Mayor pulls public safety nominee

Ravenstahl cites controversy over Dennis Regan's 'suitability'

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Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl yesterday withdrew his public safety director nomination, citing "controversy surrounding the suitability of the nominee" and questions about the need to fill the post.

The nominee, Dennis Regan, remains the city's operations director, but will not gain an increased role in disciplining police, firefighters, paramedics and building inspectors.

That's in part because of a Monday e-mail to city officials from police Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly, which suggested that Mr. Regan undercut her effort to discipline city Detective Francis M. Rende, the brother of the woman with whom Mr. Regan shares a Point Breeze home.

That message not only brought the controversy over Mr. Regan's nomination to a head, it sparked debate about the propriety of the commander's release of personnel information.

"I have questions regarding the propriety of the police commander's e-mail, and have asked the law department to investigate and address the issue," the mayor said in a letter to council withdrawing the nomination.

Acting Police Chief Paul Donaldson said that both the bureau and the city's Office of Municipal Investigations were also investigating Cmdr. McNeilly's release of information.

The e-mail shows that Cmdr. McNeilly sought to discipline Detective Rende for calling off work to take side jobs, and came to believe that Mr. Regan swept the matter under the carpet.

Any intervention by Mr. Regan may have been motivated by a desire to save the job of the detective, who has been working under a last-chance agreement since 2000.

Detective Rende's complaint history at the city's Office of Municipal Investigations contains a dozen accusations of conduct unbecoming an officer, verbal abuse and excessive force.

The most serious is a 1999 incident in which, according to police reports, then-Officer Rende answered a domestic call at a South Side home. The woman was depressed and very drunk, according to the police reports.

According to the OMI report, Officer Rende returned to the home at the woman's request after his shift had ended and he had changed clothes. The report says that Officer Rende intended to check to see if the woman had gotten a protection-from-abuse order against her husband. The report says the two then engaged in a sex act.

"That thing with the woman was off the job," said Detective Rende, reached by phone on Monday. "I screwed up a little bit with my wife."

He said he remains with his wife of 25 years.

On March 15, 2000, Acting Public Safety Director Kathleen Kraus suspended Officer Rende, pending termination, as a result of the incident. He filed a grievance, and an arbitration panel reinstated him less than two months later, without back pay and under the condition that he get counseling and participate in the Employee Assistance Program.

In a May 4, 2000, letter, Acting Director Kraus wrote that, as part of his involvement in the Employee Assistance Program, he must "be in compliance with all city and departmental work rules, including, but not limited to, punctual attendance and strict adherence to the city's sick-time use policies."

She also wrote that "any future misconduct on your part, either on or off-duty ... will lead to the termination of your employment as a City of Pittsburgh police officer."

His problems continued, particularly in the areas of side jobs and sick leave.

The bureau now has a computerized system that officers use to sign up for side jobs providing security at private businesses. Passwords limit the number of lucrative side jobs an officer can take on, and allow the bureau to track employees' moonlighting.

In May of this year, Officer Fred Crawford signed a memorandum confirming that he had given Detective Rende permission to use his password and work his side jobs.

In June, Cmdr. McNeilly filed a Disciplinary Action Report accusing him of calling in sick 37 times over four years so he could work side jobs at restaurants, housing developments, hotels, construction sites, banks, the stadiums, and for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

The report found that he may have been spending as much time on side jobs as on official police duties. Detective Rende earned $95,383 last year, according to city payroll records.

The "pattern" of calling in sick constituted "failure to report for your on-duty assignment," Cmdr. McNeilly wrote.

Fraternal Order of Police Secretary Chuck Hanlon said the sick leave policy was instituted by former Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr., the husband of the commander, who was fired by the late Mayor Bob O'Connor.

Mr. O'Connor hired Mr. Regan as his intergovernmental liaison, and Mr. Ravenstahl made him operations director.

Officers consider the sick leave policy draconian, Mr. Hanlon said. "Frank Rende is a good police officer, and I don't understand what the big deal is about Frank Rende now," he said.

Cmdr. McNeilly's charge matched the kind of infraction that could trigger termination under his 2000 order to enter the Employee Assistance Program.

It is the police chief's role to mete out punishment. When none occurred, Cmdr. McNeilly asked about the status of her report. That's when Mr. Regan visited her police station unannounced, according to her Monday e-mail, and she subsequently learned that the disciplinary report was withdrawn without her input.

Mr. Regan lives with city Senior Secretary Marlene Cassidy, who is Detective Rende's sister. The detective said he did not call upon his sister or Mr. Regan to take action to quash the disciplinary report.

The withdrawal was on the advice of the city Law Department, according to an Aug. 10 memo to Cmdr. McNeilly from Deputy Chief Earl Woodyard. Lawyers found that Detective Rende did not get the counseling that alleged sick-leave abusers are entitled to, and that the alleged infractions were more than 120 days old, rendering them moot under the city's police contract, he wrote.

Mr. Regan was out of the office and unavailable for comment, Mr. Skrinjar said yesterday.

Mr. Ravenstahl said he would review the law and determine whether to appoint someone else to the post.

"My focus is on policy, not politics. Unfortunately, some others have chosen a different path," said the mayor, referring to criticism of the nomination by Councilman William Peduto, a potential mayoral rival.

Cmdr. McNeilly's e-mail came under fire at City Council's meeting.

"I think that somebody's personnel file should not be publicly shared," council Public Safety Chairman Len Bodack said.

While Mr. Peduto argued that the post was part of state law, and its holder has power over police and firefighter pensions and can even quarantine city properties,

Council President Doug Shields said that the nomination was moot, because the city code no longer calls for a public safety director.

They called upon the Law Department to sort out the issue.

If the city wants a public safety director with real powers, duties and experience, Mr. Shields said, "then Mr. Regan is not the appropriate person for that position."

Post-Gazette
Dennis Regan

Staff writer Jim McKinnon contributed. Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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