Common Pleas Judge John Zottola has frozen the salary of lame-duck City Councilor Twanda Carlisle, at the request of prosecutors hoping to recoup public money she is accused of diverting for her own personal use.
With her trial set to begin Mon., Oct. 29, Carlisle asked for a postponement for personal reasons. She won a two-week delay -- the trial was reset for Nov. 13 -- but lost a lot more.
Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus filed a motion Monday asking the judge to issue an injunction freezing Carlisle's current council salary -- roughly $1,058 a week before taxes -- and her pension fund. Additionally, Claus requested Carlisle turn over to the court a fur coat valued at roughly $4,500 that he claims she purchased with public dollars.
Carlisle was charged in May with a 17-count indictment alleging that she paid her three friends more than $100,000 for office and consulting work. Of that, she allegedly diverted nearly $45,000 into her own personal bank accounts.
Claus says the request comes on the heels of a recent guilty plea by Carlisle's long-time friend, paid consultant and co-defendant Darlene Durham. As part of her deal, prosecutors will recommend probation at sentencing, and Durham agreed to testify against Carlisle.
If they get a conviction, prosecutors will seek the return of the $45,000. Claus argued that he wanted to make sure there is money to collect in case she is found guilty of any of the charges.
"As soon as she receives [money] she spends it on jewelry, trips and other luxuries," Claus told Zottola.
According to Claus' petition, since 2003 Carlisle made extravagant purchases from her checking account after allegedly depositing public money kicked back from her co-defendants. Included in the purchases, the petition alleges, were trips to San Francisco, Aruba and Las Vegas. Prosecutors also say there were purchases for televisions, jewelry and a laptop computer.
Her attorney Owen Seman agreed that calling for the coat and the pension freeze could be seen as reasonable, but not her wages.
"She's continuing to work for the city of Pittsburgh on a day-to-day basis," Seman says. "And if she's working, then she should be paid for that work."
However, Zottola granted the prosecution's request because the trial delay was minimal.
Council President Doug Shields says he doesn't expect Zottola's order to prevent Carlisle from doing her job. "She has conducted herself in a professional manner since this all began, and I expect that she will continue to do so," Shields says.
However, he adds he was "surprised" by Zottola's order. "I haven't seen an order like this signed by a judge," Shields says.
Even if Carlisle were convicted instantly, Shields says the city charter doesn't mandate her removal, until all of her appeals are exhausted. And since Carlisle is due to be replaced at the end of the year by the winner of the Nov. 6 election, her term might expire before any court action takes effect.
Carlisle was swarmed by reporters as she left the courtroom. She and Seman refused to answer questions, including whether she would continue to work as a councilor even though she would not be paid.
Carlisle arrived early for her 9 a.m. court appointment Monday. By 8:20 a.m. she could already be seen -- by a CP reporter peeking through the slats of the door's Venetian blinds -- seated in the locked courtroom while the media waited outside. Her co-defendants Lee Otto Johnson and Sheryl Pinson-Smith waited in the hallway until the doors were unlocked.