Monthly Archives: August 2007

Crime and No Punishment

Guys accused of illegally selling drugs, guys accused of illegally selling guns – Public Works employees – guys selling drugs off-duty, guys getting high at work, guys drinking, guys stealing gas … a substantial number of people with criminal pasts … what is the deal with so many employees with criminal pasts?

This is how KDKA’s Marty Griffin begins to engage Mayor Ravenstahl on the topic of criminality among city workers.

In turn, the Mayor reveals that last week, the City began doing background checks on all current city employees — “absolutely yes.”

However, he quickly made exceptions for the police and fire departments, for all union employees, and finally for all current Public Works employees. By the end, only new applicants to the Mayor’s Office, the Law Department, and Parks & Recreation were cited as targets.

The reason to exclude union employees is of course existent collective bargaining agreements — although the Mayor is declining his option to re-open the fire fighter’s contract this year, which might have been advisable anyways, for financial reasons.

The reasons given to exclude Public Works are that it would be too costly, and that some of the felons who lied on their job applications deserve a second chance.

Left unsaid is the notion that there are cliques within the Department of Public Works that operate as semi-organized criminal syndicates — using political influence, blackmail, and even threats of violence to protect their petty criminal enterprises.

There, we said it.

Thoughts on that Ethics Meeting

His lack of an apology betrays a certain immaturity.P-G Editorial

Beaten to the punch!

We fully expected Ravenstahl to get a pass from the Ethics Board — but not without making some acknowledgement that perceptions of impropriety are reasonable, though unfortunate.

“Although I accepted the invitation innocently and in established tradition, I can certainly understand the public concern. I am glad the City now has an Ethics Board to bring such matters to our attention, and in the future I will set an example by being more mindful of [blah blah blah.]”

But no. That might expose him to his many political bogeymen.

His answers were often transparent non-sequitors; a board member would return to the issue of common-sense perceptions, to which he would respond, “No, according to the code, I did nothing wrong.”

It was particularly frustrating that he openly suggested that he might defy the Ethics Board in its attempt to bring clarity to the code, and to set reasonable Pittsbugher’s minds at ease.

This was a golden opportunity for him to meet his reasoning critics halfway. A little mollifying rhetoric would certainly have impressed the Comet — and we would have been happy to say so.

Instead, everyone who is paying the slightest attention remains suspicious and frustrated. This will only lead to more antagonistic press coverage, and the continued retardation of the political capital he so sorely requires.

If Luke is frustrated that he is not taken seriously, he should reflect that it has nothing to do with his actual age, and everything to do with his attitude toward things.

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As to the Ethics Board itself, we can only guess that they are seeking to build some institutional credibility; “keeping their powder dry,” as it were. Smacking down a mayor might have been biting off more than they could chew just yet– and it might indeed have been inappropriate.

We trust they will be taking a slightly more strident tack behind closed doors, when it comes to amending the Code. This blog is not at all comfortable with rules that allow an interested party to underwrite such good times for public officials. It is a wide-open invitation to temptation.

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Finally, we could not help but note that the Mayor once again testified that he accepted UPMC’s invitation — just as he revealed originally on Marty Griffin. No mention of the Penguins.

The price for one round of golf at the country club is just under $250 — just under the limit of what a public official can accept in athletics events from any one interested party. Luke played two rounds of golf over two days.

Suspicious minds, who already feel antagonized by Ravenstahl’s hard-line approach to the Ethics Code, must wonder whether the administration only retro-actively asked Mario to pick up one-half of UPMC’s tab, in order to avoid some legal embarrassment.

Liveblogging the Ethics Hearing


10:10 Pledge of allegiance. (Yes, really.) All five Ethics Board members present. No mayor yet.

10:12 Request that the media be respectful and non-intrusive.

10:13 Hail to the Chief!

10:14 Sister Hughes wants a constructive and positive conversation that can clarify how we can interpret the codes. We are committed to advancing high ethical standards that are practical and workable. Today is not a formal hearing. It is not a trial. It is an opportunity for dialogue.

10:16 Hughes opening statement. Concern is section 197.07 “Offering gifts or awards” A key question — whether the invitees were an interested party. Public perceptions are important to consider, even if technically there may have been no law broken.

