I remember running late for a doctor’s appointment. Thirty or more years ago, I was hustling down Fifth Avenue and could see the medical building approaching on my right on a parallel street and across from the Civic Arena. I decided to create a shortcut and take the next available side street. When I saw the street sign and turned right, I was immediately stopped by an obviously indignant man who shouted: “You can’t cut through here!” I pointed to the sign and responded: “It’s a public street”. “It’s a parking lot and if you aren’t parking, you have to leave. I’ll call the cops.” I left.
I learned an important lesson that day about the Old Pittsburgh. Later, a friendly elected official confirmed that this was an “arrangement” converting a public street into a private parking lot. I subsequently learned that there were lots of politically convenient “arrangements” in Pittsburgh that brought together an unholy, but lucrative marriage between private contractors and public officials. People knew about these “arrangements”, but turned a blind eye for the most obvious of reasons: they might one day be in a position to make or need a similar “arrangement”.
It was a memory of this encounter that piqued my interest in the Tonya Ford case that recently concluded in Federal Court. Ms. Ford, a police officer, brought suit against the city of Pittsburgh and the former mayor, claiming that she was punished because of her vocal objections to “arrangements” that she had witnessed. Ford contended that because of her role in the police department, she reviewed claims for parking variances in the city. When construction projects or special events merit, the city suspends parking restrictions and fees in the interest of the greater good. It was Ford’s job to consider requests and award variances.
In her federal suit, Ford and her lawyer maintained that political favors were frequently traded for variances. Because she objected to these “arrangements”, she alleged that her employer– the city– suspended her with pay for over 3 years. She singled out one firm– a local valet service– as the most egregious abuser of the variance privilege. The firm, she maintained, had close ties to the Ravenstahl administration. But when she continued to object (allegedly going so far as contacting federal agencies), city officials placed her on administrative leave, according to her account.
For its part, city solicitors argued that Ford was placed on leave because she was under investigation for her connections with former– and since convicted– police chief Nate Harper. They denied that there was retaliation.
The jury of eight agreed with the city, tossing the suit.
“It’s Chinatown, Jake…”
Given the paucity of evidence that Ms. Ford made any effort to blow her whistle before her suspension and given that that she was paid fully while on leave, justice was probably served by the verdict. But the most intriguing questions raised by the trial remain open and fertile for speculation.
Since Ford enjoyed a three year vacation with pay and was only recently fully reinstated, one might wonder why these actions against her were actually taken. Ford was never charged with any crime. While the city solicitor argued that suspicions of collusion with police chief Nate Harper were aroused, that explanation cannot, if true, justify more than a thorough, but brief investigative interlude. City officials owe us an adequate explanation of an unprecedented administrative act. If the suspension was not retaliation (as the court affirmed), one must wonder what really spawned a suspension that continued three years after her alleged “co-conspirator” was indicted by a grand jury and pleaded guilty. Ford endured a three year cloud of mistrust with little more than a shred of evidence that she engaged in any misconduct, a cloud that is now belatedly removed. This is a sorry testament to the city’s commitment to due process.
Another mystery surrounds the official silence on the “arrangements” revealed by Ford. No one has denied that valet services have been granted extraordinary variances in the city. Nor has any public official or media watchdog called for an investigation of favoritism or corruption in the granting of privileges. Ask any bus driver what it’s like to endure the difficulty of negotiating narrow downtown streets with double-parked cars stacked by valets who are seemingly immune to the rules that the rest of us must obey. It is a curious fact that the guardians of the public trust are not curious about the “arrangements” that Ford alleges.
City solicitors explain Ms. Ford’s long vacation by citing suspicions aroused by her relationship to her boss, Police Chief Harper. But no suspicions or competency questions befell Harper’s boss, Public Safety director Michael Huss. Though he was the convicted Chief Harper’s immediate supervisor, no one challenged his supervising performance. Despite demonstrated corruption and ethically questionable administrative practices in his Police Department, Mr. Huss was seemingly unaware of the stench, hardly a testament to his vigilance. Until a whistleblower forced his hand, the Public Safety Director stood behind his Chief. Once the charges became public, he threw Harper and others under the metaphoric bus.
On an earlier occasion, a Fire Chief serving under Mr. Huss experienced a public embarrassment. More troubling, he had a known history of violent encounters that had little effect upon his career trajectory. And on this occasion, too, Mr. Huss saved his righteous indignation until public exposure made the Chief’s further employment untenable.
Mr. Huss’s survivability is truly remarkable. When Mayor Peduto purged nearly all administrative offices after his election, Mr. Huss remained in his $105,000 a year job. And when the Mayor found another Public Safety Director, he continued to employ Mr. Huss without a title. The Pet-Gazette reported a Peduto spokesperson as saying: “He is advising on the transition and has no formal job title… The mayor sees Mike as a valuable asset and is open to him staying with the city, and there is no timetable for a decision on that status.”
They found a title for “Mike”: Deputy Director at his old pay.
Of course we are not conspiracy theorists, but one might wonder– purely hypothetically– if the entire dust-up were not an example of “arrangements” gone awry. One might smell multiple rats in the “he said, she said…” testimonies that were exposed in the Ford trial. One might speculate that a little light had shined on wide-spread ethically challenged practices common in city government.
But in the end, we’ll never know; the media went back to sleep and the city returned to business-as -usual.