Pittsburgh's Public Works lacking discipline consistency
Policy on handling criminality in ranks called into question
July 12, 2009 8:00 AM
Paul Grguras, a heavy equipment operator, was fired in 2007 by the city, which alleged that he didn't disclose a past felony on a job application. He's now suing, claiming disparate treatment.
By Rich Lord Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A city of Pittsburgh department that has been embarrassed by criminal accusations against its employees, thwarted in disciplinary efforts and accused of unfairness in courts has no consistent policy on handling criminality in the ranks, a review of court cases, pay records and written procedures indicates.
The Department of Public Works -- a 642-employee operation responsible for paving and clearing streets, collecting trash, maintaining public areas and more -- has in recent years seen workers accused of dealing drugs, using stolen inspection stickers, fencing motorcycles and driving drunk. Still unsolved is the March disappearance of 11 Steelers victory parade banners from a limited-access area of a Downtown public works building.
"I wouldn't say that there's a problem in the sense that there's some kind of pervasive attitude or there's something endemic to the department," said city Operations Director Art Victor. "Keep in mind that there's over 600 employees."
The challenge of managing those employees will soon pass from longtime Director Guy Costa, who announced his resignation Friday, to a successor. Mr. Costa said he was leaving to pursue other options after 10 years in the post, and questions for this story were referred to Mr. Victor and personnel staff.
Two years after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl called for background checks before hires and promotions, there are no firm rules governing what happens when a prospective or current worker is accused of a crime. That's by design, said Mr. Victor, arguing that a set-in-stone policy would keep the department from considering all of the circumstances of a case.
But the absence of consistency is the subject of a civil lawsuit by former heavy equipment operator Paul J. Grguras, whose 2007 arrest for illegal possession of firearms and receiving stolen property, among other things, spurred the background check policy. The city fired him after the arrest, alleging that he didn't disclose a past felony on a job application.
"The city rolls are replete with people who've done the same thing that Paul has," said Len Sweeney, his attorney. "If they suspended every city employee who was arrested, it would have a crippling effect on the workforce."
The Post-Gazette found that 137 department employees have faced criminal charges in Allegheny County, some before they joined the city, and some after their hire. Of those, 66 have faced charges within the last 10 years.
"Certainly the public trust issue is something that we always consider," Mr. Victor said. "But again, you have to balance that against the fact that you can't discriminate against somebody just solely based on their history."
Two weeks after Mr. Ravenstahl called for background checks, but before they were implemented, the department hired Erin G. Gilbert, despite felony convictions for a 1992 shooting and a separate 1992 robbery that resulted in more than five years behind bars.
Mr. Gilbert, 37, said he disclosed the felonies on his application, but explained that he wasn't the lone actor. "They gave me a chance, and I appreciate that," the refuse worker said.
And a month after Mr. Ravenstahl's call, the department brought on Ellis E. Thrift Jr., now 41, despite a 2001 guilty plea to felony drug charges that stemmed from the sale of two ounces of cocaine to a state police informant for $2,300. He was sentenced to three to six years of incarceration, and now works as a refuse worker.
Mr. Victor said that legally, the city "can't have a blanket statement or blanket policy that we're not going to hire anybody who has a felony conviction. We would be consigning people to a life sentence for something that they've already paid the price for."
"Do we encourage felons to apply? No," said acting Personnel Director Judy Hill Finegan. "But we don't discourage them."
She said prospective employees, and those being considered for promotions, are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with no hard-and-fast disqualifiers.
"We believe that people deserve opportunity," she said.
Sometimes giving someone with a checkered past a chance turns out OK.
The department hired Robert S. Lamb, 31, in 2005, while he was awaiting trial on lewdness charges, for which he got nine months probation. That hiring also came despite his imprisonment starting in 1999 for felony robbery, criminal conspiracy and firearms charges after police said he carried a sawed-off shotgun in a bank robbery in East Liberty.
As a city worker, he has faced no disciplinary suspensions, nor new criminal charges.
Other times, though, past proves to be prelude.
In 1999, long before it began conducting background checks, the city hired Joseph Deiuliis, now 43, as a laborer. At the time, he was awaiting trial on charges of aggravated and simple assault, theft, conspiring to commit robbery and impersonating a public servant. Those charges were dismissed in 2000 when prosecutors failed to provide a speedy trial.
He was suspended briefly in 2004 and again in 2005, according to city records. Then, in 2006, he was fired for operating a city vehicle while he had a suspended driver's license. He was one of four employees fired at the time for that same offense, including one who was caught at an after-hours club while on the clock.
