Questions arise over Pittsburgh mayor Ravenstahl's travel expenses

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When Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl traveled to Chicago last December to speak at a forum at the University of Illinois, he took along government affairs manager Paul McKrell for a trip that would also include another, purely political, leg.

When it came time to book flights and hotel rooms, the question arose: How should this be paid?

Mr. McKrell's airfare to Chicago and then to New York City and room at a Hilton were paid for with the mayor's city credit card -- to the tune of nearly $835. But since the flight ultimately brought Mr. McKrell to the Pennsylvania Society -- a highfalutin gathering held annually in the Big Apple -- part of it will be repaid with campaign dollars, the mayor's chief of staff said Monday. Mr. Ravenstahl's room and flight were paid for entirely by his campaign.

When city officials travel, deciding which credit card or account to use isn't always simple, as the Chicago and New York trips show. A lack of clear rules with regard to the use of city and campaign funds complicates that. And while city council approves other city officials' travel requests, only the controller sees the mayor's expenses.

PG graphic: Mayor's travel expenses
(Click image for larger version)

A review of travel outlined in campaign and credit and debit card records from 2010 through 2012 indicates that the mayor traveled 18 times on the dime of the city or his campaign, including two cases in which a bodyguard paid for expenses using an unauthorized city account that has since become a subject of a federal investigation. Other official trips were underwritten with private sources -- like one to China in 2010 paid for by the Allegheny Conference.

"There are three buckets which I think someone in public office can pull money from," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of the watchdog group Pennsylvania Common Cause. "If it's a legitimate public business related to the office they represent, the public should be paying for it. If it's political activity, then it's legitimate to take it out of our campaign fund. Otherwise, if you're just traveling, every once in awhile you have to crack open your own checkbook."

Alleged misuse of public funds is at the center of the indictment last month of former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper, who is accused of shunting payments by private businesses for off-duty police work into a Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union account. He then drew on that account for $31,986 in personal expenses, according to the indictment.

Debit cards connected to the illicit accounts also ended up in the hands of the mayor's police bodyguard, Sgt. Dominick Sciulli, who said he didn't know the source of the funds. He used the debit card exclusively when he traveled with the mayor on city business, according to the mayor's chief of staff, Yarone Zober.

When the mayor travels on city business with city funds, he uses his city credit card.

The mayor's imprest fund -- an account that pays his city credit card bill -- was created by a resolution of council in 1995 under Mayor Tom Murphy. The legislation that established the fund doesn't speak to what it's to be used for. And while officials have repeatedly said it's for "city business," they could point to no city policy or legal opinion that defined its use.

City officials said state law spoke to that issue. State ethics laws bar any public official from using public funds or powers for the personal, pecuniary gain of the official or their immediate family, or for any business with which they are associated.

But the lack of rules can be problematic, as a case in Leetsdale demonstrated.

In January, the state Ethics Commission wrote an opinion on Leetsdale Borough Councilman Roger A. Nanni's use of a borough credit card, including for evening meetings at "various restaurants, bars, and other eateries/food service entities." Mr. Nanni, according to the opinion, provided "no documentation or explanation" of charges totaling $2,182 to the card over more than four years. But the commission found "insufficient evidence ... that said purchases were not related to Borough expenditures," and imposed no penalty for that.

Besides lacking clear rules, the mayor's imprest fund also has less oversight than expenditures by other city employees, who often must foot the bill for city-related travel and then seek reimbursement that's subject to approval by council.

But the mayor's travel and expenditures are not reviewed by city council. Instead, they're audited by city Controller Michael Lamb. According to Mr. Zober, the controller has never objected to any imprest fund expenditures.

"If the funds were being used for things that were not related to city business, it would be very apparent to the controller's office and the public," city solicitor Dan Regan said.

Still, records from the imprest fund demonstrates there is a lack of clarity about whether the fund should cover expenses of city employees other than the mayor, and if so, how it should be reimbursed.

For example, Mr. Zober, on more than one occasion, wrote a personal check to reimburse the imprest fund for travel-related expenses. He then sought reimbursement from the city so he could be made whole. It's a cumbersome process that can take time.

But when the mayor's credit card covered hotel rooms for Sgt. Sciulli, his police bodyguard, the sergeant did not repay the imprest fund, according to records from the controller's office. He did, however, seek approval for the travel through council on at least two occasions. Mr. Regan could not say why procedures for some city employees differed from others.

"I don't know if there's anything that would prohibit the mayor from incurring those expenditures," he said. "In a organization the size of the city, there can be inconsistent practices that are not inconsistent with the rules."

The mayor and his staff were scrupulous in documenting the expenditures. In April of last year, records show his secretary contacted the Hyatt in Crystal City, Va., to get a copy of a restaurant receipt -- for $6.03.

"I haven't abused tax dollars to travel at all," Mr. Ravenstahl said in a news conference last month.

Neither the state Ethics Commission nor the Department of State -- which runs elections -- has any mandate to enforce the rule for spending campaign money, according to officials for those agencies.

State law allows candidates to use the money donors give their campaigns for "the payment, distribution, loan or advancement of money or any valuable thing by a candidate, political committee or other person for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election."

Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign records reveal that he regularly taps funds provided by donors for travel and meals. Mr. Ravenstahl planned to run for re-election until February, when he dropped out of the race.

In September 2010, for instance, the campaign paid $65 for a meal at Javier's in Newport Beach, Calif., and $254.39 for one at Montage, an oceanfront hotel in Laguna Beach.

Mr. Zober said he believed the mayor was in California then for a summit on municipal pensions. He said any trip on which the mayor might meet influential people or gain knowledge that might help him to solve city problems would also boost his electoral chances.

"This mayor more often than not errs on the side of caution and uses campaign funds to save taxpayer money where appropriate," Mr. Zober said.

The mayor billed expenses related to his February 2011 trip to the Super Bowl in Texas -- including $5,970 for an Embassy Suites room and $43 for a meal at Shula's Grill -- to his campaign.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533.


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