10:19 Luke: Committed to rigorous enforcement of city’s code of conduct. He was determined to see this board become a vital watchdog of city ethics. It is not only your right, but your duty, to fully explore any matter of concern.

10:21 Luke: Cancer research. Organ development. Hodgkins disease. The event is awesome. (Man, it’s empty in here. There can not possibly be eight non-media folks in attendance.)

10:23 Luke: Proud to have been a participant, and to have accepted UPMC’s invitation. (No mention of the Penguins, again.) “One’s honor is the master of his fate.”

10:24: Buechel: What criteria do you use to evaluate charitable events? Luke: I get invited to so many. Charity is great. When I get invited, I go. (Buechel looks slightly concerned)

10:25: Schiff: You’re quoted as saying you have business conversations on the golf course. Are you concerned about the public perceptions of influence? Luke: No. In no way did I directly benefit. I was happy to be there to support the charity. Schiff: But UPMC provided you the benefit of being at this rather exclusive event, right? Luke: Code doesn’t mention amounts for charity. $4,400 was raised for Animal Friends by auctioning off a dinner with himself and his wife — was that “worth it” to the recipients?

10:28: Reverend: Couldn’t the Mario Lemieux Foundation have just given you an invitation to be present? Also, exception six: something about persons doing business with the city. So why did UPMC get involved? Luke: “Perhaps”. But the Foundation did not; UPMC did. Reverend: Do you not see the inconsistency with exception six? Luke: I’m not a lawyer, but I’m proud to support charity. (The brows we can see from our side of the table are furrowing.)

10:31 Buechel: City is delighted you like to play an active part of city life. But … public could construe … looks like privileged access. Shouldn’t we maybe make some guidelines? Luke: More than willing to entertain that. But I want to caution you … I’m pretty much going to do what I want anyway.

10:33 Schiff: Everyone would agree the Mayor’s presence is important. But when it comes from a major corporation … 197.07 Section F … I suspect those dollar amounts were put in there to convey the message that larger benefits would raise flags. Luke: I’m not receiving monetary value. Mentions Yeshiva Dinner. “I would caution that if there was a limit, perhaps I would not have been able to attend that event.” (Schiff is the rabbi)

10:36 Schiff: Follows up on that. Luke: Under no circumstances have I, or will I, influence planning commissions or other board and commissions that make city decisions. [Insert PittGirl’s photo of Calvin & Hobbes laughing hysterically here]

10:37 Hughes: We’ll make some recommendations. We hope you’ll look ’em over. Luke: Kthxbai. Zacharias: Never spoke. Gang: We’ll sort of follow up on this based on research and best practices, and maybe at the next meeting we’ll talk about more stuff in response to however Luke responds. Adjourned.

10:42 Media gaggle around Sister Hughes including Mayo, Delano, Gastmeyer, Boren, and others.

Q: Your reaction? A: Mayor was very clear about how he interprets the code. Q: Does his differ from yours? A: We might have some suggestions to make. The rabbi had some good ideas about dollar amounts that suggest exclusivity. Q: $9,000 makes real bad perception? A: No, he did not receive $9,000. Q: What about UPMC? A: Code does not make that distinction clear. We’ve done research on other states, we’ll make it part of the dialogue.

Q: Do you share Rabbi Schiff’s concerns? A: Difficult for me to answer. Q: Can ethics panel make more than recommendations? Can you get things in the code? A: Oh yes, definitely. Check out the code. “Adopt rules and regulations.” We definitely can offer that. Q: So this can go beyond dialogue? A: Yes, definitely.

Q: Newspaper account had a city legal adviser questioning your ability to do anything. A: NO, DESIMONE WAS CORRECT. WE NEEDED A FORMAL COMPLAINT, WHICH WE DID NOT HAVE. I TAKE FULL RESPONSIBILITY. Mayo: Um, what? A: Making distinction the Comet does not quite understand. Boren: Pressure from law department? A: No way.

Q: Is this ongoing? A: No. From here on out, it’ll probably be with the mayor informally and/or in executive session. Delano: charity exemption is confusing. A: It sure is. Mayo: If you have a quorum present, it’s covered under sunshine law. A: [Long pause] I’ll have to seek some advice on it.

The big three or four were sticking around for the Mayor to come out and subject himself to the press gaggle. The Comet looks forward to that footage.

