczak asks.

Specter calls talk of a cover-up "absolutely outrageous." Although he attended the Aug. 16 meeting with Regan and Costa, he says only routine police business was discussed in his presence.

Because the meeting was "meaningless" -- a "blip in my life" -- "I simply didn't focus on it" in the report, Specter says.

Above all, city officials are trying to put the matter behind them.

"Cathy McNeilly is back in her position. Dennis Regan is gone," says mayoral spokesman Dick Skrinjar. "Case closed. ... [T]his story is about history, not what's going on today."

That may be wishful thinking. McNeilly is still seeking damages, and Walczak says, "We've got a lot of rocks to overturn." The very reasons McGough cites for not disciplining Rende, he says, prove there are "more reasons to not punish somebody than to enforce the rules. Eventually that leads to a lawless department."

But some have doubts about McNeilly's suit. Elizabeth Pittinger is the head of the city's Citizen Police Review Board, which investigates complaints of police misconduct. And Pittinger says McNeilly's case raises as many questions as it answers.

During her hearing, McNeilly acknowledged that she violated departmental rules when she e-mailed Rende's disciplinary history. Pittinger says that could prompt a review-board investigation. "I'm still wondering about why she had to release confidential material," Pittinger says.

And, Pittinger asks, why didn't the city act sooner? Rende's alleged abuses date back years -- to a time when the police chief was McNeilly's husband, Robert McNeilly.

"Did anybody know about Rende before she did?" Pittinger asks. "If the answer is 'yes,' then why didn't somebody do something? If the answer is 'no,' then why not?'"

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