Suspended Pittsburgh officer sues city over parking variances

Portraying the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police headquarters as a nest of favoritism and vindictiveness, a suspended officer sued the city Thursday, demanding her return to work and payment for lost overtime.

Tonya L. Montgomery-Ford, a bureau employee since 1989, was part of former Chief Nate Harper’s inner circle, even joining him in an embryonic business venture, but after she opposed grants of free parking passes to a valet and talked with the FBI in February 2013, the officer was suspended with base pay and remains in that status, according to her lawsuit.

“She’s getting no answers whatsoever” on the duration of her suspension, said her attorney, Sam Cordes. “You don’t surrender your First Amendment rights at the door when you work in public service,” so her suspension for speaking out against what she considered corrupt practices is a constitutional violation and retaliation against a whistle-blower, he said.

Officer Montgomery-Ford and two other female bureau employees have “been in limbo,” said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the city’s Citizen Police Review Board. “The taxpayers are paying for people to be off the job because there was a question about their integrity on the job” while other male supervisors “remain in a position of power.”

Officer Montgomery-Ford sued the city and former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, but her complaint focused largely on police Assistant Chief George Trosky and parking entrepreneur Robert Gigliotti, owner of Tri State Valet.

The lawsuit described Tri State as hungry for parking variances, which give their holders — often valet companies and construction contractors — the right to park cars at metered spaces without paying. Officer Montgomery-Ford was in charge of processing variances, which were ideally kept to a minimum.

According to the complaint, Mr. Ravenstahl promoted Chief Trosky “at Gigliotti’s urging.” When Officer Montgomery-Ford opposed unusual grants of variances to Green Tree-based Tri State, Chief Trosky and Mr. Gigliotti “harassed and intimidated” her, she claimed. Chief Trosky was upset after the officer revoked a Tri State variance during the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta and sometimes personally filled out variance requests for Mr. Gigliotti, according to the lawsuit.

Neither Chief Trosky nor Mr. Gigliotti could be reached for comment.

When Officer Montgomery-Ford continued to balk, Harper or then-public safety director Michael Huss would overrule her. She would write the letters UP, for “under protest,” on the variances she was compelled to grant, according to the lawsuit.

Harper’s attorney, Milton Raiford, called the accusations against the imprisoned former chief “ridiculous,” saying that he is “a target for people that may make accusations.”

The FBI searched the bureau’s headquarters and questioned some employees in February 2013. Also that month, Officer Montgomery-Ford provided to a private citizen a copy of a variance allowing Tri State to use a parking space in Market Square, Downtown, after that citizen’s car was towed from the space, according to the complaint.

In late February, Harper resigned amid mounting allegations. Acting police Chief Regina McDonald then placed Officer Montgomery-Ford on paid leave.

The complaint blamed Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Huss for the decision to place the officer on leave.

Mr. Huss could not be reached for comment. Charles Porter Jr., Mr. Ravenstahl’s attorney, said he expected the city to defend the former mayor and had no other comment. City Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge could not be reached for comment.

Officer Montgomery-Ford appeared last year before the federal grand jury that heard testimony regarding city dealings, according to the complaint.

The complaint characterized her suspension as retaliation for her exercise of free speech rights and for whistle-blowing. The extended leave, now more than 16 months, threatens her officer certification, according to the complaint.

The city has paid Officer Montgomery-Ford about $84,500 while she has been on leave, according to figures Tim McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto, provided. It has paid bureau police personnel and finance manager Sandra J. Ganster about $98,500 and her assistant, Tamara L. Davis, about $60,000 while they have been suspended, according to the figures.

That brings the total payments to the three suspended employees to about $240,000. Ms. Ganster’s attorney, William Difenderfer, said she recently met with city attorneys but was not provided with a date to return to work.

A fourth suspended employee, Kim Montgomery, who is Officer Montgomery-Ford’s mother, retired in January.

Officer Montgomery-Ford was part of a clique of officers whose business dealings were subjects of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stories in early 2013.

She was one of five bureau employees, including Harper, who created the short-lived Diverse Public Safety Consultants. Her mother was associated with D&T Enterprises, which the bureau hired to provide catered dinners and knapsacks, for which the city paid a total of $7,037.

In May 2013, the city’s Office of Municipal Investigations opened a probe into the purchase of the knapsacks, according to Officer Montgomery-Ford’s complaint. In March, though, she was informed that “her OMI complaint file could not be located,” Mr. Cordes wrote.

Police bureau sources told the Post-Gazette that in recent days, OMI investigators have visited headquarters and pulled documents related to Ms. Montgomery-Ford. Deborah Walker, manager of OMI, said there is an ongoing investigation related to Officer Montgomery-Ford but would not detail it.

Officer Montgomery-Ford in her lawsuit demanded payment for lost wages, emotional distress, humiliation and punitive damages.

“The problem is that overtime and the benefits that come with that are an important element of her pay,” said Mr. Cordes.

Harper is serving a prison sentence for conspiracy to commit theft and failure to file tax returns, stemming from his diversion of checks meant for the city to an unauthorized account from which he paid personal expenses.

Ms. Pittinger noted that several male officers “were implicated in wrongdoing but weren’t disciplined, and the women were.”

She said she believed the police bureau culture that Officer Montgomery-Ford’s complaint portrayed would change.

“I don’t see anything other than the favoritism and the arrogant comfort that they’ve enjoyed over the generations to do things the way they want to, to do political favors, to look the other way,” said Ms. Pittinger. “We’re standing on the threshold of a reorganization of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. We talk about this cultural change and cultural transition that’s much needed, and we’re on the cusp of that.”

Robert Zullo and Liz Navratil contributed. Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542. Twitter @richelord. First Published June 26, 2014 9:00 AM

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