Sorry episode: A whistle-blowing cop shouldn't suffer punishment

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Former Pittsburgh Operations Director Dennis Regan has left city government, but the episode that sent the powerful political appointee packing left a rotten smell on Grant Street.

Mr. Regan, the former aide to Mayor Bob O'Connor and his successor Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, quit Dec. 1 after a city probe found no evidence that he interfered in a disciplinary matter involving detective Francis Rende, brother of Mr. Regan's housemate.

Although Mr. Regan had a dignified exit via resignation and not firing, he had become too much of a political liability for even Grant Street cronyism to redeem with a straight face.

His drama began as many municipal dramas do: He was named to a position (head of intergovernmental affairs) for which he had little qualification by a grateful friend and new mayor -- Mr. O'Connor. In that job, while the mayor was in the hospital battling cancer, Mr. Regan helped to oust rival administration officials: the mayor's chief of staff, the city solicitor and the city finance director.

After Mr. O'Connor's death, Mayor Ravenstahl named Mr. Regan as his director of operations, then nominated him for public safety director despite a nonexistent resume for that post.

In October, however, while Mr. Regan was under consideration by council for the public safety job, police Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly sent an e-mail to City Council members questioning Mr. Regan's fitness for the post and strongly implying that he quashed the disciplining of Detective Rende, one of her subordinates. The mayor suspended both Mr. Regan and Cmdr. McNeilly with pay and ordered a probe of their actions.

Despite the merits of Ms. McNeilly's complaint against Mr. Regan, her decision to divulge details of Mr. Rende's personnel file was the trigger for her own suspension during what turned out to be a 50-day probe.

It took courage to do what Ms. McNeilly did. We even called her a whistle-blower for daring to come forward against a man who was arguably the city's most powerful unelected official. How far would she have gotten in her complaint against Mr. Regan without providing hard evidence? Would the Law Department have investigated him without details on his role in the police discipline case?

In the end, the mayor said there was no conclusive evidence Mr. Regan did anything wrong. But, incredibly, he resigned anyway. Last Thursday, as a result of the Law Department's investigation, Cmdr. McNeilly was demoted to lieutenant for violating Mr. Rende's expectation of privacy, and her salary was cut from $77,927 to $67,764. Yesterday, in an interview with this editorial board, Mayor Ravenstahl said while he believed the demotion was necessary, Ms. McNeilly is now in "good standing" with the police department.

We're relieved she wasn't fired outright, but we're concerned about the chilling effect her demotion may have on others eager to speak out against wrongdoing in city government.

Even by the lame ethics of Grant Street, the punishment of Catherine McNeilly is a disgraceful capitulation to political expediency. It's a bad smell that the mayor will have to answer for as he campaigns for election next year.


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