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Bridge inspector sentenced for bribes

Gets 19 months for Smalis payoffs

Thursday, September 07, 2000

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A proud and tearful old man with a shock of white hair and a cross hanging from his neck appeared in federal court yesterday and solemnly recounted the World War II decorations he received for doing his duty at Omaha Beach, St. Lo and the Battle of the Bulge.

Then, his credentials as a man of honor established, Charles Schweinberg Sr., 77, asked U.S. District Judge Gustave Diamond for leniency in sentencing his son, Charles Jr., a corrupt city bridge inspector snared in the FBI's investigation of former state Rep. Frank Gigliotti.

"He came to his mother and I and admitted his responsibility. He said he was ashamed," said Charles Sr., a retired Pittsburgh police sergeant who suffers from congestive heart failure and uses a motorized cart to get around. "He said he felt like any man who had just sold his integrity."

Charles Schweinberg Jr., 46, of Overbrook, admitted to Diamond he had done just that, disgracing his family and the city he worked for by accepting bribes from Shadyside bridge painter Ernest Smalis.

Diamond sentenced Schweinberg to 19 months in prison, one more than the minimum term under federal sentencing guidelines.

Robert Loughner of Penn Hills, another bridge inspector with whom Schweinberg split a $10,000 payoff, also was sentenced yesterday to five months in a halfway house followed by five months of home detention. Loughner received a lighter sentence because he played a lesser role in the scheme.

In May, Schweinberg pleaded guilty to accepting two $5,000 bribes from Smalis to ignore incomplete sandblasting and painting on the Panther Hollow Bridge over Boundary Street in Schenley Park in 1993. He also pleaded guilty to one count of extortion for trying to have Gigliotti wield his influence in Harrisburg to get Smalis' painting company returned to a list of approved Pennsylvania Department of Transportation contractors.

Diamond listened patiently as Schweinberg's friends and family testified about his charitable work with youngsters at Church of the Resurrection in Brookline and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Ken Sinagra, an assistant principal at Central Catholic High School, said Schweinberg spent a year and a half in 1990 and 1991 working without pay through Make-A-Wish to help build a bedroom on Sinagra's house for his disabled son, now 16. The Rev. Joseph Luisi, assistant pastor at the church, said Schweinberg offered to talk to his youth ministry about how one mistake can ruin a person's life.

Schweinberg's wife, Cathy, a city police officer, said she wouldn't have stood by him had he not taken moral responsibility for what he'd done.

But Diamond said none of that was enough to reduce Schweinberg's sentence, especially since Schweinberg refused to cooperate with the FBI investigation.

What did influence the judge's decision was an agreement by the U.S. attorney's office and Schweinberg's lawyer, James Wymard, to reduce the amount of restitution Schweinberg must repay the city for damage to the bridge.

Originally, the U.S. attorney's office said he was responsible for the total amount of $250,000 because the life span of the bridge had been cut in half by the lousy work Smalis did.

But Wymard and Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Farrell agreed yesterday that Schweinberg was responsible for just $100,000 of that cost because he was working on the project for only one-third of the time the span was being painted. Other contractors in addition to Smalis also did shoddy work on the bridge, Wymard said, and at least three other inspectors were responsible for overseeing the project. Farrell said their conduct was not criminal.

The original sentencing range for Schweinberg was 24 to 30 months, based on the $250,000 estimate. But with the restitution reduction, the range dropped to 18 to 24 months. Diamond settled on 19 months to send a message, he said, to anyone else who might be considering taking a bribe.

Schweinberg had an illicit business relationship with Smalis that began when Smalis worked on the bridge as a subcontractor for A&L Construction from 1992 to 1994. The project, 80 percent federally funded, paid Smalis $1.5 million.

Schweinberg was supposed to make sure the bridge was sandblasted, primed and painted correctly. He was required to record the progress of the job in logs, which are used to approve payments to contractors.

Instead, he allowed Smalis' company to paint over grit and rust on the bridge rather than clean it according to specifications. He then wrote fake entries in the logs.

In addition to the $10,000 payment, Schweinberg also accepted the use of Smalis' Daytona Beach, Fla., condominium and airfare to get there.

Schweinberg played a relatively minor role in the public corruption investigation of Gigliotti, who is serving 46 months in prison for extortion and influence peddling while on the board of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority.

The key to the cases against Gigliotti and Schweinberg was Smalis, who started cooperating with federal authorities in October 1997 by wearing a recording device.

When Smalis told Schweinberg about his PennDOT problems, Schweinberg said Gigliotti could use his influence to help. He encouraged Smalis to bribe Gigliotti and to offer the legislator the use of Smalis' condo. Schweinberg also demanded a month for himself at the condo.

Last month, Smalis was sentenced to three years and seven months in prison. Another corrupt public official caught extorting bribes, former City Councilman Joe Cusick, was sentenced in July to five months in a halfway house.

The last player nabbed in the investigation is Victor Stivason, a bridge inspector from Armstrong County who also took a bribe from Smalis. He has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

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