The owner of a North Side cigar shop that has been labeled a trouble spot because of an after-hours club operating inside claims a Pittsburgh police commander threatened to hurt him and destroy his business after he ended what he described as their romantic relationship.
But residents and City Council President Darlene Harris suggested that the Tuesday filing of a protection-from-abuse order by Andrew M. Lee could be a gambit to derail the commander's testimony at a zoning hearing scheduled for today about his efforts to legally operate the club in addition to the cigar shop.
Mr. Lee, 45, who owns Executive Cigar LLC at Suismon and East streets, wrote in the PFA petition that Cmdr. RaShall Brackney, 49, told his attorney "that she would do whatever it takes to get me" and he feared for his life.
A PFA petition is an unproven allegation filed in civil court. Cmdr. Brackney remains on duty at the city's North Side station, and "all stipulations contained in the PFA are being enforced," police spokeswoman Diane Richard said. The matter was referred to the city's Office of Municipal Investigation for further review, she said.
A normally staid debate over zoning issues has taken on a soap-opera-like quality with Mr. Lee claiming he had an intimate relationship with the commander, whom he described at a public meeting last week as a "scorned woman" who came after his business after he left her for someone else.
Cmdr. Brackney did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But Warner Macklin III, who said he is representing her "in communications and crisis management issues," said she "categorically and emphatically denies any type of relationship whatsoever" with Mr. Lee. He called the PFA "frivolous" and said "there's a very low standard to file a PFA."
Under the terms of the order, which is valid through a May 17 court hearing, Cmdr. Brackney can't contact, "abuse, harass, stalk or threaten" Mr. Lee and is barred from his home and place of employment.
Attorney Todd Hollis, who represents Mr. Lee before the zoning board, said he bumped into Cmdr. Brackney at a bar in the Strip District this weekend and the two had a "pleasant" conversation, agreeing not to talk business.
"It was only when she made reference to my client that she took a different tone," he said. He did not encourage Mr. Lee to seek the PFA but felt obligated to tell him about the chance encounter to avoid the appearance of a conflict.
In the order, granted by Common Pleas Senior Judge Lee J. Mazur, Mr. Lee wrote that he sought protection after Mr. Hollis relayed the conversation because "this isn't the first time she's threatened me. I believe that due to her unique position as a commander she can carry out her threat."
Under a section detailing incidents of past abuse, he wrote Cmdr. Brackney "flew into a fit of rage" during a Feb. 21 phone call in which she told him "she was going to destroy me by any means."
Judge Mazur said he would not comment on a pending case.
Mr. Lee said in an interview that he met Cmdr. Brackney, a 27-year veteran of the city's force, at a party at the bar more than a year ago.
Ms. Harris has fielded numerous complaints from North Side residents about the cigar shop premises.
"What the neighbors have been putting up with is just unbelievable -- women running down the street nude in high heels, with G-strings, the noise where they can't even sleep at night," Ms. Harris said.
While Ms. Harris admits that she does not always agree with Cmdr. Brackney, she is taking her side in the current brouhaha with Mr. Lee.
"He just so happened to file a PFA [two] day[s] before the zoning hearing. Isn't that a coincidence?" Ms. Harris said.
She convened a May 1 meeting about Mr. Lee's zoning application. He and the commander both appeared, as did more than 50 residents.
"He kept trying to discredit her in front of the community, and that's why I was appalled and talked to the [police] chief afterwards," Ms. Harris said. "She attempted to work with this guy and he wouldn't do it. He called her names."
Ms. Harris said Cmdr. Brackney acknowledged having attended a private family function at the club before any after-hours activities were occurring.
Records show that Executive Cigars LLC was created in May 2009. Three months later Mr. Lee bought the Suismon Street property for $68,000. Various articles about the shop have been written in local publications, and Mr. Lee has invoked the names of a variety of local power brokers who have patronized his shop, including Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, with whom he posed for a picture posted on Mr. Lee's Facebook page.
Last August, according to a contract filed in court, Mr. Lee sublet for a year his second floor to Keith Condon for use as an after-hours liquor joint called "The Lounge."
Even before the lease was signed, in June 2011, the city's Bureau of Building Inspection took a complaint about a second-story club that featured loud music late at night "and pouring into the streets with no concern for the neighborhood." Another complaint was registered Dec. 15.
Problems did not abate and culminated with a shooting outside the bar in December.
During one of those encounters, a police report states, Mr. Lee refused to give his full name or Mr. Condon's name to an officer. When pushed for his identity, according to the report, Mr. Lee said, "Why? Your commander knows who I am and has partied upstairs before."
In a court filing, Mr. Lee's attorney acknowledged that his client received numerous complaints. "Mr. Lee attempted to negotiate with the community to curtail the issues. However he came to realization that lease [sic] was a mistake and attempted to evict the social club."
Mr. Lee submitted to court a document showing that he terminated Mr. Condon's lease on Feb. 18 -- what was termed an "amicable resolution."
But it was apparently too little too late.
On Feb. 21, City Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczko revoked the cigar store's zoning approval. The next day, the Bureau of Building Inspection followed suit.
Mr. Lee fought the city, and on March 9 won reinstatement of his zoning approval and occupancy permit from Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph M. James.
Judge James imposed restrictions on operating hours and forbade consumption of alcohol on the premises.
Based on continuing complaints, a state Liquor Control Enforcement officer met March 6 with Cmdr. Brackney and other officers. While undercover, the officer wrote he saw alcohol in the club despite the judge's order.
The city has alleged in court that Executive Cigars has violated the court order.
Even as the court case plays out, a zoning hearing is scheduled for today about an application by Mr. Lee to open a social club with alcohol. Cmdr. Brackney has been subpoenaed to appear.