Whistleblower Sues Pittsburgh Mayor and Police Chief for Retaliation

December 21, 2006
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PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Police Chief Nate Harper alleging that they demoted the Department's most senior Commander in retaliation for her divulging information to Pittsburgh City Council showing that Ravenstahl's nominee for Public Safety Director may have engaged in improper conduct.

"For trying to protect the public from wrongdoing as she has done throughout her 28-year distinguished career as a decorated City of Pittsburgh police officer, Catherine McNeilly has been retaliated against, publicly punished, humiliated and demoted from the City's senior police Commander to the rank of lieutenant," said Timothy P. O'Brien, an ACLU cooperating attorney and lead counsel in the case. "Today's lawsuit contends that such retaliatory conduct is not only unjustified and unconscionable, but also violates the fundamental right of every citizen, protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, to speak out on important matters of public concern without fear of retaliation."

In October 2006, Mayor Ravenstahl nominated Dennis Regan to be the City's Director of Public Safety, a position that oversees Police Bureau operations, including personnel discipline. Commander McNeilly, a 28-year veteran of the Bureau and the longest-serving Commander, had information suggesting that Regan had improperly interfered with her discipline of a subordinate police officer, an officer who happened to be the brother of another City employee and Regan's live-in house mate. McNeilly sent information about the incident in a confidential e-mail to City Council members. Someone, not McNeilly, publicly divulged the information to the media, ultimately resulting in the Mayor's withdrawal of Regan's nomination. The Mayor suspended both Regan and McNeilly pending a City investigation.

On December 1, Ravenstahl held a press conference to announce that the so-called investigation had found no "conclusive evidence" of wrongdoing by Regan, who resigned that day. On December 6, Police Chief Nate Harper announced that he had demoted McNeilly to Lieutenant and assigned her to the warrant office.

Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania's Legal Director and one of McNeilly's attorneys, noted that the City got it backwards in this case: "Cathy McNeilly should be given a blue ribbon, not a pink slip. Her courage in standing up to influential city officials, with no prospect of benefit to herself, and blowing the whistle on what appears to be flagrant misconduct was an invaluable public service for which all Pittsburghers should thank her," said Walczak. "This case does involve misconduct by several City employees and officials, but not by Commander McNeilly, who, ironically, is the only one to be punished."

Walczak raised another serious concern: "Twelve years ago the ACLU saw a pattern of mayoral employees interfering in appropriate discipline of City police officers, a pattern that in part led to the 1996 ACLU lawsuit on behalf of 66 people against the Police Bureau. The ACLU's suit eventually led to the now-famous U. S. Department of Justice Consent Decree, which resulted in federal supervision of the Police Bureau until just recently. To learn that the practices that spawned those lawsuits are now returning to the City should ring alarm bells for everyone concerned about maintaining the increased professionalism we've come to appreciate in our police officers over the past decade," lamented Walczak.

This lawsuit contends that the unjustified punishment to which Catherine McNeilly has been subjected violates her fundamental rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Pennsylvania's Whistleblower statute. The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, requesting the court to enjoin the defendants from engaging in further retaliatory conduct against Catherine McNeilly and issue an injunction against her demotion from Commander to Lieutenant. The lawsuit also seeks appropriate monetary damages for the harm suffered by Commander McNeilly. Finally, this lawsuit seeks not only to vindicate Catherine McNeilly's rights protected under the First Amendment and under Pennsylvania's Whistleblower law, but is intended to send a clear signal that punishing "whistleblowers" in these crucial times is unacceptable.

The lawsuit, McNeilly v. City of Pittsburgh, is filed on behalf of Commander McNeilly by ACLU cooperating attorneys Timothy P. O'Brien and Jere Krakoff, and ACLU of Pennsylvania lawyers Sara Rose and Witold Walczak. A copy of the complaint can be found here.

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