Since its solicitors resigned last month, Pittsburgh's Citizen Police Review Board has been unable to hear complaints of police misconduct, leaving the board handcuffed.
But thanks to a recent agreement between the review board and its former solicitor, the CPRB will at least be able to move forward with its appeal of a September court ruling regarding access to documents pertaining to police conduct during last year's G-20 summit.
Attorneys William Ward and Hugh McGough, of the law firm Ward McGough, resigned as the board's solicitors on Oct. 18 following a months-long contractual dispute with the city. The firm is still negotiating with the city's law department, and some involved say an agreement may not be far off. But as talks drag on, CPRB officials say the review board is effectively handicapped.
"We can't hold hearings without a solicitor," says CPRB Executive Director Beth Pittinger, noting that eight hearings on citizen complaints have been put on hold. "[The solicitor] serves as protection for all parties involved."
Although hearings can't be held, the CPRB's investigators continue to look into citizen complaints as they come in. Without the hearing process, however, those cases could just add to the existing backlog.
As City Paper reported last month, the CPRB and the city have been at odds for much of the past year [See "Fixed Fight," Oct. 14]. In April, during a long-running dispute over access to the G-20 documents, the city law department began demanding changes to the lawyers' contract with the review board.
Initially, the city sought the power to terminate the review-board attorneys -- giving them the authority to fire their courtroom adversaries -- but now seeks to require the lawyers to agree to be held liable for any damages based on its advice. And the city upped the ante by stopping payment of the bills the attorneys were racking up.
City Solicitor Daniel Regan declined to discuss specifics of the law department's ongoing negotiations with Ward McGough. But, he says, "I believe we are very close to executing the agreement -- probably days away."
McGough declined to comment for this story. Review-board Chair Deborah Walker and City Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith, who chairs the city's public-safety committee, did not return phone calls for comment.
Without a solicitor, the CPRB has been at a clear disadvantage in its efforts to obtain G-20 records -- especially considering the setback the courts dealt the board in September. While the review board sought unredacted arrest reports from the G-20, Judge Stanton Wettick ruled on Sept. 23 that state law prohibits the board from having access to them.
Three days before Ward McGough resigned as CPRB solicitor, the firm filed an appeal to Wettick's decision. But after the attorneys resigned, Pittinger says the board had to figure out how to retain legal counsel for the appeal. Preferring to stick with the attorneys who had represented the board throughout the whole G-20 dispute, Pittinger says the board came to an agreement with Ward McGough on Nov. 15.
"They are limited to representing the board in the appeal to Wettick's Sept. 23 decision," she stresses, noting that the attorneys will be paid $250 an hour for their legal services. "[Ward McGough] is not acting as board solicitor."
While relieved that the CPRB will have its desired legal representation in the high-profile G-20 case, Pittinger laments the administration's involvement in the board's contract with its former solicitor -- and the stalemate the dispute has ultimately created.
"There are so many aspects of this that are just distasteful," she says.
"The administration is having a temper tantrum," says City Councilor Bill Peduto, who contends the administration is seeking to punish the review board for trying to obtain G-20 records. "It's more of the 'I'll-take-my-ball-and-go-home' attitude we keep hearing from the mayor's office."
Given the headaches the CPRB has endured since the contract dispute began, Pittinger says she's hopeful the city and Ward McGough will soon sign on the dotted line.
"We are worn out," she says. "This has been a hell of a year."