11 Investigates: Ethnic intimidation suspect had been fired from city 2 years ago, then rehired

PITTSBURGH — 11 Investigates has learned that an employee fired by the city two years ago was then rehired as an independent contractor. The same employee is accused of antisemitic graffiti on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

Chief Investigator Rick Earle questioned city officials about that Tuesday.

Sources told Earle that the Department of Parks and Recreation was aware that his prior employment with the city didn’t work out, but they hired him anyway as an independent contractor.

Earle obtained an email that was sent out in June 2022, announcing the hiring of Mario Ashkar as a special events coordinator with the Bureau of Public Safety.

Six months into his probationary period, Ashkar was let go.

Sources told Earle it just didn’t work out.

But five months later, Ashkar was brought back by Parks and Rec as an independent contractor to assist with the Farmer’s Market.

Earle questioned Deputy Mayor Jake Pawlak about that move.

Earle: Why would he be brought back as an independent contractor if he was fired from the city?

Jake Pawlak: I can’t comment on personnel records.

Earle also asked the City Controller, Rachael Heisler.

Earle: It doesn’t add up.  It doesn’t make sense?

Heisler: No and I asked today before council, how did that come to be, who introduced this person to city parks?

Heisler first raised questions about Ashkar last week after police identified him as the man who allegedly spray-painted antisemitic words on a sidewalk on the North Side.

She discovered Ashkar had been paid $18,000 as an independent contractor through the procurement or P-card system under a different name.

“Why is it we are paying Princess Jafar? Is that a company he set up?” asked City Councilman Anthony Coghill.

At Pittsburgh City Council Wednesday morning, council members grilled the Deputy Mayor about the P-card payments.

There were some tense moments when Councilman Bob Charland questioned Pawlak about the administration’s claim that the use of the P-card in this case was a “technical” violation.

Charland: I take umbrage with that word.

Pawlak: I didn’t use that word and I’m not sure who you are referring to.

Pawlak and the administration have acknowledged that the P-card process should not have been used in this case.

Under city policy, it’s not to be used for professional services agreements.

They’re typically used for minor expenses. Pawlak said every city department has at least one P-card, but neither he nor the controller had the total number of P-cards.

Earle: Did this come through your office? Should you have caught it?

Pawlak: Well, the records of invoices or receipts and the ultimate decision to use P-card happens in each individual department.

“Being paid through a P-card was wildly inappropriate and I do think we need to figure out how that happened,” said Heisler, who has demanded more information from the administration that she hopes will shed more light on this arrangement.

Heisler has demanded more information from the administration that she hopes will shed more light on all of this.

She has asked the administration to provide that information by Friday.

City council voted Tuesday to suspend the final payment to Ashkar.

He is no longer working for the city of Pittsburgh and is now facing ethnic intimidation charges.

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