Ethics Board Hearing Today

The Trib’s Jeremy Boren previews the hearing concerning Mayor Ravenstahl and the celebrity golf outing afforded him by the Penguins and UPMC.

“It’s very unclear to me that they have any ability to sanction anyone at all, from a rookie cop up to the mayor,” [Assistant City Solicitor Kate] DeSimone said.

How does she get that??

[Board Chair Sister Patrice] Hughes and board members Rabbi Daniel Schiff and Kathy Buechel have said publicly that they believe Ravenstahl might have violated the city’s ethics code, which hurts their impartiality, DeSimone said. “If I were the mayor’s attorney, I would ask for all three of them to be recused,” DeSimone said.

For saying he might have violated the code? How can one justify holding a public hearing, without acknowledging there might have been a violation?

DeSimone believes the most the board could do is ask for an investigation into the mayor’s conduct. If that request is made, it’s likely a special investigator would be needed. She said that Acting City Solicitor George Specter said July 13 that Ravenstahl did not commit an ethical violation.

These guys are committed to playing hardball.

Continued? Ongoing?

A short press release from the Mayor’s office touting 2nd quarter financials says the following:

By continuing to hold the line on spending and with continued assistance from Harrisburg and the non-profit community, we are getting Pittsburgh’s budget back on the right track.

It reminded us of a previous statement from the Mayor, in the wake of the Lemieux Invitational kerfuffle:

As Mayor, you cannot address matters of City business such as job growth, economic development, and payments in lieu of taxes without talking. During the Invitational issues importance to the City were discussed, including my trip to Harrisburg where I lobbied for state budget appropriations relevant to arena funding, and UPMC’s ongoing partnership with us to contribute payments in lieu of taxes.

We tried to research the current state of non-profit contributions, and the clearest we could find is this Feb. 26th Rich Lord piece:

As part of its recovery plan under state Act 47, the city in 2005 sought pledges of $6 million a year from nonprofit institutions. Those institutions put together an umbrella group called the Pittsburgh Public Service Fund, and 102 groups promised a total of $13.25 million over three years.

The deal expires after this year’s $4.2 million payment, and the fund’s board hasn’t decided whether to give more.

Maybe there have been pledges of continued support, or a framework for such pledges, that we have not heard about?

With a little over four months remaining in this arrangement — and with so many fruitful discussions having taken place in various settings — it might be a good time for a status report.

Monday Notes

Former financial overlord John E. Murray makes a case we are going to hear with increasing frequency:

The city and the county continue to have departments performing the same functions. There have been studies, committees and discussions about merging these functions for decades.

So what’s the holdup?

The future does not belong to vested interests who resist change for fear of losing political power.

No, but the present belongs to them, and that’s where we live.

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P-G columnist and fellow hardy Deutschtowner Ruth Ann Daily makes a good observation:

If multiple officers can respond to a bogus noise complaint in Squirrel Hill, maybe a few should be reassigned to neighborhoods struggling with actual crime.

Like our jazz-and-gardening-obsessed neighbor, the Comet had its own car window smashed recently — along with several others on our street. When police officers did arrive (in a little over an hour), they seemed confused as to why they were summoned.

One of the few questions they asked was, “How long have you lived in this neighborhood?” in a tone clearly meant to suggest, “Maybe you really shouldn’t, if broken windows bother you so much?”

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A Pittsburgh blogger is in dire peril. Matt H is currently vacationing in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, which is due to get clobbered by a “catastrophic” category 5 hurricane.

Comet research corroborates his observations that even by securing an early 4:30 PM flight home today, our straight-talking rapscallion will be cutting it almost cinematically close — particularly if he is departing from Cancun International Airport, on the very eastern edge of the peninsula.

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The Family Guy is about to go into daily syndication a la The Simpsons, Friends, and Seinfeld. Let’s see if they have any comments for us:

Entertainment!

Reform Pittsburgh Now

Bill Peduto will officially launch his political action committee, Reform Pittsburgh Now, this Saturday.

In keeping with the internetty nature of his endeavor, the kick-off press conference will be held at PodCamp Pittsburgh, and will be broadcast live to the net at 1:45 from Conference Room B.

“Principle performers” for the launch will be John Carman from Avenue Design Studios, and Justine Ezarik aka iJustine (pictured) from justin.tv.

