Tuesday, October 30, 2007

FEMA Wants Answers On The Yukon

[The following is a long-form version of my TV report.]

Channel 4 Action News has learned that the federal government wants the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) to look into the city's uses of the GMC Yukon paid for with a federal Department of Homeland Security grant. Those uses included transporting Mayor Luke Ravenstahl for personal as well as city business, until he learned of restrictions imposed on the use of the undercover investigative unit police car.

The grant appears to limit the car's use to anti-terrorism efforts, specifically the surveillance of Pittsburgh locations that are potential terrorist targets. Federal guidelines say: "failure to comply may result in the withholding of funds, termination of the award, or other sanctions".

The Federal Emergency Management Agency-- part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security---tells Channel 4 Action News: "FEMA headquarters has asked PEMA for a full accounting of the situation including what actions pema has taken and what actions they plan to take."

The federal grant that paid for the car is for the "Buffer Zone Protection Program" (BZZP) . It's meant to "make it more difficult for terrorists to conduct surveillance or launch attacks on critical infrastructure and facilities."

After a police sergeant's repeated complaints up the chain of command, Mayor Ravenstahl stopped using the Yukon. Among his personal travels in the police vehicle was a trip with friends to a Toby Keith concert at the PG Pavilion in Washington County.

FEMA tells Channel 4 Action news that "the concert was not an allowable use of the vehicle." Spokeswoman Marlene Phillips says "FEMA headquarters expects the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) to look into the situation, report back to FEMA headquarters on its finding, and to take appropriate action." She says "it's part of PEMA's responsibility." Earlier this month, PEMA told Channel 4 Action News that the agency was simply "a channel" for the funding.

After Mayor Ravenstahl stopped using the Yukon, Police Chief Nate Harper still asserted that he can assign the vehicle for things other than those specified in the Homeland Security grant. On October 3rd, he asked reporters: "Are you saying that then I should let those vehicles sit, not utilize them, and leave the officers stand by to wait for a vehicle? we aren't going to do that".

FEMA tells Channel 4 Action News that "general use vehicles are not an allowable expense." Spokewoman Phillips says "this was an authorized purchase of a surveillance vehicle under the BZZP program. Under BZZP, allowable expenses include vehicles purchased for surveillance of critical infrastructure."

Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Maria Finn tells Channel 4 Action News "this matter is under review and we will continue to work with FEMA. Pending the outcome of the review, PEMA will take those results into consideration and determine appropriate actions, if any".

Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Mike Huss says "we've talked with PEMA since this first came out, where the mayor realized that the vehicle was purchased with homeland security monies. I immediately contacted PEMA and advised them of this situation and have been in contact with PEMA since this happened. They're aware of it. We've discussed it. They've asked us to maintain a log on use of the vehicle and these types of things. It's under their purview to look at the situation and take what action it feels necessary."

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan has said previously that her office is reviewing the situation. Her office says she has no comment on the status of that review.



Anonymous said...

I think this whole situation stinks big time. I'm not going to defend the mayor or his staff for bad judgment in relation to spending; however I find it very odd that US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan would make such a public comment and now FEMA would be moving so quick on this issue. I'm sure there are a lot of other bad purchases with Homeland Security money prior to Luke's administration and in more egregious amounts. Why are theses not investigated?

Why is their only an investigation right during the mayor's heated campaign? Sorry, it appears that once again the DOJ of PIttsburgh is playing to the republican motives again.

EdHeath said...

I have to say, I have no idea how this issue ever got out. Someone, somewhere, leaked the details about Sergeant Wallace, her repeated complaints, disciplinary action from Chief Harper and reversal by Mr Huss. But since it is all out in the open, I am not surprised by the actions of FEMA/PEMA. The question of the use of the vehicle ought to be looked at with a modicum of common sense. If the non-terrorism related use of the vehicle was to transport officers to the scene of a homicide, that would be one thing. I mean, the vehicles use as an undercover tool might be compromised, but at least it would be in a good cause. That is in stark contrast to using the vehicle to go to a concert, and perhaps slip over the state line to gamble (the 300 extra miles?). In any event, the Chief’s example is supposedly a hypothetical, while the concert was a real trip. That is what the Feds/Staties are going to look at.

Anonymous said...


Give me a break. This is normal Republican BS. No surprise on this one that Mary Beth Buchanan chose to release publicly to the media that the mayor was under review. Since she investigated the past two mayors, the sheriff, the coroner, and surely every other democrat, I am not surprised about this one at all.

I hope the mayor wins hands down in the election as blowback for what is occuring in the DOJ's office.

EdHeath said...

If you look again at my comment, you might notice I said nothing about MBB or the DOJ. I did say Feds, I meant that to mean FEMA. I was commenting on Mr Mayo's post, which mostly concerned FEMA.
Do I think it is appropriate for MBB's office to look at this? Really, no. MBB mayhave already come to the same conclusion, since she is not saying anything about her investigation. If she does try to indict anyone, it would probably be Chief Harper, and you're right, if that happened before the election, the blowback from the Afircan American community would almost certainly give the Mayor the win. FWIW.
I was simply considering what FEMA/PEMA might look at. What is acceptable use unde the grant.

Anonymous said...


I find it simply inappropriate for a US Attorney to be publicizing investigations. I have watched it happen in the Wecht case where you had a front page article showing two members of MBB staff executing a search warrant of Cyril's office. I have watched it in every other case that MBB has handled through her so-called press statements post indictment that are meant more to polarize the public against a defendant before facts are heard.

I am pleased that the PA Disciplinary Board is reviewing Ms. Buchanan's actions for I feel it is past due at this point. I also feel it is long overdue for the DOJ to step in an stop these blatant actions by Ms. Buchanan to attempt to try cases in the court of public opinion prior to the courts.

As for the FEMA/PIMA or See-Ya whatever review, I am skeptical about this review. In the wake of so much other blatant corruption and waste that has occurred under FEMA's watch, why are we wasting time on a Yukon from the Burgh? Seriously, the mayor found out about the issue with the grant and has seized to use the car for non-terrorism related services.

I'm not saying that the mayor's actions (and that of his staff) are to be excused. What I am saying that in a time when there is so much other issues at hand, why do we waste time on such minuscule matters.

Bob Mayo said...


Here's some background for those not as familiar with the back stories here.

Buchanan's e-mailed news release (emphasis added):

(October 3, 2007) - United States Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan issued the following statement today in response to several media inquiries:

"The recent allegations regarding improprieties by Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl that have been brought to the attention of my office will be reviewed as are all allegations of misconduct by public officials. Without complete knowledge of the facts, it would be premature to discuss potential federal criminal violations."
# # #

I know that reporters all over town had sought her comment. FEMA's and PEMA's statements were in response to my Channel 4 Action News requests for comment initiated nearly a month ago.

The Post-Gazette reported that Judge Schwab "sent to the state disciplinary board a defense complaint about statements made by the U.S. attorney related to a high-profile prosecution." ..."The U.S. attorney's office in June filed a motion for sanctions against Dr. Wecht's defense lawyers, Jerry McDevitt and Mark Rush. Judge Schwab referred that issue to be investigated by the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Wecht's attorneys filed a motion asking that the statements made by U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan at a January 2006 news conference announcing the indictment be referred for possible disciplinary action, as well."