Once near top of city government, she tripped on lure of corruption
November 14, 2007 10:00 AM
Darrell Sapp / Post-Gazette
Twanda Carlisle walks yesterday toward Judge John Zottola's courtroom, where she would plead no-contest to 17 counts of corruption and ethics violations. She resigned her seat on City Council.
By Rich Lord Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Twanda Carlisle asked all the right questions, made all the right moves, even won a key coin toss along the way to nearly becoming president of Pittsburgh City Council and, potentially, mayor.
At some point along the way, though, an acquired taste for perks began to outweigh dedication to public service. Perhaps the balance tipped irrevocably on Sept. 12, 2003, when she approved a city payment of $1,610 to her friend, Darlene Durham-Miller, and then deposited $800 in her personal bank account.
Yesterday Ms. Carlisle resigned from council, pleaded no contest to 17 charges of corruption and ethics violations, and became the subject of an office pool in city hall on how much time she'll serve after her Feb. 4 sentencing.
"It's a sad situation for us as government leaders to be dealing with this type of issue," said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who edged out Ms. Carlisle for council's presidency in late 2005 and made the first of several referrals on her case that led to yesterday's plea.
"I've always believed in justice," said Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Valerie McDonald-Roberts, who was Ms. Carlisle's boss in the late 1990s. "But it still doesn't take away any sentiment of sadness for the demise."
Born on Christmas Day in 1958, Ms. Carlisle was raised in a churchgoing household and became active in the community from an early age, under the guidance of her mother, Constance Parker.
"She was more on the quiet side," said Judith Ginyard, who knew Ms. Carlisle from the time both were around 5 years old. "We sang in the same church choir. We attended the same schools."
Ms. Carlisle graduated from Peabody High School in 1975, and attended Point Park College and the University of Pittsburgh, without earning a degree.
Her entree to politics came nearly 20 years later, through her mother. Ms. Parker, knew Councilman Bishop Duane Darkins.
In February 1994, Ms. Carlisle took a job as an aide in Mr. Darkins' office. She got a close look at his style, which included expensive tastes, a disinterest in paying taxes, and a willingness to testify for defendants in criminal cases.
Two months later, he died of cancer, to be replaced by Ms. McDonald-Roberts. The new councilwoman kept Ms. Carlisle.
"She was an excellent administrative assistant," said Ms. McDonald-Roberts. "If I delegated her to set something up, it was done well and thoroughly. ... Even then, no one's perfect."
"I remember Twanda as being very quiet, very personable," said Mary Ann Salsgiver, a former stenotype reporter for council who was also the court reporter assigned to Ms. Carlisle's trial yesterday. "She was trying to understand government, and she worked her way up."
Council sources said Ms. Carlisle eventually came to enjoy the benefits of government service, intercepting invitations to parties intended for her boss and making ample use of city-owned cars. When Ms. McDonald-Roberts moved on to county office, her aide reached for the ring.
In January 2002, Democratic Committee members from the city's northeastern corner met to pick their nominee to replace Ms. McDonald Roberts. They deadlocked between Ms. Carlisle and Louis "Hop" Kendrick. A coin flip ensued, Ms. Carlisle called heads, and she became the prohibitive favorite to win the seat, which she did.
In 2003, she faced voters for a four-year term. Ms. Ginyard challenged her. By that time, the line between the personal and the political had blurred.
"She took me running against her as a personal affront," said Ms. Ginyard, who at the time was running the Lincoln-Larimer Community Development Corp. When Ms. Carlisle won, she reduced and eventually cut off the funding to the community group, Ms. Ginyard said.
She rose at around the same time that William Peduto and Jim Motznik ascended from aides to council members, and the three were initially close.
"She was at my father's funeral," said Mr. Peduto.
"She cared about her neighborhoods, her community," he said. "She was deeply concerned about violence in the neighborhoods. Her big issues were the basic needs of her district."
In a way, she adopted the Robin Hood ethos of Mr. Darkins. From 2002 through 2006, she distributed some $177,892 in city discretionary funds to interests ranging from churches and youth groups to "consultants," including some with criminal histories.
Three consultants would be charged as co-conspirators in a kickback scheme. The first, Ms. Durham-Miller, became a conduit for $19,480 in city funds into Ms. Carlisle's personal and campaign accounts, according to court records. Her October plea agreement to testify against Ms. Carlisle would spell the beginning of the end.
The next, Ms. Parker's housemate Lee O. Johnson, transferred about $10,400 to her, according to a county grand jury's report, while producing a "health report" that was mostly copies of previously published materials. His trial was postponed to March 18.
The third, Sheryl Ann Pinson-Smith, pleaded no contest yesterday to shifitng about $13,200 to Ms. Carlisle's personal and campaign accounts.
Ms. Carlisle bought a mink coat, seized this month. She travelled, frequently, to Las Vegas. She kept regular nail appointments at Alta Villa Spa & Salon, Downtown.
If anyone in council suspected wrongdoing, they didn't let on. In December 2005, after Council President Gene Ricciardi said he wanted to leave that post a few weeks before becoming a district judge, she became a contender for that usually ceremonial role.
Behind the scenes, Mayor-elect Bob O'Connor had been vacillating on whom to support.
On Dec. 6, weeks of jockeying came down to a vote, and Mr. Ravenstahl emerged with the needed five ayes. Ms. Carlisle and Mr. Peduto voted no, while Len Bodack and Sala Udin abstained. Insiders said the four were prepared to vote for Ms. Carlisle, and that Mr. O'Connor helped deny her a potential fifth vote.
Mr. O'Connor could not know it at the time, but he was helping to pick his successor, since he died eight months into his term.
While Mr. O'Connor was mayor, media inquiries about Mr. Johnson's work began to unravel Ms. Carlisle's world.
"I never shammed or did anything to discredit my community at any time," Ms. Carlisle said shortly thereafter. "I'm not worried about this media. Yeah, it's dark for me now, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel."
A 17-count grand jury presentment, court appearances, and Ms. Durham-Miller's decision to testify against her former friend dimmed that light. A credit card company sued for unpaid debts. She was resoundingly defeated in the May Democratic primary at the hands of the Rev. Ricky Burgess.
Common Pleas Judge John A. Zottola's Oct. 29 decision to seize her paychecks and her coat left her "with no salary and financially stress," she wrote in her resignation letter, effective yesterday. "As much as I love working for the residents of the city of Pittsburgh I can not afford to continue to volunteer my services."
She thanked her colleagues, staff and constituents in the letter, and asked "for your continued prayers and support through this challenging time in my life."
"At this time, I'm just praying for her and her family," said the Rev. Burgess. The council seat will remain vacant until he is sworn in early in January.
He'll get the responsibility for a district that has long suffered from neglect and population loss, and now has the stigma of a leader's departure for corruption.
City government must "move past and beyond and do whatever it is we can to change the image and clean up the perception of any of this wrongdoing happening," said Mr. Ravenstahl.
"I think that the [council] members are still held in high regard in their communities," said Council President Doug Shields. "I am glad that this chapter has ended."