Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's bodyguards defend debit card use

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The two Pittsburgh police sergeants tasked with guarding Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said Friday that they billed only for time worked and didn't misuse debit cards tied to a controversial credit union account.

Sgt. Dominick Sciulli and Sgt. Matthew Gauntner described the work of ensuring the mayor's safety, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that decisions on their protocols were made by former police Chief Nate Harper, and not by Mr. Ravenstahl. The two men until Friday stood by silently as their work hours and -- in the case of Sgt. Sciulli -- expenses were scrutinized.

"Every hour that we put overtime cards in on, we worked," Sgt. Gauntner said. "We've even eaten hours on this detail," when they forgot to log time worked and thus weren't paid.

In January 2008, security detail members stopped recording on their time cards the precise start and stop times. Instead, they listed the total hours worked. That change has spurred concerns that the hours of mayoral security coverage can't be tracked.

The change followed stories like one reported in July 2007 in the Post-Gazette, which found that the city was on pace to spend around $250,000 a year on security for Mr. Ravenstahl. The then-new mayor was more socially active than past mayors Bob O'Connor, Tom Murphy and Sophie Masloff, and Chief Harper had said that Mr. Ravenstahl "goes from sometimes 6 in the morning to 1 or 2 [a.m.]"

Sgt. Sciulli said he didn't know whether a desire to stop such publicity prompted the change.

"When I saw [Chief Harper], he said, 'Dom, for security reasons, I don't like the way this is being done,' " said Sgt. Sciulli.

Since then, he said, "There's no start and end times. But there's a [scheduled] shift that you worked." The scheduled shift is known to headquarters, and the hour at which the guard signs off can be extrapolated from that.

Was the mayor aware of the change in protocol? "Not at all," the sergeant said.

Sgt. Sciulli said Chief Harper wanted someone to be with the mayor at all times. He initially assigned Sgt. Sciulli to work primarily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., while another officer, then-Detective Fred Crawford Jr., worked from noon to 8 p.m.

Why the overlap? Sgt. Sciulli said the chief wanted officers to visit the scenes of events in advance of the mayor to check for security challenges.

Both sergeants acknowledged that the chief's orders meant that the mayor had coverage after normal business hours to the tune of around 24 hours, total, in an average week.

"If he goes to a bar or something, he'll take us," Sgt. Gauntner said.

"We do our best to keep the mayor safe in any environment," Sgt. Sciulli said.

They said the mayor has been the subject of periodic threats, some of which have prompted investigations. They declined to detail the threats.

Sgt. Sciulli said his receipt of a debit card tied to an unauthorized Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union account was the result of a string of bureaucratic problems with expense reimbursements.

Sgt. Sciulli accompanied Mr. Ravenstahl to the Stanley Cup Finals in Detroit and covered expenses on his own credit card, he said. It took a while to get reimbursement, so some of his subsequent travel expenses were put on Mr. Ravenstahl's city-paid credit card, he said.

The Finance Department, though, objected to an arrangement that had police expenses billed to the mayor's office, said Sgt. Sciulli.

Sgt. Sciulli said he asked the mayor: " 'What do you want me to do?' " He said the mayor told him, " 'Talk to the chief.' "

Later, Sgt. Sciulli said, Chief Harper told him, " 'Dom, I got you and Fred [Crawford] credit cards to use when you need to get a hotel room and for expenses.' "

They were actually debit cards, tied to one of the credit union accounts. At least one check meant to pay for police secondary duty work -- which should have been placed in one of the city's 15 authorized depository accounts -- was put in an unauthorized credit union account. The FBI last month took records from both the credit union and police finance and special events offices, in what appears to be a probe of transactions between those offices.

Mr. Crawford, who retired from the bureau in 2011, has said that the mayor knew the cards were linked to accounts that were not subject to public records requests. Mr. Ravenstahl denied that last week.

"The mayor had no knowledge of the accounts," Sgt. Sciulli said. "All he knew was I had a credit card, the chief got me that card, that's it."

Sgt. Gauntner provided a statement from credit union CEO Karen Janoski indicating that his card was never used.

Sgt. Sciulli showed a list of around a dozen transactions from 2009 through November 2011, after which, he said, he never used the card. He said all but two of the transactions were for official travel, like a trip to Washington, D.C., with the mayor for President Barack Obama's first inauguration.

Because the card looks almost identical to his personal credit union debit card, he twice used it accidentally -- once for tailoring while on vacation in Thailand, and once for brake rims. He showed credit union statements verifying that he reimbursed those charges from his own accounts.

Sgt. Sciulli said he became a bodyguard after O'Connor hired him, by chance, to provide security at an election victory party. He later went to dignitary protection training, as did Mr. Crawford, he said.

Sgt. Gauntner said he was brought in after press reports on Sgt. Sciulli's and Detective Crawford's earnings prompted Chief Harper to spread the duties around.

Sgt. Sciulli last year earned $128,876, nearly half of which was for overtime or secondary detail work. Sgt. Gauntner earned $121,284, around 40 percent of which was overtime or details. His work also includes involvement in anti-drug, bomb squad and other functions.

The city has not yet provided requested breakdowns of all officers' overtime and secondary detail earnings.

Mr. Harper resigned upon Mr. Ravenstahl's request last week, after the mayor was interviewed for two hours by the FBI and U.S. attorney's office.

Correction, posted March 2, 2013: An earlier version of this story named the wrong championship event that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and one of his bodyguards attended in Detroit.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.


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