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City Council calls for stricter oversight of purchasing cards amid contractor controversy

City Council members sit around a table across from City Controller Rachael Heisler and Jake Pawlak, the director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
City Council members deleted a $1,200 payment to a controversial vendor Wednesday.

Pittsburgh City Council voted not to authorize an improper payment to a former employee charged with ethnic intimidation Wednesday. The move comes amid controversy that several payments made to the former employee, who was working as a contractor, violated city rules.

The vendor, Mario Ashkar, has already received the $1,200 payment via PayPal: Council’s action merely delays the city’s payment to the bank. But in the meantime, several council members, including Theresa Kail Smith, called for an investigation into how the city handles purchasing cards, which are also referred to as P-cards.

“I really would like to get to the bottom of this, to make sure that this is not the tip of an iceberg,” said Kail Smith. “This was missed by every level of government.”

Beginning last July, the city paid Ashkar monthly through the Parks department’s purchasing cards for “coordination services” related to farmers markets. Ashkar has received $18,460 for the work.

Ashkar was charged last week 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.

City Controller Rachael Heisler flagged the city’s dealings with Ashkar after the criminal charges were announced. Among the issues she raised was an improper use of the city’s purchasing card program to pay Ashkar for work considered “professional services.”

On Tuesday, the mayor’s office conceded that purchasing card payments was an improper channel to compensate Ashkar. Mayoral spokesperson Maria Montaño said a “standard disciplinary procedure” has been initiated for the Parks and Recreation department employees responsible for the payments.

Heisler reiterated her concerns at city council’s Wednesday meeting, and said her office is still waiting for specific information about what Ashkar did for the city as an employee, and later as a contractor.

“I can't find a formal job description. I haven't seen anything with hours,” she said. “I just would like to uncover how this came to be [and] how these hours were tracked.”

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Ashkar previously worked in 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.

Jake Pawlak, director of the city’s Office of Management and Budget, said Ashkar was paid to improve the city’s farmers markets by “attending [them], working with the sellers and customers to improve the experience.”

Pawlak estimated that Ashkar was paid roughly $25 per hour.

Nearly all City Council members spoke about a need for more transparency around purchasing card payments and how those payments are authorized in departments.

At least one member vowed to reject all future P-card payments until additional safeguards are in place.

“Pittsburgh taxpayers trust us to make sure that money is spent properly,” Councilor Bob Charland said in a written statement. “I will not be voting to support a system that has potential for misuse of those funds and that trust.”

Council voted unanimously to remove the bill for Ashkar from the list of payments. Charland and Kail Smith both voted against approving the remaining P-card requests Wednesday.

While all council members agreed that additional safeguards were needed, few specifics were offered at the table. Instead, finance chair Erika Strassburger suggested council, the mayor’s office and the controller assemble a working group to determine how to strengthen requirements around P-cards.

Strassburger said council has “a huge role to play” in preventing misuse of P-cards.

“If anything needs to be codified, ours is the body to submit that,” she said. “I look forward to seeing more publicly and having a bigger discussion.”

Ethics concerns

While city leaders are on the same page about purchasing cards being the wrong channel to compensate Ashkar, divisions emerged over whether the violation goes beyond bad accounting.

Heisler called Tuesday for the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission to review the matter. She said Ashkar’s work as a contractor took place within five months after leaving the city payroll, which violates a rule requiring a one-year gap. Depending on whether Ashkar’s work within the public safety department is considered a public-facing position, Heisler suggested a state ethics violation may have taken place.

In a letter to council members, Heisler said state law “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.”

In response, Pawlak said Ashkar’s role within the Public Safety department did not meet all of the conditions listed in the states’ definition of “public employee,” and as a result their work is not governed by the state law.

Pawlak asserted that Ashkar would need to have had influence over official actions, contract or grant awards, planning or zoning or other regulations as well as be “associated with or have substantial participation in the particular matter before the body.”

The city law department also claimed that Ashkar would have had to be “engaged in post-employment activity that consisted of representing a person or matter before the governmental body.”

According to the mayor’s office, a violation of one or more requirements, but not all of them, does not constitute an ethics infraction.

Leanne Davis, the city’s ethics officer, declined to comment specifically on the matter pertaining to Ashkar. But she noted that the State Ethics Act defines a public employee as “a catch-all that would relate to whether or not you could use your position in a way that could create an economic impact of more than an insignificant amount.

“Generally speaking, public employees are going to be people who are externally facing — anyone who touches public money,” she said. “That definitely has a financial impact.”

Similarly, she said the law defines what activity amounts to “representation” of a government entity broadly, too.

“They define the word ‘represent’ to be … literally any activity on behalf of another person," she said. "They define that person to include yourself [or] a new governmental employer."

Davis said the city should add new disclosure forms for future vendors to assert that they have not recently worked for the city, nor are they connected to someone who has.

“We want to make sure that our public positions aren't being used for private gain,” she said. “And that the influence and connections that you made through your public office are not giving you an unfair advantage.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.