Police commander wins injunction in suit against city on whistleblowing

Judge restores McNeilly's rank

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Catherine McNeilly is a police commander again.

The woman who was demoted from that senior rank in the Pittsburgh Police Bureau last month was reinstated yesterday after a federal district judge found that Cmdr. McNeilly acted in good faith by going to City Council with her concerns about the nomination of Dennis Regan to the position of public safety director back in October.

"The public interest is always served by disclosure of wrongdoing and undue and/or inappropriate influence by public officials in police department matters," said Chief U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose in granting Cmdr. McNeilly a preliminary injunction. A demotion for a good faith report of that wrongdoing has a "chilling effect," she continued.

Cmdr. McNeilly filed a federal lawsuit Dec. 21 against the city, its police chief and mayor, citing the state's whistleblower law and claiming that her First Amendment rights were violated.

Judge Ambrose said in her opinion she felt Cmdr. McNeilly had a reasonable likelihood of succeeding with her lawsuit. In addition to being reinstated to her former position, she is seeking unspecified monetary damages and attorney fees.

"The only thing that distinguishes Catherine McNeilly from everyone else is that she had pure and honorable motives," said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Witold Walczak, one of the lawyers who represented her, during his argument to the judge. "Catherine McNeilly was the only person who had the courage to step up."

Judge Ambrose's ruling came at the end of a second day of testimony in a hearing for a preliminary injunction. Cmdr. McNeilly's lawsuit will now proceed to trial.

Cmdr. McNeilly's attorneys expect to depose Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who is named as a defendant in the case, along with police Chief Nate Harper.

Cmdr. McNeilly, who will return to work at the North Side station today, filed the lawsuit after she was demoted to the rank of lieutenant.

That demotion followed a 50-day investigation into the e-mail she sent Oct. 9 to members of City Council; her husband, former city police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr.; and her brother, the police chaplain.

In the message, she detailed what she believed was Mr. Regan's interference into a disciplinary action she initiated against Officer Francis Rende, who is the brother of Mr. Regan's housemate. Attached to the e-mail was a Discipline Action Report she had prepared against Officer Rende for what Cmdr. McNeilly called a pattern of fraud by abusing sick leave to work secondary employment.

Under bureau regulations, no one is allowed to release confidential personnel information.

That, the city has claimed, is the only reason Cmdr. McNeilly was demoted -- and not because she shared her feelings about Mr. Regan.

But Judge Ambrose dismissed that allegation by the city, saying that Cmdr. McNeilly clearly included detailed personnel information in the body of her e-mail, including some items from the disciplinary report, and the city never objected to that.

The judge found that the e-mail was protected free speech and that Cmdr. McNeilly was acting in the capacity of a private citizen when she wrote it, contrary to what city officials have said.

When asked about the court's decision, Mr. Ravenstahl said he respected it, and that the city will abide by it.

The mayor added that he doesn't regret the decision, formally made by Chief Harper, to demote her.

"It was a decision that was made by the chief, and I supported that decision," he said, adding that it was "based on [Cmdr. McNeilly] breaking rules in the police department" that she had helped write.

The city will continue to defend against the whistleblower lawsuit, he said, maintaining that any problems that existed in its upper echelons pre-dated his Sept. 1 ascent to the mayor's office following Bob O'Connor's death.

"If the question is, is there corruption in my administration, absolutely not," he said.

Mr. Ravenstahl promoted Mr. Regan to operations director Sept. 8, nominated him to be public safety director Oct. 2, withdrew that nomination Oct. 12, and accepted his resignation Dec. 1.

But that didn't stop some witnesses from recounting the influence he had during his time with the city.

Assistant City Solicitor Hugh McGough, who testified yesterday, denied that Mr. Regan had any involvement in the decision to withdraw the disciplinary report against Officer Rende.

Mr. McGough did say, though, that Mr. Regan was "appearing everywhere and touching everything."

"Dennis Regan was cutting a wide swath through city departments, and his presence was felt everywhere," he said.

But the report against Officer Rende was withdrawn because he had never been properly counseled regarding his alleged abuse of sick time, Mr. McGough said. Additionally, some of Cmdr. McNeilly's complaints against him went back farther than 120 days, a limit called for by the officers' collective bargaining agreement.

Whatever the reason the action was withdrawn, Judge Ambrose found, it didn't matter. Instead, all the evidence available to Cmdr. McNeilly at the time she wrote the e-mail to City Council pointed toward undue influence from Mr. Regan.

"Contrary to how some may perceive this case, this case is not about corruption in the police department," the judge said. "It is about allegations of wrongdoing and improper and undue influence by officials within the mayor's office in police department matters."

Rich Lord contributed to this story. Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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