Pittsburgh police on Monday opened an investigation into allegations that outgoing Councilwoman Darlene Harris, who has been cleaning out her office, stole items given to the city by foreign visitors, officials said.
Public Safety spokesman Chris Togneri said police began an the investigation based on information that Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich received from council on Monday.
Harris said she took several items that Chinese visitors gave her personally while she served as council president from 2010 to 2014.
“I always asked them if it was for me or for the city,” Harris said. “They said it was for me. I took what was only mine.”
Council President Bruce Kraus said he filed a police report on Monday after Harris ignored repeated letters and emails asking her to return five items that were taken from a curio case in a foyer outside of Council Chambers on the fifth floor of the City-County Building. Kraus said the items are worth thousands of dollars.
“I’ve had no communication from the councilwoman at all,” he said. “She’s not responding.”
He said the items included a large vase, red and black plate, gold fan, large blue purse with artwork representing a woman and a gold sculpture with claws.
Kraus said the sculpture is reportedly solid gold and that he believes vase is rare and extremely valuable.
When told that Harris believed the items were personal gifts, Kraus noted that elected officials are limited by city ethics regulations to accepting gifts valued at $25o or less.
“If that were true, and I don’t believe it is true, then the councilwoman is in clear violation of ethics (rules),” he said. “They are clearly city property.”
Togneri cited the ongoing investigation in declining to specify exactly what was taken or provide additional details.
Kraus said he was notified Thursday by City Clerk Brenda Pree that Harris had taken the items from the case and several staffers saw her husband removing them from the building.
Harris confirmed she received the letters and emails, but insisted that the gifts are her property.
“They can’t even let me leave in peace,” she said.
Harris, a Democrat, has represented the North Side’s District 1 since 2006 and lost her seat to Bobby Wilson in this year’s Democratic primary. Her last day in office is Jan. 6.
She has sparred often with Kraus and Mayor Bill Peduto.
During heated budget meetings in 2014, Kraus fined Harris $20 for what he termed disruptive behavior. Kraus said Harris was out of order when she grabbed a gavel, banged it several times and threw it at him. Harris denied tossing the gavel.
Earlier this month Harris sued the city, Peduto and the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board, contending the city illegally fined her for failing to file campaign finance reports with the ethics board during the primary. The board in September fined Harris, alleging she failed to comply with an ordinance requiring candidates for city offices to file financial disclosure reports with the board by the first business day in each of the three months prior to the election.
Harris contends the ordinance is unconstitutional and has refused to pay that fine and a second one the board levied for $1,000 in 2017 after her unsuccessful campaign for mayor.
The lawsuit filed in the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court seeks to quash the fine and the ordinance.