Ex-bodyguard: Mayor Ravenstahl knew of credit union debit cards
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl arrives at Pittsburgh police headquarters Thursday on the North Side to meet with new acting Chief Regina McDonald.
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Amid the ongoing controversy over the use of a police credit union account under federal scrutiny, a new voice emerged Thursday.
One of Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's former bodyguards claimed this week that the mayor and the public safety director knew that debit cards used by the security detail were linked to the non-governmental account for the purpose of avoiding media scrutiny about certain expenditures. Both officials strongly denied it.
"Luke knew firsthand that these cards were given to us and they were specifically given to us because you guys were doing the Right-to-Know [requests]," said Fred Crawford Jr. "You would never see the trail of the hotel bills and stuff like that from us."
In separate interviews, Mr. Ravenstahl and Public Safety Director Mike Huss Thursday night disputed all of Mr. Crawford's allegations.
The mayor speculated that they might have stemmed from ill will over the forced resignation Wednesday of former police chief Nate Harper and the fact that three other police bureau employees whom he said were Mr. Crawford's close friends were placed Thursday on paid administrative leave.
"That's patently false, plain and simple," Mr. Ravenstahl said of the allegations, during nearly an hourlong interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in his office attended by his chief of staff, Yarone Zober, solicitor Daniel Regan and one of his bodyguards, Sgt. Matthew J. Gauntner.
"I've got a guy that doesn't have any credibility and that takes a shot at me," Mr. Huss said during a telephone interview. "It's all false. That will be proven in the end."
Mr. Crawford, 48, was a Pittsburgh police officer for 24 years and retired in 2011. He served as a bodyguard for six years both to Mr. Ravenstahl and his predecessor, Bob O'Connor.
Mr. Crawford said he was "100 percent positive" that the mayor and Mr. Huss knew that the card was linked to a non-governmental account, "and I am willing to take a polygraph test to verify that."
"You can say the cards were given to us specifically because they wanted to avoid the media tracking what we did and where we went through the Right-to- Know [law]," Mr. Crawford said.
"We used cards for official business but it was used for unofficial business as well," Mr. Crawford said.
Those expenditures, he alleged, included purchases of alcohol.
"I don't know that any of the expenditures were even restaurants, first of all," the mayor said. "Were not used for alcohol. Very, very diligent about that first of all."
Mr. Ravenstahl went on to say of the allegations: "Just patently false, and when I have these documents in my possession I'm happy to turn them over to you and really look forward to doing so. There was never a discussion about avoiding any sort of Right-to-Know request," the mayor said.
"I'm not sure what his agenda or motive is," Mr. Ravenstahl said, "but it's just wrong, and he's wrong, he's lying. You better be careful because nothing that he said is accurate."
Mr. Crawford said Mr. Huss told him the debit card should be used only at the mayor's discretion and that he should not speak with anyone about the card.
Mr. Huss also vehemently denied being involved in any way with the use of the debit cards.
"I had no involvements, didn't have a card and honestly never had that conversation or any conversations like that with Freddie Crawford," Mr. Huss said. "Freddie Crawford did not get orders from me on anything related to the detail. He would work through the chief's office."
"I would not have ever created an account or ordered one to be created in this manner," Mr. Huss said. "I wouldn't even think about that. For him to say that is a total 100 percent lie. Why he's lying I don't know. I'm confident that I had no knowledge. I'm confident I didn't do anything wrong."
"If I'm accused of something, then you know how it is," Mr. Huss said. "It's very damaging to me and my career."
The mayor confirmed that both Mr. Crawford and one of his current bodyguards, Sgt. Dominick C. Sciulli, had debit cards associated with an account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union, which is outside the normal municipal channels.
City Controller Michael Lamb, who is running for mayor, has criticized the mayor for his bodyguards' use of the accounts. He said there are only 15 authorized depositories for city money, and the credit union is not one of them.
"Why would your security detail need access to a secret bank account if they were conducting official city business?" Mr. Lamb asked in a news release. "Who else had access to the account and what did they use it for? How could the use of the secret account to pay for city business be acceptable?
"Have you ever benefited from this account?" Mr. Lamb continued in the release.
Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said it's Mr. Lamb, as the city's "controller and chief accountant," who "has information that he is not sharing with the public or the authorities.
"The fact that these questions are coming from his political campaign makes his disgusting motivations clear," she continued. "The public has a right to know what information he is hiding or holding onto for political purposes. We demand that he turn this information over to the public and to the authorities as is his duty."
Sgt. Gauntner also had a card, but it was never used, the mayor said.
The mayor said he was not aware that the cards tapped an account at the credit union, a private, nonprofit financial institution for active and retired city police officers. He also said he never saw the cards or discussed their use with the bodyguards.
Mr. Crawford, however, claims that he showed the mayor the card during a trip to Harrisburg. The mayor said that "could've happened, but I don't remember it."
Last week the FBI and IRS removed documents from the credit union in the West End as part of a probe linked to a similar removal of documents from two police bureau offices.
Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson has said he believes the probe is linked to internal allegations that funds were misappropriated from the special events office, which handles moonlighting by officers, and the personnel and finance office, run by manager Sandra Ganster.
"The cards were always kept in the safe at Sandy Ganster's office. [The mayor] would give us a heads up when he wanted to do something off the records and we would get the cards," Mr. Crawford said.
"We never had to worry about receipts for that account there. We didn't turn 'em over," Mr. Crawford said. "In the beginning we gave them to Sandy but after that Luke said that would be a paper trail."
Ms. Ganster, who is on a voluntary leave from the police bureau, could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Ravenstahl said he knew nothing about such a safe or where the debit cards were stored.
Mr. Ravenstahl said that Sgt. Sciulli became frustrated with the reimbursement process for expenses he incurred in the process of guarding the mayor. The mayor told him to talk with the chief. Sgt. Sciulli talked with the chief, and was given a card.
"I said, 'Dom, do what you gotta do' And that was the last I heard of anything," the mayor said..
"I imagine that when these officers were given a card by the chief of police," said Mr. Ravenstahl, "at that point you assume that it's set up appropriately."
Mr. Ravenstahl said after a South Side press conference Thursday morning that his bodyguards used the cards on trips for travel and hotel on officials trips they took with the mayor.
"Anytime they used these cards they were on trips with me," he said, stressing the expenditures were "legitimate."
He said the men used the cards when they traveled with the mayor to Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg, among other things. Mr. Ravenstahl said he was told by federal authorities with whom he met Wednesday that he and the members of his security "are not targets" of an investigation.
Bodyguards didn't have cards during Mayor Tom Murphy's administration.
"The security detail never traveled with me," said Tom Murphy, who was Pittsburgh's mayor from 1994 through 2005.
He said he had one security person, Pat Morosetti.
"One, I don't ever remember anybody ever going anywhere out of town with me. And two, I don't believe that Pat had a debit or credit card at all," Mr. Murphy said. "If he did [have expenses] like all of us we would incur the expense and submit it as an expense account."
Mr. Crawford said his card was not used often during the two-year period or so that he had one around 2009 or 2010.
He also said Mr. Harper knew of the cards.
"He was aware of it... Nate got caught up in the middle of some stuff. He's just too nice. He should have just said no to some stuff. He's never been that 'no' person and now they've thrown him under the bus to carry all the weight himself. Really, he was doing what he was told to do."
Mr. Ravenstahl said he was happy with how Mr. Crawford performed his duties as a bodyguard although he acknowledged having somewhat of a falling out with him.
"Perhaps Fred was upset with a decision I made recently and his allegiance was with other people and he saw the need to say things about me that are untrue," the mayor said. Asked what decision might have upset Mr. Crawford, the mayor said it may have been "the decision to ask the chief to resign."
Mr. Ravenstahl asked for Mr. Harper's resignation based on information he learned while meeting with the FBI and U.S. attorney's office. He said he could not disclose the details.
The mayor said he did not believe that Mr. Crawford was especially close to Mr. Harper. Mr. Crawford, though, was a good friend of three women who worked in the chief's office -- Officer Tonya Montgomery-Ford, her mother, account clerk Kim Montgomery, and police payroll clerk Tamara Davis -- the mayor said.
"Fred may feel that he's diverting attention from his other friends" by making accusations about the mayor, said Mr. Ravenstahl.
He acknowledged that Mr. Crawford was upset about his treatment at a 2009 election night victory party, at which his performance came under criticism from then-Commander George Trosky, who is now an assistant chief and a close friend of Mr. Harper's.
"That was isolated to that night," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "Fred was never punished, never demoted."
Mr. Crawford's credibility has been challenged before.
In 1997, Mr. Crawford fatally shot a man while working an off-duty detail. Though a deputy coroner found the shooting to be justifiable, he found "no credibility in the testimony of Mr. Crawford."
Former Pittsburgh police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. said he never gave Mr. Crawford permission to moonlight as a security guard at the bar. Chief McNeilly, head of the Elizabeth Township police, said Mr. Crawford already had been orally reprimanded for working a security detail at the Small World Bar in Homewood without going through proper procedures.
Records available online with the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas indicate that Mr. Crawford was sued for child support by different women in 1985, 1986, 1988, 1998 and 2003. Records available online indicate that he was ordered to pay support in at least four of the cases.
One city employee identified by the mayor's office said Mr. Crawford lied to her.
"I met Detective Crawford in 2010, probably spring 2010," said Sauntee Turner, who worked in the office of the mayor's operations director. She said they started dating in January 2011. "I would consider him the man that I was dating."
She said she asked him, "If he was able to date. If he was married or if he was living with someone. ... He told me no. He was not married, nor was he living with anyone."
She discovered in the fall of 2011 that he was married, through conversations with people who knew his wife. She stopped seeing him.
"He's just a disturbed individual, extremely deceitful and not to be trusted," she said.
First Published February 22, 2013 12:00 am