Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle tendered her resignation yesterday after pleading no contest to running a kickback scheme and pocketing $43,160 in city revenue.
Ms. Carlisle, 48, of East Hills, stood with her lawyer before Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge John A. Zottola and confirmed that no one had forced her to forgo her right to the trial scheduled for yesterday.
She bit her lip while Assistant District Attorney Lawrence N. Claus read through a summary of the case against her. He said she paid three contractors from the city coffers, had them return some of their payments to her in cash and then failed to disclose the transactions on campaign finance forms. Two weeks ago, while she was awaiting trial, the judge froze her assets, demanded that she return a mink coat purchased with city money and garnished income from her city council paychecks.
"Are you pleading to these charges because the Commonwealth's evidence, if believed, would be sufficient to convict you?" the judge asked.
Ms. Carlisle paused.
Her lawyer Patrick Thomassey leaned in and mumbled, "Yes, sir."
"Yes, sir," she said.
She then pleaded no contest, opting not to present any defense evidence or testimony, on nine felony and eight misdemeanor charges. She pleaded to three counts of theft by deception for withholding $19,480 obtained from co-defendant Darlene Durham-Miller, about $10,400 obtained from co-defendant Lee Otto Johnson and about $13,200 from co-defendant Sheryl Pinson-Smith. She pleaded to three related felony counts of conspiracy, five elections code violations for lying under oath about campaign finances and six violations of the state Ethics Act.
Judge Zottola set sentencing for Feb. 4.
Her attorney then shuttled her through a thicket of reporters and cameramen and down a flight of stairs. She declined to comment, but Mr. Thomassey said she had already submitted a letter of resignation, which was received yesterday afternoon. Her term on city council was to expire next month.
Upon hearing of Ms. Carlisle's actions, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl called it "an unfortunate day" and said "it gives us, as city government, a black eye."
"I wish Councilwoman Carlisle the best in the future," he continued, "but the reality was, and she acknowledged today, that mistakes were made, and there are repercussions for those mistakes."
He said he thought the new restrictions he placed on spending while he was city council president would be sufficient to prevent future missteps, but said it is the council's "prerogative to police itself."
Council President Doug Shields said the council would discuss how to handle the needs of Ms. Carlisle's district until her elected replacement, the Rev. Ricky Burgess, is sworn in in January.
The fate of Ms. Carlisle's pension is unclear at this point. insert feed from tom barnes on this issue, pension will be based on charges she pleaded no contest to.
As for restitution, Ms. Carlisle's lawyer said she was prepared to reimburse the missing funds.
"Twanda has a significant amount of money in her retirement account. I think it probably will almost pay back the entire amount," he said, "She's going to give that up voluntarily, obviously." He noted that she returned a full-length $4,494 mink coat she'd bought with city money after being ordered to do so by the judge, but Mr. Thomassey said, "we were going to give it back anyway." He said she hoped to pay "100 percent restitution" to the city and "go on with her life." The prosecutor said he would target her pension and her deferred compensation account.
Technically, Ms. Carlisle faces a maximum of 85 years in prison and $173,000 in fines. But the judge is likely to consider contributions toward restitution and her lack of a prior record.
Mr. Claus did not recommend a sentence yesterday. He said he would wait to do so until her sentencing. However, he said "it doesn't get much worse" for a sitting politician than the charges Ms. Carlisle faced.
He said the plea showed "there will be a day of reckoning" when elected official decides to "unlawfully dip into the public till."
Although like all defendants Ms. Carlisle was presumed innocent, the judge upheld a motion two weeks ago to garnish the councilwoman's salary and pension in anticipation of her court date.
Mike Manko, spokesman for the district attorney's office, said this was the first instance he knew of a local elected official "having his or her salary frozen in anticipation of paying restitution for a theft crime" while still in office.
Mr. Claus said after an extensive grand jury investigation the district attorney mounted a "very strong circumstantial case," documented by bank records from the city, Ms. Carlisle and Ms. Pinson-Smith, 49, of Lawrenceville.
"I think there was a perception by those who were involved that if you use cash you are building a case where there could be no trail of money," but he said the cash deposits reflected a two-year pattern of criminal activity.
Also yesterday Ms. Pinson-Smith, a clerical aide to Ms. Carlisle, pleaded no contest to felony charges of theft and conspiracy. She will also be sentenced Feb. 4.
Co-defendant Lee Otto Johnson, 76, of Penn Hills, sat through Ms. Carlisle and Ms. Pinson-Smith's pleas beside his lawyer, Robert Foreman, but requested a postponement. His trial on the same two counts is March 18.
The final co-defendant Darlene Durham-Miller, of McKeesport, pleaded guilty in October to theft by deception and conspiracy and agreed to testify against the councilwoman at trial, strengthening the prosecution's case against Ms. Carlisle.
Gabrielle Banks can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1370.