Police reform was a top concern when Democrats on Allegheny County Council interviewed a dozen candidates seeking to replace the late Charles Martoni on Monday.
Council is weighing a bill to establish a countywide police review board to investigate misconduct, a proposal that arose after last year's fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Antwon Rose by an East Pittsburgh police officer.
None of the hopefuls Monday faced sharper questioning – over Rose's death and a years-old ethics charge –than Dennis Simon, a longtime borough council member in East Pittsburgh itself.
“We had what I call ‘the perfect storm’ happen to us,” Simon told the panel of Democrats.
Rose’s June 2018 death at the hands of officer Michael Rosfeld touched off protests and a homicide trial. A jury acquitted Rosfeld earlier this year, though the department has disbanded. Rose’s family is now suing the borough for wrongful death and excessive force, making Simon’s public discussion of events all the more notable.
Simon told WESA last week that the department had long been under financial strain. Under questioning by Councilor Patrick Catena, he depicted the time of Rosfeld’s hiring as especially fraught.
Simon told council that just before Rosfeld and two other officers were hired, the sergeants who trained new hires got full-time jobs elsewhere. Simon said that when the officers were sworn in before borough council, elected officials worried about a shortage of officers to train them. Two of the new recruits were recent police academy graduates, while Rosfeld had worked for other law-enforcement agencies, including the University of Pittsburgh police.
“We asked Officer Rosfeld about his eight years experience, if he would be OK until we can catch up on giving him the policy,” Simon said. “[H]e said, 'That would be fine.’ That’s how we ended up putting him out by himself.”
Just hours after the swearing-in, Rosfled shot and killed Rose, when Rose tried to flee a vehicle that had been involved in a drive-by shooting.
“In your judgment, that was the best use, you think?” Catena asked of the staffing.
“It was either that or no police,” Simon answered.
Catena also questioned Simon about a $9,500 state ethics commission fine Simon incurred in 2014 as a board member of the Willkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority. At the time, Simon was also an employee of Chester Engineers, which contracted with the authority after he joined the board.
Simon said the allegations arose from a lunch with two fellow water authority board members, one of whom had asked about hiring Chester. Simon said he initially responded, “It’s a conflict for me, I can’t do that,” but went to lunch to discuss it. The other board members “weren’t reaching for the check, so … I paid the bill.” He said that after a subsequent dispute over hiring a new executive director, one board member “called the ethics department on me, saying I took him to lunch trying to force him to bring Chester Engineers.”
Simon said attorneys told him he would be exonerated, but that legal fees would amount to $30,000, and his superiors at Chester said, “‘Why would we pay the $30,000 when the fine’s only $9,000?’ So they paid the $9,000 and I had to plead guilty.”
The state Ethics Commission, though, recounted a campaign that went beyond a single lunch.
“From approximately mid-2004 to early 2012, Simon made overt efforts to have Chester appointed as the Authority consulting engineer,” it contends in a 59-page order. Those efforts, it found, included “a series of arranged lunches, telephone calls, and meetings with various Authority Board members.”
The commission found that Simon did formally disclose his role with Chester, and recused himself from the vote to hire Chester in 2012, just after he became board chairman. But it also noted that he called for the motion to hire the firm, and ruled that he violated ethics laws “when he participated in discussions and actions of the Authority board to [hire] Chester Engineers.”
Going into Monday’s meeting, Simon was considered one of the stronger contenders to replace Martoni, who died in May. But on Monday, Catena said he found Simon “very evasive in his answers.”
Other candidates interviewed for the post include: Shawn Michelle Alfonso Wells (Swissvale), Elisa Beck (Monroeville), Nathaniel Carter (North Braddock), Adam Forgie (Turtle Creek), Edmund Guminski (Edgewood), James Lomeo (Monroeville), Ryan O’Donnell (Edgewood), Bhavini Patel (Edgewood), Patricia Schaefer (Edgewood), Paul Zavarella (Plum) and Joshua Worth (North Braddock).
Many of the other candidates, like Simon, have held elected posts in local government. But several struggled to define County Council’s role, which includes controlling the budget.
County Councilor DeWitt Walton, a sponsor of the bill to create a countywide police review board, asked each of the candidates about their support for the reform. Only Lomeo said he opposed it, though a half-dozen others said they either hadn’t read the legislation or didn’t know if they would support it. Among those who said they would support the bill were Forgie, O’Donnell, Patel, Wells, Worth – and Simon himself.
Council Democrats will announce their pick, who will serve until voters select a new councilor in November, at Tuesday evening’s regular council meeting.