Accidental mayor: Ravenstahl's mistakes still define his tenure

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Luke Ravenstahl became mayor of Pittsburgh by accident. He was elected president of city council back in 2005 only because veteran members were at a standoff over the leadership post and figured they'd use the young newcomer as a place-holder.

Then Mayor Bob O'Connor died just nine months into his term, and Council President Ravenstahl, under the city charter, assumed the office. Ill-prepared and irresponsible, the then 26-year-old mayor started his tenure with a series of ethical missteps.

He took a free trip to New York City from a Pittsburgh Penguins owner after sealing a deal for a new team arena. He improperly used a federally funded SUV to haul friends to a concert. His former Urban Redevelopment Authority director was too cozy with a billboard executive, the same firm that received backdoor approval for a huge, lighted sign Downtown.

Then, for a time, it looked as though Mr. Ravenstahl might be growing into the job. But that was before he sat out the blizzard of 2010 at Seven Springs ski resort, was slow to react publicly when a flash flood killed four people on Washington Boulevard and was AWOL from numerous public events over long stretches.

Why recount that history now? Because recent revelations of chaos in his police bureau suggest that not much has changed since the mayor's wobbly start.

One of his trusted aides from the beginning was police Chief Nate Harper, whose forced resignation last week came not when his connections to a tainted city contract or a deal to partner with four of his employees to create a private security firm were revealed, but only after the mayor was interviewed by the FBI and U.S. attorney's office.

That de facto firing came as questions mushroomed over the processing of payments for off-duty security details by city police and a previously undetected account outside the city's normal coffers that, among other things, gave numerous police officials debit-card access to funds.

The mayor says he thought the funds came from a legitimate city account, not one at the police credit union, and he said all the expenditures were for legitimate city business. One of his former bodyguards says otherwise.

Like a TV detective show, there's a large cast of characters here, with both obvious and hidden motivations, not the least of which is a campaign for the Democratic Party's nomination for mayor. It's too early to unravel who is in the wrong, who is in the right and how the plot will unfold.

But there is more at play here than the usual political games; those shenanigans rarely draw the attention of federal agents.

Temporarily, the mayor has placed Assistant Chief Regina McDonald in charge of the bureau. She started off on the right foot, immediately placing on leave a handful of employees, some of whom joined Mr. Harper in forming the private company.

Unfortunately, until everyone involved starts giving the public the answers that federal investigators are uncovering, we must stay tuned for the next disappointing episode in the tenure of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

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