Get the popcorn! It’s Shark Week!
Let me start by admitting that I am no expert on Pittsburgh politics. Whenever I try to delve into it, my eyes roll to the back of my head and I feel a strange need to bathe. If I’m looking for knowledgeable Pittsburgh political banter, I go to Bram, or Vannevar, or perhaps the City Paper.
However, in addition to getting stuck watching reality police car chase shows on basic cable, I’m also a sucker for indulging in a little political schadenfreude from time to time. It’s just so satisfying to view the slow, painful unraveling of a corrupt, once powerful political empire. Again, I’m a novice at yinzer-filled backroom power brokering — but I’m also from Illinois, where 4 of our last 7 governors have been both convicted and imprisoned. (And that’s just Springfield. It doesn’t even begin touching Chicago politics!) My spidey senses start to go off when questions like “What did you know and when did you know it?” are tossed about. I can tell when there’s blood in the water.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Grant Street edition of Shark Week.
Hold on to your hats, folks, because when the unraveling begins, it can take off pretty quickly. (Amendment: Ginny at That’s Church has a much better and more complete synopsis of events. What follows is what I’ve gleaned since I started paying attention last week!)
Previously on Shark Week… (2/13) when allegations of police department private side businesses began to emerge, Mayor Lukey came out in defense of his embattled police chief, Nate “the Skate” Harper. (Cue “Stand by Your Man”)
“I spoke with the chief as recently as today,” the mayor said during an afternoon press conference in front of the City-County Building. “He pledged to me that nothing was done improper or wrong. I’m taking him at his word….He has my confidence.”
But by Wednesday of this week, a few plot twists were tossed into the story. Being mayor, you can always use your “people” to misdirect local reporters or staff members of the City Council, but it’s a little different when the knock on the door comes from the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office. Now there were allegations of a secret police fund and union credit cards kept in a safe and off-the-book expenditures. After a two-hour sit-down with the Feds, first blood was drawn, with a rather wide-eyed Lukey singing a different tune:
“At this point, it gave me enough, and I learned enough to know that it was time to ask Chief Harper to resign.”
“…there were questions asked, yes. They didn’t present me with anything….I’m not going to jeopardize their investigation. It was pertaining to the investigation that is ongoing…”
Insert a slight crack in the voice…
“I’m not a target.”
This is the crucial stage of any political scandal: the involvement of the Feds. This is when people who once were intimidated into silence, grow a pair. People who may want to save their own skins begin to lawyer up and start taking singing lessons. Welcome to Double Jeopardy, where dollar values are doubled!
By yesterday (2/21), the pace picked up. First, the mayor admitted that his two police bodyguards had police union credit cards but “Anytime they used these cards they were on trips with me,” he said, stressing the expenditures were “legitimate.” He insisted that he had no knowledge of the unauthorized police account.
Later that same day (going faster… faster…), one of Lukey’s former bodyguards learned that confession is good for the soul:
“Luke knew firsthand that these cards were given to us and they were specifically given to us because you guys [the press] 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….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]. We used cards for official business but it was used for unofficial business as well.“
And as for Chief Harper, the ex-bodyguard said,
“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.”
For his part, Lukey says these allegations are “patently false, plain and simple.” The mayor’s people are claiming that the ex-bodyguard is a disgruntled employee, trying to throw investigators off the scent of his buddies.
That could be. But in my experience in these matters (see State of Illinois), the folks who come out of the woodwork with a story to tell may have ulterior motives but they rarely commit the crime of lying to Federal investigators.
Who knows where this will end up? All I know is that, IMHO, Ravenstahl has been a horrible leader for this city. He rose to power by fluke chances after being appointed head of the City Council and then taking office after the death of Bob O’Connor. And he has held on to his office through cronyism, back-room deals, and nepotism. He wins elections when multiple opponents face him and split the anti-Ravenstahl vote.
After his wife divorced him soon after the birth of their child (and even before that!), stories of his penchant for partying were abundant. Still are. Wasn’t he partying at 7 Springs when the city was hit by its biggest snowstorm in years? He loves to pose with celebrities and even snaked his way into the Batman movie that was filmed here. Rumors have it that he lets his staff run things and only shows up at City Hall when he has to. He constantly sides with big business interests over the financial needs of the city. He even proposed a 1% tax on college student tuition. And then there were those 250 garbage cans emblazoned with Lukey’s signature that cost the city a cool $252,000 in state grant money. (That’s $1000 per can! For that, they better have Wi-Fi!) There are other stories about no-bid contracts and such. He surrounds himself with handlers who are famous for their bullying tactics. Plus, he’s got RAVEN right there in his name, for God’s sake!
Individually, this is bush league political corruption. Small potatoes. My problem with Lukey is his lack of visionary leadership for a city that desperately needs it. He seems to be in the job for the perks and not the hard work of governing.
Now we’ll see how Teflon the man is. If he escapes this, he may come out stronger than ever. On the other hand, the way these things go, there could be a resignation as soon as next week.
Lukey should remember that when it comes to federal investigations: (A) you are never a target until you become a target, and (B) if you are a target, they don’t necessarily have to tell you up front.
Enjoy your weekend, Mr. Mayor. I hear Bon Jovi is in town.