If you thought that the long-promised settlement in the federal lawsuit of Police Commander Catherine McNeilly v. The City of Pittsubrgh was going to spice up this year's primary election race, you had better think again. Even though it would appear that certain key portions of the settlement have been agreed to by both sides, final negotiations about other critical aspects are being delayed until after the May 15th Democratic primary election. A cynical observer -- and anyone who has been observing the administration of Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravesntahl can't help but be anything but cynical -- would suspect that this delay is completely intentional, and that it is designed to prevent any embarrassing public or (even more importantly) City Council discussions about this case prior to the election. Moreover, a cynic would also suspect that the dollar amounts of the proposed settlement, both in terms of the direct payment that will go to Ms. McNeilly and the fees that will negotiated with her many attorneys, are being deliberately inflated to compensate them for allowing this delay.
A fairly complete history of events leading up to the McNeilly case, along with links to a number of newspaper articles about it, can be found in one of my earlier posts. Commander McNeilly's lawsuit more or less began at that point, when she was demoted to Lieutenant for her role in derailing the nomination of Dennis Regan as the city's Director of Public Safety. In response to her demotion, Ms. McNeilly filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Pittsburgh, the interim mayor, and Police Chief Nate Harper. In January, the judge hearing the case granted an injunction which restored Ms. McNiely back to the rank of Commander. Because the judge indicated that Ms. McNeily was likely to win the case if it were to proceed to trial, the city eventually began settlement negotiations with her and her attorneys. As recently as last month, reports in both broadcast and print media outlets began to suggest that a negotiated settlement was getting ever closer to reality.
Since then, there hasn't been a great deal of news about this lawsuit. But the story has been hovering just out of media radar range the whole time. After all, this case has a decent amount of potential to stir up the Democratic mayoral primary race, which puts Master Ravenstahl up against City Councilmember Bill "Cojònes" Peduto. The interim mayor would seem to be faced with two equally distasteful alternatives. To settle the lawsuit would require at least a tacit admission of wrongdoing against Ms. McNeilly, but the alternative would require him to be deposed under oath. As the Post-Gazette's Early Returns blog noted some time ago:
Still a minefield for the mayor is the federal whistleblower lawsuit by police Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly related to the involvement of former city Operations Director Dennis Regan in police matters. At some point between now and the May 15 primary, the city will likely have to agree to a potentially embarrassing settlement, or face potentially embarrassing depositions.From what I've been told, Luke Ravenstahl's political puppetmasters have managed to engineer a solution that evades both of these unpalatable choices. While I acknowledge that these details come from only a single source and that they are therefore somewhat speculative, they are also disturbing enough to warrant a bit of public discussion about them.
As things stand at the moment, the two sides have agreed to a handshake deal in which Catherine McNeilly will be paid $85,000 to settle her lawsuit. That sum of money is to be given to Ms. McNeilly alone, and will not be used to pay her attorneys. Instead, and this is the brilliance of the interim mayor's plan, the city will pay a separate amount to Ms. McNeilly's attorneys, but the exact amount of those legal fees will not be negotiated until after the primary election. Since they have negotiated a very generous settlement for their client, her attorney's are all but ethically required to go along with this deal, because it is clearly in Ms. McNeilly's best interests. Moreover, since every expectation is that the attorney fees are likely to be similarly generous, they have no personal reason to disagree with this kind of delay.
But for the rest of us, the result of this deal is that this settlement, for all practical purposes, will simply not exist at all until it ceases to be politically relevant. Legal settlements must be voted on by City Council, but they typically are not presented there until the exact terms of the deal are fully negotiated. Since the attorney fees remain undetermined, there is nothing for City Council to discuss. Despite the fact that Ms. McNeilly's portion of the settlement has been agreed to, there won't be anything for City Council to debate until after the May 15th Democratic primary.
To form some understanding of just how generous Ms. McNeilly's portion of this settlement is likely to be, consider the exact circumstances of her demotion from Commander to Lieutenant. Her demotion took place on Thursday, 7th December 2006, and involved the loss of $10,000 per year in her annual salary. The injunction which reinstated her to Commander was handed down on Wednesday, 10th January 2007. Her demotion lasted for all of 34 days, and during that time she lost roughly $930, based on the salary that she would have earned at her old rank.
For this one little fumble by the Ravenstahl administration, Ms. McNeilly will be paid roughly ninety-one times the amount that she suffered in direct financial costs. To be fair, Ms. McNeilly suffered in ways that had nothing to do with her pocketbook. She was likely humiliated by the constant press coverage of her demotion, which was handled in an excessively public fashion. And the administration was clearly in violation of both state and federal whistleblower protection laws, and thus she has significant leverage over the city in negotiating this settlement. Both of those things, and countless other aspects of this case, mean that city taxpayers will be forced to shell out an impressive amount of cash to make Ms. McNeilly whole.
But how much are those things really worth? Even if we paid her $25,000 for the humilation, $20,000 to compensate for the whistleblower mistake, $1,000 to make up for her lost wages, and $4,000 for anything else that she is rightfully pissed off about, that still works out to only $50,000. $50,000 in compensation for a $930 mistake would be more than generous; I would personally put it at least three standard deviations into the upper tail of the generosity distribution curve. But we're not paying her $50,000. Instead, we are offering $35,000 more than that. Why are we being so far beyond generous in this case?
A cynical observer, especially one given to "speculation-laced" blog posts, might suggest that the Ravenstahl administration is paying Ms. McNeilly quite handsomely -- with our money, of course -- to buy her silence until after the May 15th primary election. Maybe that's taking things too far, and maybe I'm being far too cynical. But when you look at the amount of the settlement that the administration has agreed to, and you compare that to the amount of money that Luke Raventahl's mistake directly cost Catherine McNeilly, and you see how the timing of the final settlement has been tied to the date of the Democratic primary, it's very difficult -- as I said before -- to anything but cynical.