Mr. Deiuliis and the three others filed grievances, and an arbitrator forced the city to take them back in non-driving positions.
"The arbitration process is somewhat skewed in favor of the union and employee just by the basis of how arbitrators are chosen," Mr. Victor said. The decision is usually made by an arbitrator agreed upon by both union and management, and since arbitrators get a lot of work from unions, they may hesitate to rule against workers, he said.
While he was fighting the termination, Mr. Deiuliis was charged with forgery, identity theft and possession of a controlled substance, when, police said, he forged a prescription for Oxycontin and used a false name to try to buy the drug. Even as charges were pending, he returned to work, then pleaded guilty to two charges and got one year of probation.
He remains a city laborer, and could not be reached for comment.
Neal Goslawski, 52 and for 26 years a laborer for the department, was jailed for 39 days in 2005 after being charged with trespassing, stalking and aggravated assault. Those were reduced to a summary offense.
While in the Allegheny County Jail, though, he was charged with simple assault after a guard said he struck her and stomped on her foot. He got a year of probation.
Mr. Goslawski has been suspended four times for a total of 43 days over the past five years, but not terminated. Ms. Hill Finegan said the reasons for that are confidential, and Mr. Goslawski would not comment.
Innocent until when?
When the department becomes aware of a criminal accusation against an employee, it doesn't necessarily suspend or fire him, said Ms. Hill Finegan. "People are presumed innocent," she said. "It's America."
For instance, James R. Diggs, 49, has been with the department for a decade, rising through the refuse collection ranks to driver, with no suspensions or demotions despite criminal cases.
In 2006, city police said they caught him taking cinder blocks from a Brighton Heights construction site, and charged him with theft and conspiracy. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, the other charges were dropped, and he got 30 days' probation.
Early this year, police pulled him over and reported finding a baggie of crack cocaine in the vehicle. Mr. Diggs said he was driving a jitney, and had no idea how the crack got there, according to the police report. He continues to work pending his October trial. Ms. Hill Finegan said that's because there is no policy on arrests.
Some department workers, though, are axed based on allegations, and aren't brought back after being cleared.
In February, laborers Joseph F. Finello, 35, and Harry P. Bersani, 50, were accused of finding a dirt bike in the weeds of Sheraden Park on city time, putting it in a city truck and selling it. After news reports of their arrest, they were fired.
The case against Mr. Finello, a 10-year city employee with four other criminal cases against him since 1993, is still open. But charges against Mr. Bersani, who has two years with the city and no criminal record in the last 30 years, were withdrawn in June.
Still, the city shut off his unemployment compensation after a few weeks, saying that he confessed to the crime -- something he denies.
"I'm borrowing just to survive," he said last week. "My record is clean, even my city record. I've never even been late."
The union is challenging the firing and Mr. Bersani said he may know by tomorrow whether he'll be reinstated.
Mr. Grguras is suing the same city that, he said, "solicited me to come to work for them, because I did so much volunteer work in Riverview Park." He got an award for excellence from Mayor Tom Murphy in 1999. "I am a dedicated employee."
He was arrested in July 2007 for having stolen inspection stickers and possessing guns that he wasn't allowed to own due to early 1980s felony theft convictions. The city fired him shortly after the arrest, alleging that he didn't disclose the felonies on a 1999 application. He denied lying on his application, suggesting that a copy with the "no" circle filled in for past felonies may have been tampered with.
His lawsuit alleges disparate treatment, citing the case of Bernard L. Pendleton, a city truck driver fired in 2007 after news reports that he committed felonies in the 1980s.
Mr. Victor said then that Mr. Pendleton was hired three times by the city, each time disclosing some, but not all, of his criminal history. Fired for the omissions, he returned to work three months later after his grievance went to state mediation.
Mr. Sweeney said that if the city has a policy requiring it to review the truthfulness of all employees' applications, that "would make it consistent," but it doesn't. "Why did you look at [Mr. Grguras] and no one else? Is it your policy to look at this on an ad hoc basis?"
The city has argued in filings that the matter should be handled through the state Labor Relations Board, not Common Pleas Court.
Mr. Victor said there's no sense crafting policies when there are so many ways workers could get in trouble with the law. "When it comes to incidents that require some type of discipline, whether it's criminal or just some workplace violation, they have to be considered on an individual basis, because every situation is completely different than the next."