Allegheny County ethics policy revision prompts debate |
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Aaron Aupperlee

An Allegheny County councilwoman wants to strengthen the county’s take-home vehicle policy in the wake of allegations that the county executive misused his taxpayer-funded Jeep.

Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, said she will re-introduce legislation by the end of the year that specifically bans county employees from using county vehicles for political purposes.

The current county Code of Accountability, Conduct and Ethics only states that employees cannot use county resources except for county purposes. Heidelbaugh thinks the law needs clarification.

“I don’t think people ought to be using government property for political purposes. Period. End of story,” Heidelbaugh said.

She had similar legislation on council’s Oct. 21 agenda but pulled the bill to tighten and square it with state and federal laws.

Her comments were made after county Controller Chelsa Wagner on Thursday accused county Executive Rich Fitzgerald of using his county-provided 2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee to attend at least 100 political or personal events. Wagner, 37, of Point Breeze called on Fitzgerald to repay the county at least $13,000 for miles put on the Jeep during these events and for nearly 20,000 unaccounted-for miles.

Fitzgerald, 55, of Squirrel Hill said he conducts county business while attending political events and called Wagner’s attacks political. Both are Democrats. Spokeswoman Amie Downs declined to comment on Heidelbaugh’s potential legislation, which has not been finalized or submitted to council.

Councilman Michael Finnerty, D-Scott, doubted Heidelbaugh’s legislation has much chance of passing. He said the county’s current ethics laws are strong enough and defended Fitzgerald’s use of the county Jeep.

“You go to a political event, say in Carnegie, and maybe you talk about flood control,” Finnerty said. “At the same time, if someone is driving, you can get a lot of work done as you ride along.”

Paul T. Lauria, president of Mercury Associates, a fleet management consulting firm based in Rockville, Md., said county officials should be careful not to overreact to Wagner’s accusations. Often, take-home vehicles save money and increase efficiency, he said.

“The key thing is for organizations not to have a knee-jerk reaction. What appears to be malfeasance or an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars may not be,” Lauria said.

“He’s running an $800 million enterprise, and people are questioning whether it’s OK for him to have a county-provided vehicle? … Why are we even having this conversation?”

Heidelbaugh, who often spars with Fitzgerald when he speaks before council, said she would like to see an ethics investigation into his vehicle use. Robert Caruso, director of the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission, said he could not comment on whether his office has started an investigation as Wagner requested.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or [email protected].

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