Federal prosecutors yesterday effectively ended a two-year criminal investigation into former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy's handling of a 2001 city contract, declining to bring an indictment but also refusing to exonerate him.
U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan said Mr. Murphy, in return for not facing charges, had agreed to cooperate with federal, state and local authorities in identifying flaws in Pennsylvania's collective bargaining law.
That law, prosecutors said, allowed the mayor to craft a fire contract before the 2001 Democratic primary that resulted in the firefighters union switching its mayoral endorsement from then-City Council President Bob O'Connor to Mr. Murphy.
The contract guaranteed no firefighter job cuts or station closings. It appeared to be awarded through a state-mandated arbitration process, masking the fact that Mr. Murphy and the union had agreed in private to its principal terms.
Ms. Buchanan declined to release a copy of the agreement with Mr. Murphy, instead summarizing it in a news release that pointedly declined to clear the former mayor.
"The agreement does not say that no crime has been committed," Ms. Buchanan said. "My decision today not to bring federal criminal charges was based on a number of factors. First it was based on federal law, upon the results of the investigation -- meaning the facts -- an analysis of our ability to prove certain facts beyond a reasonable doubt, and the possibility for resolution by some other means other than federal criminal prosecution."
While the agreement specifies that Mr. Murphy agreed to be "debriefed" by federal investigators, Ms. Buchanan indicated there is no continuing criminal probe into the fire contract.
"I don't anticipate bringing any federal criminal charges in connection with the 2001 firefighters' contract," she said.
The agreement with Mr. Murphy drew criticism and skepticism in some circles yesterday.
City Councilman Doug Shields, who in 2004 asked for an investigation into the contract, called it "a rather odd conclusion. It's like, you're free to go, but don't leave the country.
"I'm not sure if it's an ending at all."
He dismissed the idea of Mr. Murphy playing a key role in reforming the way the city negotiates labor deals.
"Tom Murphy is a private citizen," Mr. Shields said. "He is no longer part of this government. I'm not sure what he could provide at this point."
Likewise, a spokesman for Mr. O'Connor, who is now mayor, stopped short of embracing a big role for Mr. Murphy in crafting reforms, while lauding Ms. Buchanan's work.
"We agree with the U.S. attorney that the public trust and confidence is too sacred a responsibility to jeopardize and compromise for anybody's personal or political gain," said spokesman Dick Skrinjar.
"The citizens of Pittsburgh have a right to know whether their mayor broke the law," said Bruce Ledewitz, a professor of constitutional law at Duquesne University. Mr. Ledewitz said Ms. Buchanan should have prosecuted or cleared Mr. Murphy.
According to Ms. Buchanan, the settlement requires that Mr. Murphy, out of office six months and a consultant to the Washington-based Urban Land Institute, assist in any efforts to reform the state's collective bargaining law.
Ms. Buchanan said that her office had identified a serious flaw in Pennsylvania's Act 111, which governs collective bargaining between municipalities and unions representing public employees. The law, she said, allowed Mr. Murphy to use the arbitration process to hide the fact that he had made a deal with the firefighters union on major contract issues.
In this instance, it was an agreement between Mr. Murphy and Joe King, president of the city's firefighters' union, that they would both stipulate to contract language guaranteeing that no fire stations would close.
"The public didn't learn that Tom Murphy agreed to certain concessions that the city would never have been required to agree to under the current state of the law," Ms. Buchanan said. "Essentially, what they did: The negotiators for Tom Murphy and the city firefighters union agreed to the terms of the agreement and the arbitrator issued a decision based upon the agreed terms."
Asked if she would characterize the arbitration process used in 2001 as a sham, Ms. Buchanan responded, "You could say that."
Mr. Murphy didn't return calls to his home or cell phone.
His attorney, David Hickton, characterized the arrangement as "a non-prosecution agreement," even though it keeps open the possibility that charges may be filed if the mayor does not cooperate with Ms. Buchanan's office over the coming year. He called that possibility "a moot point" because the mayor is enthusiastic about working with the U.S. attorney.
"This is no longer, as I understand it, a criminal matter," he said. "This is a public policy matter."
Mr. Murphy negotiated the 2001 firefighters contract while in a tough primary election race against Mr. O'Connor. In February of that year, the mayor signed a written agreement with the union that he would not close fire stations or lay off firefighters, and the union in return did not oppose his bids for the Allegheny County Labor Council and Democratic Party endorsements.
In April, the mayor made further stipulations, believed to include raises for firefighters. He then received the union's political endorsement.
In May, Mr. Murphy beat Mr. O'Connor by 699 votes in the primary, leading some to suggest that the endorsement determined the outcome of the election.
Mr. Hickton said Mr. Murphy did not agree to anything in 2001 that was inconsistent with his long-standing support for keeping fire stations open.
"In order to establish any criminal violation, there had to be some personal, pecuniary [gain] which was not disclosed," he said. Seeking to win re-election and retain a salary was not "pecuniary," he contended.
Groups, including unions, have a right to press officeholders for policy decisions, and to endorse and vote accordingly, he said.
The mayor's decision to join Ms. Buchanan in reforming Act 111 was an extension of the position he espoused as a state legislator, and later as mayor, Mr. Hickton said. "He can offer experience and perspective [on the issue] that others don't have," he said.
As mayor, Mr. Murphy frequently complained that the act kept municipalities from using their budget constraints as a counter to union demands. Mr. Hickton said the mayor might help Ms. Buchanan craft solutions, such as barring contract deals during election season or giving city councils some oversight of an administration's position in arbitration.
Mr. King, the other party to the 2001 negotiations, could not be reached for comment. His personal attorney, J. Alan Johnson, likewise could not be reached.
"I don't think that Joe has any potential criminal liability to worry about," said Joshua Bloom, an attorney representing the firefighters union.
Several observers said they'd seen nothing like yesterday's agreement between Ms. Buchanan and Mr. Murphy.
Morton Coleman, former director of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics and an executive of city government in the 1960s, said it was neither an exoneration nor a prosecution, and what Mr. Murphy agreed to was "not exactly community service."
Across the state, CEO Zack Stalberg of the Philadelphia civic watchdog called the Committee of 70, said there's "certainly some history of mayors going easy in negotiations with municipal workers in the run-up to elections." But to his knowledge, there have been neither federal investigations nor agreements not to indict similar to the one unveiled yesterday.
"I can't recall seeing any situations that are even close parallels to what you're talking about," said Barry Kauffman of the government watchdog group Common Cause/Pennsylvania.Post-Gazette
U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan and former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy.
Hear more details
Excerpts from an interview with U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan:
An outline of the agreement reached with the former mayor
Why the decision was made not to charge Mr. Murphy
The contract process is flawed, legislation is needed to address the problem
Reporter Dennis B. Roddy provides background and an explanation of the U.S. Attorney's decision:
Timeline: The investigation