Consultant: Pittsburgh police must overhaul lax rules governing outside jobs

by: Bobby Kerlik Updated:

PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh could prohibit police officers from owning some outside businesses if city officials adopt recommendations in a consultant's report released on Friday that blasted the department's “weak and vague” policies that allow questionable business ventures.

The long-awaited 25-page report by former Washington County District Attorney Steven Toprani focuses on the lack of policies governing officers who have second jobs, particularly those involving security or investigations.

Police officials said they reviewed the report and will consider it as they draft new regulations.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hired Toprani in mid-February shortly after he acknowledged learning that now-former police Chief Nate Harper had established a private consulting business with four subordinates. The city paid $10,000 for the report.

“I had the opportunity to review Mr. Toprani's report and recommendations several months ago and was instructed by (Public Safety) Director Michael Huss to develop a policy regarding outside employment,” acting police Chief Regina McDonald said in a statement. “To date we have obtained outside employment policies from other major city police departments. We are also looking at state laws which may be related/applicable to outside employment situations.”

McDonald said a draft of the new policy would be sent to Huss within the month.

Toprani's report contains seven broad recommendations, including that the police should “expressly prohibit officers from having any financial or ownership interest in a private detective business” and “prohibit officers from soliciting any security work.”

Toprani criticized Harper's involvement in Diverse Public Safety Consultants LLC, the outside security consulting firm, saying it set a poor example. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. ordered the firm to be dissolved over concerns he had that police officers were working in private security.

“Unregulated outside activity can compromise officer duties, create discord among the ranks, lead to the illegal disclosure of confidential information, encourage the misuse of police records, tactics and resources; and ultimately place officers in the public where their authority, roles and obligations are confused or ambiguous,” Toprani wrote. “This failure undermines community confidence.”

Mayor-elect Bill Peduto could not be reached for comment. Kevin Acklin, who will serve as his chief of staff, said he hasn't seen the report but doubted the administration would act on it until after a new public safety director and police chief are hired.

Harper resigned Feb. 20 at Ravenstahl's request and was indicted in March. He pleaded guilty in October to conspiring to steal money from a federally funded program and four counts of failing to file income taxes. The conspiracy involved opening a private credit union account and funneling city money into that account and a pre-existing account and then obtaining debit cards to spend the money.

He is awaiting sentencing.

“It is something that we'll take into account in connection with our plans to improve the ethics of city government, and at the end of the day, have the public be more trusting of the police department,” Acklin said. “I think it would be inappropriate to really dig too deep into that until we have our new leadership on board.”

Attempts to force police officers to give up outside businesses would likely draw the ire of the police union.

Bryan Campbell, an attorney representing Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said he does not see a problem with officers running their own side businesses as long as the work does not involve Pittsburgh police cases. He said supervisors would stop any officer whose outside employment was affecting their on-duty performance.

“I don't see a problem with that. What's the conflict?” Campbell said.

Outside employment regulations also face legal hurdles.

Toprani pointed to two unnamed private detective businesses, including one involving a Pittsburgh police sergeant who provides accident reconstruction services.

The owner of that business, Sgt. Dan Connolly, received a judge's approval to run Pittsburgh Collision Reconstruction Services. He and four other police business owners received a letter from the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office last year saying they were in violation of state law. Connolly challenged that in court.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning ruled in May that Connolly was not in violation of the state's Private Detective Act of 1953. The judge went further, saying that similarly situated “experts” in fields such as DNA analysis, fingerprint identification, polygraph services and arson investigations would not be required to have a private detective license. The judge ruled they did not need one because they are not engaged in investigations but rather offer expert testimony.

Connolly declined to comment on Friday.

Toprani said the main point is the city has poor regulations that fail to curtail outside employment that could pose conflicts of interest.

“I'm hopeful they take the (report) seriously. Obviously there's a new mayor sworn in next week, and I'm hopeful Mayor-elect Peduto will pick up the mantle as well,” he said.

This article was written by Channel 11’s news exchange partners at TribLIVE.