The five page document contains a succinct history of the entire affair involving the controversial LED sign permit, with frequent references to press accounts, legal opinions, meeting transcripts and court transcripts, all included as appendices.
Although the letter sent this afternoon to the Ethics Commission is not the previously rumored letter to the State Attorney General requesting an investigation, the Ethics Commission has the power (and the obligation when warranted) to trigger investigations by the Attorney General.
Although today's letter never mentions URA director and Parking Authority chair Patrick Ford by name, nor any gift-giving to public officials by Lamar Advertising, it should be noted that the same Ethics Commission is presumably already engaged in the preliminaries of an investigation of Ford and Lamar.
Here is a sampling of what seem to be some of the more notable selections. All of the emphases are our own.
Serious issues regarding process surfaced when the matter came to light in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story (02/12/08) reporting that Lamar had secured a no-bid contract from the Parking Authority to place this LED on its new building without the consent of the Authority’s Board. Under Chapter 161 of the Pittsburgh Code of Ordinances, contracts in excess of $30,000 must be bid prior to being let.
This is an argument against the permit that has not yet been raised with such precision.
Aside from the no-bid contract, there were other problems, specifically the fact that the permit was in direct violation of the city’s zoning code which limits billboards at this location to 500 sq. ft. It seems clear that the zoning code required a higher standard of review and that Lamar should not have been given an administrator’s exception.
There were a number of other procedural matters and questions which are illustrated in a legal opinion rendered by City Solicitor George Specter. It is notable that City Council had to wait for this opinion for almost two months. Accordingly, it was very difficult for Council to determine a clear, lawful course of action.
As a result of this controversy, the Council convened a Post Agenda session on February 27, 2008. Enclosed is a copy of the transcript of that 6-hour meeting. Notably, much of what we were told was later proven false.
The Comet will be excavating and analyzing key portions of that post-agenda session of Council, starring the one and only Pat Ford, over the coming week.
It is noteworthy to add that on March 26, 2008, Yarone Zober, Mayor Ravenstahl’s Chief-of-Staff, sent an e-mail to all Council Members and others that there could potentially be “abuse of power” and “undue influence” by the Council members who joined Mr. Dowd’s appeal. He further stated that the City’s Law Department should determine if there was actual undue influence or any irregularities on their part. These allegations are nearly identical to those included in Lamar’s complaint.
See how easy this is? That which is noteworthy is clearly identified as noteworthy.
We firmly believe that the law had been broken and as public officials, we had an obligation to intervene in the ZBA/Lamar matter. Without legal counsel, we could not act in the public’s interest.
We have grave concerns about the legal opinion rendered by the City Solicitor’s office. Owing to a variety of factors, we cannot have complete confidence in said opinion. Once the issue of a potential conflict of interest was raised, we chose to refrain from any further discussion or votes on Council Bill #2008-0308.
We believe that Lamar’s settlement of the ZBA appeal, the removal of their lawsuit against five Council members and Judge James’ rulings affirm that there was no conflict of interest on this matter. As such, we believe that our actions surrounding Council Bill #2008-0308 did not constitute a conflict of interest as defined by our City Code and/or our Home Rule Charter.
Gravity aside, this letter seems far more reserved than it easily could have been. Anyone hoping the request will instigate more vigorous actions than the issuance of a legal opinion will have to rely on the voluminous supporting materials contained in its appendices, and on the interest and initiative of the Ethics Commission and its attorneys.
We are advised than within two weeks of its receipt of the letter, the Commission must either announce its intention to issue an opinion based on existing precedent, or if none can be found, call for a public hearing to further explore the matter and set new precedent.
That would be one ballgame worth the price of admission.