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Pittsburgh’s payments to former employee violated the city’s policy on credit cards – 90.5 WESA

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Pittsburgh’s controller is investigating more than $18,000 in payments made to a former city employee who was later hired as a contractor — and who police recently charged in a high-profile act of ethnic intimidation.

In a letter late last week, Controller Rachael Heisler raised concerns that the payments violated city rules on credit cards, and urged City Council to pause any future payments until her office completes its inquiry.

At issue are payments made over the last year to Mario Ashkar via city credit cards, also referred to as purchase cards or P-cards. Ashkar was previously employed by the city’s department of Public Safety as a special events coordinator but parted ways with the city in November 2022. But over the last year, Ashkar was compensated via PayPal for part-time work for the parks and recreation department’s farmers market program.

“This raises deeply concerning questions about the use of city P-Cards, including violation of several written policies regulating their use,” Heisler said.

A $1,200 PayPal payment to Ashkar, who uses they/them pronouns, will appear on City Council’s agenda for approval this week. That comes just days after they were charged in connection with an incident of ethnic intimidation on the city’s North Side. Authorities say security footage depicts Ashkar removing an Israeli flag from a North Side home and tossing it in the trash. Police have charged them with ethnic intimidation, criminal mischief, theft by unlawful taking and disorderly conduct.

WESA was unable to reach Ashkar for comment Tuesday.

Heisler said she was tipped off anonymously about Ashkar the day charges were announced. She questioned whether the city had violated its own policy about the use of credit cards, as Ashkar’s work over the last year could be classified as “professional services,” which require a separate contract and records of invoices.

City credit cards are typically used to cover supplies, catering services or other items. But the mayor’s office said the city has also used them to compensate artists and performers.

City Council typically reviews P-card transactions at its weekly standing committee meeting. Scrutiny of payments can be uneven, however, often depending on whether a watchful council member raises an eyebrow at a given payment.

At a Tuesday press conference responding to Heisler’s letter, mayoral spokesperson Maria Montaño acknowledged the payments violated city policy.

“An internal investigation found that payments to Ashkar should have been classified as a professional service engagement, requiring a separate contract and payment by departmental invoice,” she said.

Montaño said a “standard disciplinary procedure” has been initiated for the Parks and Recreation department employees responsible for the payments, but declined to elaborate. She added that all staff with P-cards would be required to complete additional training to ensure they understand the rules.

Montaño said the mayor’s office is exploring new safeguards, but did not indicate what those additional controls could look like.

Ethics concerns unclear

In her letter to City Council, Heisler said Ashkar’s recent charges make the payments “more concerning” because it’s unclear “whether or not the payment was knowingly submitted after Ashkar was identified.”

Heisler also said that hiring Ashkar as a contractor “would seem to be in violation of the State Ethics Act, which prohibits a former public employee from receiving compensation from their former governmental body in any act of ‘representation,’ including work as an independent contractor, within one year of leaving service.”

The ethics provision Heisler referred to appears intended to address concerns about a “revolving door” between government officials who leave the public sector to lobby or influence their former government colleagues.

Asked by WESA to explain who or what Ashkar may have been “representing,” Heisler said her office had insufficient information to determine if their work violated the ethics law.

“Part of it is what we don’t know,” she said. “We have seen nothing to make us aware of the scope of this person’s work on behalf of the city.”

Ashkar’s time as a city employee in Public Safety ended in November 2022, according to the mayor’s office. They were brought on by the Parks and Recreation department as a part-time contractor in May 2023.

The mayor’s office declined to say whether Ashkar resigned or was fired from Public Safety. But the law department argued that Ashkar was not in a decision-making role, and their work did not involve procuring grants or contracts or “any other activity where the official action has an economic impact.”

Montaño said Ashkar was assigned to help “bring additional activities to [city farmers markets], helping with the setup and arrangement and flow of those events to help make them more accessible.”

The mayor’s office also said Tuesday that the invoice before council covers work completed before Ashkar was charged. In an email to other city officials, the director of the city’s Office of Management and Budget Jake Pawlak said that once the city learned of Ashkar’s pending charges, officials terminated the relationship.

“Upon learning of the pending criminal charges … the termination date of the engagement was moved up to 4/23/2024, with no hours assigned for the duration of the month of April,” Pawlak wrote.

Heisler said her office still planned to conduct its own investigation, and requested documents including “all time-stamped email correspondence between Mario Ashkar and City officials.”

But in a statement late Tuesday, Heisler called for a broader review.

“We believe the State Ethics Commission should have the opportunity to review this matter,” she said, “given the unique expertise and independent insight they offer.”

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