Friday, January 05, 2007, By Rich Lord and Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh Police Lt. Catherine McNeilly, a key figure in the controversy surrounding former city Operations Director Dennis Regan, went to federal court yesterday seeking to regain her job as police commander.

Lt. McNeilly's testimony painted a picture of a police bureau that, under the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, was regularly subject to interference by his friend and aide, Mr. Regan, even though he had no official role in public safety.

At one point, her lawyers said, Mr. Regan ordered former police Chief Dom Costa to give a promotion to Officer Francis Rende, who is the brother of Mr. Regan's housemate.

But Lt. McNeilly also admitted that she violated bureau rules by sending an Oct. 9, 2006, e-mail to City Council, with Officer Rende's disciplinary record attached, objecting to Mr. Regan's nomination to the post of public safety director.

The Oct. 9 e-mail documented her finding that Officer Rende regularly called off sick to work side jobs, and the e-mail outlined her belief that Mr. Regan quashed the disciplinary process.

Lt. McNeilly, a 28-year veteran, was demoted to lieutenant in the warrant office on Dec. 6, 20006, prompting her to file the federal whistleblower lawsuit that led to yesterday's hearing.

After confirming that she played a major role in rewriting the department's disciplinary regulations, Lt. McNeilly admitted yesterday that she violated them by releasing a disciplinary report on Officer Rende.

"As [the rules] are written, you could say that I did," Catherine McNeilly said. "[But] when the police department becomes dysfunctional, sometimes rules need to be broken to take the information to the public."

Lt. McNeilly sent the e-mail to City Council outlining her concerns about Mr. Regan -- expecting it to be kept confidential.

"I knew how powerful that position was. I had concerns that were more far-reaching than just my job."

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who was not in court, said yesterday that her punishment was justified. "My understanding was that Commander McNeilly admitted today that she broke the rules, and I think that says it all," he said. "I think that speaks volumes as to why the decision was made to demote her to lieutenant."

The same records that Lt. McNeilly sent to council were sent to the mayor three days before, although he would not say whether he read the e-mail.

Lt. McNeilly said that she also sent copies of the Oct. 9 e-mail to her husband, former city Police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr., and her brother, the Rev. Lou Vallone, the bureau's chaplain. Neither is now a city employee.

She explained that action by saying that she suffers from multiple sclerosis, which could flare up at any time. So she keeps her husband and brother aware of everything she does, in case she becomes "down and out again."

Lt. McNeilly's attorneys presented city reports alleging Mr. Regan's interference in police affairs as early as April 27, when he was director of intergovernmental affairs, charged with communicating with council, the state, and authorities.

The internal report indicated that Mr. Regan stopped by the Zone 3 station on April 27, 2006, and left a message for Cmdr. RaShall Brackney suggesting that she should stop pressuring Duke's Tire, on the South Side Flats, to stop changing tires on cars while they sat on 13th Street.

According to the city report, Mr. Regan left Cmdr. Brackney a verbal message indicating: "Duke's Tire has friends in the mayor's office, and he has no problem with him changing tires in the street, and [Cmdr. Brackney] was to leave them alone." If she didn't, he told her aide, she "would be walking a beat."

Lt. McNeilly said she thought Mr. Regan's threat to demote Cmdr. Brackney "could've been illegal."

Her attorneys also presented a transcript of an interview conducted by city investigators with former Chief Costa, who indicated that he was pressured -- and later ordered -- by Mr. Regan to promote Officer Rende to detective. Mr. Rende's sister, city Senior Secretary Marlene Cassidy, lives with Mr. Regan in Point Breeze.

"Were you ordered to make Frank Rende a detective, or did [Mr. Regan] ask you?" asked Kathleen Kraus, director of the city's Office of Municipal Investigations.

"Oh, no, it was an order. It was no question, it was an order to do it," Chief Costa said.

In that same interview, Chief Costa told investigators that Mr. Regan never contacted him regarding any disciplinary action to be taken against Mr. Rende.

Lt. McNeilly discovered Officer Rende's infractions while reviewing his records in June. She found 37 instances in which he called off sick but worked a side job, including this past spring.

She totalled his hours working off-duty jobs over the past several years and found that in 2004, he worked 1,867 hours at secondary employment.

"He's working more hours off-duty than on-duty," she said.

She filed the disciplinary report against him in late June. In August, when she inquired as to the report's status, Mr. Regan showed up at her Zone 1 station, looking for her. She was not there. The next day, she got a memo from the department saying the complaint against Officer Rende had been withdrawn on the advice of the Law Department.

Days after Lt. McNeilly sent the Oct. 9 e-mail to City Council, Mr. Ravenstahl withdrew Mr. Regan's nomination and launched an investigation into Lt. McNeilly's allegations and her actions.

On Dec. 1, the mayor announced that the probe found "no conclusive evidence" of wrongdoing by Mr. Regan, who then resigned.

Lt. McNeilly, 48, is the only person who's been disciplined.

Steven Rothlein, a retired commanding officer from the Miami-Dade Police Department, was called by Lt. McNeilly's attorneys as an expert witness.

Mr. Rothlein, who now works as a consultant, said he believed that Lt. McNeilly was acting in good faith when she sent the e-mail to City Council.

"Look at it as a technical violation versus what she was trying to do in the bigger picture -- trying to expose what was potentially misconduct," he said.

The chain of command is important in a police department, but sometimes it's necessary to go outside of that, he continued.

By punishing Lt. McNeilly and no one else, Mr. Rothlein said, it sends the wrong message.

"It closes the door for people to come in and report that kind of activity. ... 'Keep your mouth shut if you see wrongdoing.' "

Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson, who was the last witness of the day, agreed with Lt. McNeilly's conclusion that Officer Rende was engaged in a pattern of sick-time abuse.

But, he continued, that doesn't mean she should have provided his personnel information to City Council.

Chief U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose continued the hearing until Wednesday, when the city can call additional witnesses, possibly current and former police chiefs.

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