City of Pittsburgh accused of improperly paying former city employee turned contractor

The Pittsburgh City Controller is raising the alarm after the city paid thousands of dollars to a former contractor who is now accused in connection with a string of antisemitic incidents on the North Side.

Mario Ashkar is the man police say can be seen in surveillance video defacing a home. Ashkar was later charged with ethnic intimidation. But now, documents indicate that Ashkar, a former city employee turned city contractor, has been receiving thousands of dollars from the city improperly.

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“It’s a violation of the state’s ethics act,” said City Controller Rachael Heisler.

According to Heisler, Ashkar worked for the city in 2022, following his short tenure he then began contracting just a few months later in 2023, which appears to be in violation of the state’s ethic act.

Heisler said the initial invoice that was processed through her office was canceled. But then payments began being made through different means.

“Subsequent invoices were made paid on the p-card to a Princess Jafar,” Heisler said.

Heisler says this raises several red flags:

  • A city employee cannot become a contractor for the city immediately following their employment by the city, per the state’s ethics guidelines.
  • P-cards aren’t to be used to pay for professional services, it is a violation.
  • It is unclear what Ashkar was billing the city for

“The PayPal line item said Mr. Ashkar was doing Farmer’s Market work,” Heisler said.

But the PayPal account didn’t list any other details.

“I don’t want to discredit the work that the department is doing, but I would like to see those invoices,” Heisler said.

The city refutes allegations that it violated state guidelines, and during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon explained its position.

“We believe that the city did not violate the state’s ethics act,” said Maria Montano, the director of communication for the mayor’s office.

However, the mayor’s office said a violation was made when using the P-card and the employees who approved those payments will be disciplined.

The mayor’s office also told Channel 11 News they cut ties with Ashkar as soon as they learned about his recent criminal charges.

“We notified Ashkar that we would not be moving forward,” Montano said.

Heisler issued a statement following the mayor’s office press conference, say she appreciates the acknowledgement of the “seriousness of this matter” but says she’ll continue to “seek complete documentation” of the city’s arrangement with Ashkar. Her full statement reads:

“I appreciate that the administration has acknowledged the seriousness of this matter and committed to address the problems our office has highlighted with the use and oversight of the Purchase Card system. In addition to the administration’s own review of the P-card approval process and the need for additional training, further findings and recommendations from the Controller’s office will be forthcoming as we continue our investigation.

“I respect and appreciate the Solicitor’s opinion on the actions of their client, but we believe the State Ethics Commission should have the opportunity to review this matter, given the unique expertise and independent insight they offer.

“In order to determine how all of this occurred, we will also continue to seek complete documentation related to the City’s arrangement with Mario Ashkar – including all time-stamped email correspondence between Mario Ashkar and City officials. We have requested materials from the relevant City departments, including Citiparks, HRC&S and OMB. We have asked that all material be provided by 10:00 a.m. on Friday of this week.

“We would appreciate and expect the administration’s full cooperation as we gather the information we need to complete our review.”

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