Coincidentally, Justine and her shocking 300-page iPhone bill were reported upon last evening by Ch. 11’s Andy Gastmeyer — unless it was all an elaborate publicity stunt for Bill’s PAC.

DeMurphification

Weed and Seed must be an incredibly popular program, when it is working well.

Where else do so many motivated neighborhood residents collaborate so closely with the mayor’s office? How else can a mayor foster such appreciation and good will from troubled citizens in far-flung neighborhoods?

The details in the Rich Lord article about missing Weed and Seed equipment were troubling. Yet for the Comet’s money, the most interesting section was simply this:

“Under [former Mayor Tom] Murphy, it did work,” said Sarah Campbell, president of the Zone 5 Public Safety Council and vice chairwoman of the HomewoodBrushton Community Coalition Organization. She said drug houses were eliminated with the help of “weed” money. “Seed” dollars “funded a lot of community activity around programs that were dealing with self-esteem.”

Throughout Mr. Murphy’s 12-year term, city Grants and Developments Director Dave Farley served as the Weed and Seed project director, and for 10 years John Tokarski was its coordinator. Stephen Chatman joined as assistant coordinator.

They “were actually national experts” in Weed and Seed administration, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Elliot McLean, who is Ms. Buchanan’s point person on Weed and Seed.

Even before Bob O’Connor became mayor on Jan. 3, 2006, he fired Mr. Farley and Mr. Chatman. No reasons were given for the dismissals, which came as much of Mr. Murphy’s staff was being shown the door.

There is an interesting discussion in the Burr Reporr comments evaluating the tenure of a Bernadette Lynch — a new Weed and Seed administrator under Mayor O’Connor, who was subsequently replaced by Mayor Ravenstahl. It illustrates that nobody knows who to blame.

The point is, staff turnover continues, and the program is suffering — while crime is continuing to encroach on neighborhoods as much as ever.

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During the Iraq War, one of our most crucial mistakes was instituting a program of DeBaathification, or cleansing the government of anybody remotely connected to the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein. This ultimately crippled the central government’s ability to take care of itself, and alienated many who might have been helpful.

Tom Murphy and Bob O’Connor were longtime rivals — to say nothing of the special antipathy Ravenstahl seemed to bear toward Murphy.

The question is, in their efforts to DeMurphicate city government — in their attempts to consolidate power and loyalty in the neighborhoods by replacing Weed and Seed leadership with “their own people” — did both O’Connor and Ravenstahl do real damage to a good program?

A P-G editorial reads:

This recent history — in which new mayors come in, perhaps see the Weed and Seed posts for political value, then supplant experienced staff — does not serve Pittsburgh well.

We suppose once again, the Comet is naive to think politics should operate any other way.

In a city governed by one political party, at least, the players should be secure enough to set aside intra-squad squabbling, and utilize competent professionals — even if they hail from the (gasp!) Murphy administration. Especially when it comes to public safety.

Stating the Obvious

“If he wore an orange tie, people here would be crying,” said Yuri Maluta, a protester from Lviv. “It would show that the American president supports democracy here.”

Nicholas D. Kristof, NYT, on the Orange Revolution in Ukraine of 2004

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Perhaps DNC Chairman Howard Dean stuck that Dowd sticker on his shirt without much forethought.

Perhaps Dr. Dowd was a supporter of Dean’s 2004 presidential run, and Dean was simply returning a favor.

Perhaps Howard just has a thing for door-knocking.

The Comet, however, cannot believe that a party official of Howard Dean’s magnitude would pass over a county executive and a newly minted mayor so easily.

We do not think Dean would have donned the campaign gear of any debutante politico, without doing some serious research first.

It is only reasonable to assume that at some point, Howard Dean thought to himself, “This kid stuck it to a bunch of parochial, conservative party dinosaurs, and that’s exactly what we need. As Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, I’m going to send a message, and shake up this rusty machine town.”

Think about the message this sent to the Party Crashers of Allegheny County — those rebellious underlings who spent the spring primary election getting insulted, ostracized, threatened, and blackmailed by the local party apparatus — all for the crime of supporting independent and progressive leadership.

Now think about the message to the ACDC establishment. As party leaders contemplate reform options, they had better take into account the sweep of history — and a realistic assessment of their own place in it.