Federal investigation of Pittsburgh police reaches Ravenstahl's office
May 9, 2013 4:31 AM
Pittsburgh police Sgt. Dominick Sciulli, one of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's bodyguards, in the City-County Building in February.
By Rich Lord, Jonathan D. Silver and Moriah Balingit / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A federal probe that started in the Bureau of Police has reached Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office, with the appearances before a grand jury Wednesday of two members of his security detail and his senior administrator.
Testifying before the grand jury over the course of two hours were Sgt. Dominick Sciulli and Sgt. Matthew Gauntner, who were primarily in charge of the mayor's personal security in recent years; and Melissa Demme, the administrator who handles his travel and scheduling. Few city employees have worked more closely with Mr. Ravenstahl.
"The normal way in which the federal agents go about investigating a case is in sort of concentric circles, from the outside in," said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and defense attorney, and now professor of criminology, law and society at Saint Vincent College. "If they are moving to people who are personally intimately associated with the inner circle of individuals, it would seem that the investigation certainly has progressed."
Agents accompanying Sgt. Gauntner carried a box, but his attorney, Marty Dietz, said he didn't bring any documents with him.
Sgt. Matthew Gauntner
"He appeared. He told the truth. He answered all of their questions and will continue to cooperate with this investigation," said Mr. Dietz, who added that Sgt. Gauntner's subpoena was served April 25 and that it was his first time before the grand jury.
Because attorneys aren't allowed to accompany witnesses into federal grand jury proceedings, Mr. Dietz did not know what Sgt. Gauntner was asked. None of the three witnesses would comment following their appearances. The U.S. Attorney's Office would not comment.
"Since the beginning of this process, my administration has cooperated fully with authorities," Mr. Ravenstahl said in an emailed statement. "I intend for that practice to continue with any future inquiries, and I look forward to the revelation of all the facts."
Charles Porter Jr., a criminal defense attorney who is representing Mr. Ravenstahl, declined comment and would not say whether the mayor has received any recent communication from federal agents.
Assistant U.S. attorneys Robert Cessar and Lee Karl were in the grand jury room with the witnesses. The two are handling what appears to be a wide-ranging investigation of Pittsburgh city government. They did not comment afterward.
Sgt. Gauntner entered the grand jury room first and stayed for about an hour. Sgt. Sciulli was inside for around half an hour, and Ms. Demme for just under half an hour.
Ms. Demme, whose desk is just outside of the mayor's office, handled his day-to-day scheduling and booked his travel, sometimes including campaign-related trips. An attorney for the Ravenstahl campaign told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month that the practice was normal for governmental executives, though other elected officials described different practices.
She is a 15-year veteran of city government who once worked in the office of Councilman Bill Peduto, now a mayoral candidate and a longtime bitter foe of Mr. Ravenstahl.
In recent years, Sgt. Sciulli drove and accompanied the mayor on most outings, while Sgt. Gauntner handled that duty part time and also managed the Bomb Squad and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.
Both sergeants were given debit cards tied to the I.P.F account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union. Prosecutors have said that under former police Chief Nate Harper's direction, checks from private entities that should have been deposited with the city were instead diverted into the unauthorized credit union account.
Mr. Harper faces a charge of conspiracy in relation to the alleged diversion of some $70,000 into the account, of which some $30,000 was allegedly used for his personal expenses, and for failure to file tax returns.
In a March interview with the Post-Gazette, Sgt. Gauntner said he returned the card almost immediately, and presented a credit union statement showing that he never used it. He was reassigned to a city zone last month.
Sgt. Sciulli said in March that then-Chief Harper gave him the card after he complained about the city's slow reimbursement of expenses he incurred on a trip with the mayor to Detroit to attend a Stanley Cup Finals game. Both sergeants said they had no idea that the account was unauthorized or funded with diverted checks.
Sgt. Sciulli presented documentation that he used the card around a dozen times, for official business, except for twice when he inadvertently used it for personal expenses, for which he later reimbursed the account.
Mr. Ravenstahl has said he did not have any card tied to the account and did not know that any unauthorized account existed. That contention was contradicted by Fred Crawford Jr., a former mayoral bodyguard and former Pittsburgh police detective, who said the mayor knew that expenditures posted to the cards could not be found through media requests under the state open records law.
Mr. Crawford has been out of the country and unreachable.
Mr. Harper has had seven known conversations with representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Attorney's Office.
Attorney Robert R. Leight, who represents Mr. Harper, said Wednesday that the former chief is cooperating with the investigation but has not been asked to appear before a grand jury.
Federal prosecutors can have agents read to the grand jury transcripts or summaries of interviews with witnesses. They bring people personally before the grand jury when they want to lock in their accounts of events.
"The idea is to get their testimony under oath, so that it is preserved in a way that locks it in as much as any testimony can be locked in," Mr. Antkowiak said, adding that prosecutors may also want to give a grand jury a sense of the gravity of the witness's account, and even to test run the witness for potential appearance at trial.
Typically, people who testify truthfully before a grand jury don't end up being indicted, he said, though there is no rule precluding charges against witnesses.
The federal investigation appears to have begun with a probe of a city contract with Alpha Outfitters, an Esplen firm that won a contract to install and maintain radios and computers in city police cars. Robinson entrepreneur Art Bedway, a former friend of Mr. Harper, has pleaded not guilty to seven charges stemming from the contract, and former city systems analyst Christine Kebr has pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy for bid rigging.
In February, the FBI hauled boxes of records out of the police bureau's North Side headquarters and the credit union's West End office. In March, Mr. Harper was indicted.
On Tuesday, city officials confirmed a second round of subpoenas for five years' worth of documents about parking variances granted by the police bureau under Mr. Harper.
Mr. Antkowiak said that if the probe is aimed at the mayor, he may soon have tough decisions to make.
"Your choices are obvious: You can stay and fight, and you could invite the investigation to proceed, confident of your own exoneration," he said, or you can "go in and accept the charges.
"It's a very, very hard assessment at this point."