Wednesday, October 21, 2009

John Verbanac: A Friend With Benefits?

Kevin Acklin presented 19 pages worth of e-mails today seeking to illustrate that John Verbanac, CEO of Summa Development, has played an integral role in the Ravenstahl administration since its inception.

The e-mails were circulated among very small groups of individuals, usually comprising only Luke Ravenstahl, Yarone Zober, Pat Ford, Ed Grattan and Verbanac himself. It should be noted however that their authenticity has not yet been verified! What will follow are only excerpts from some of them.

If genuine, they are enough to establish that 1) Ravenstahl was effectively lying on Saturday when he flatly denied that Verbanac has a role in his administration; that role appears to be one including senior communications director and city staffing sergeant, and 2) That Verbanac plays this role is troubling considering the way his business interests, at least in regards to Forest City Enterprises, intertwine with that of the City.

And if genuine, the mayor was certainly lying again tonight when he claimed Kevin's more specific allegations about Verbanac "putting words in his mouth" and influencing decisions regarding "strategic planning" and "firing staff" were wrong.


Let's start with the recollection that Ravenstahl supported the Isle of Capri casino bid for the Hill District as a Council person, later to move his support as Mayor to the Forest City / Harrah's bid in Station Square:

From John Verbanac, 12/16/06, Subject: Your Attention Please
To: Luke Ravenstahl, Yarone Zober, Ed Grattan and Charlie Zappala

Question: With all the buyers and the certainty of the two arena plans, why are the Pens saying the future is now uncertain and only the IOC answers the question?

Answer: Because IOC is the one plan that makes the most money for Ron Burkle. Ron Burkle is willing play Russian Roullete with the francises's future to make the most money. It's a gun to the head of Pittsburgh strategy that benefits few, hurts many and inproperly politicizes the gaming decision in an effort for Ron Burkle to simply make more money.

Verbanac was a lobbyist for Forest City / Harrah's. Charlie Zapalla was to be an investor in the Forest city casino. He was and is Verbanac's significant business partner. After Mayor Ravenstahl switched his support to Forest City, and former mayor Tom Murphy opined that "the fix was in", the casino license was awarded to Don Barden of PITG gaming.


The relationship continued into 2007:

From Verbnac, 4/11/07, Subject: Team
To: Luke Ravenstahl and Yarone Zober

When we confront the real issues, we'll need a strong team. A loyal team. A team that reflects the heart and minds of the RAVENSTAHL Administration.

When new leaders come in, the ranks are always turned over. A few make it through, but only a few. It's not because they are ill motivated and political. It's because they need their own team around them. That is the message around the moves you make. Ravenstahl is building his own team. Not trying to win over someone elses.

Tom Murphy left office with a 17 percent approval rating. Bob O'Connor left office before his numbers fell as the real performance of his administration became visible. I have 2009 and beyond on my mind guys. The future. Yours, mine and ours.

We need a team and we need it now. Not after May 15th. Not after the next crisis or artificial date we come up with that holds us back. Not waiting for the day that Rich Lord might give us a pass and take it easy on us. We're at war now. We need our troops.

We? Our? Mine?



From Verbanac, 4/17/07, subject: High Level Issues!
To: Luke Ravenstahl, Yarone Zober

Issue Three: Strategic Planning I have talked with Yarone about this already as well. I would strongly suggest that you, Yarone, Pat and maybe a chosen "FEW" others hold a bit of a retreat to get together your strategic plan.

We have a great blessing not facing the voters until 2009. That's a lot of time to do some things. It's also ample time to fuck up if you don't have a clear strategy and measurements for what you want to achieve. 4 or 5 hours of unfettered, facilitated time with some of your key decision makers would be well spent.

I offered to facilitate the discussion and to take notes and summarize the plan discussion.

Response from Ravenstahl:

The suggestion for us all to sit down is a great one -- I would include no more than me, John, YZ, Ford, and Ed. Don't see the need for anyone else. We can establish a clear plan and agenda and most importantly a way to implement it. Maybe a whole day-off location would work best.

Response from Verbanac:

Maybe Yarone can have missy schedule a day's retreat? Maybe we should take a run down to nemacolin...

This e-mail may deserve a post of its own. The other three "High Level Issues!" detailed in this e-mail were State Rep. Jake Wheatley agitating for a CBA for the Penguins development, the Steeelers' interests regarding the casino master plan (then owned by Don Barden), and yet again "staffing", with special mention of the URA.


Verbanac's involvement in high-level staffing continued:

From: John Verbanac, 9/19/07, Subject: Last point
To: Yarone Zober, Pat Ford and Ed Grattan


Give the mayor 3 examples of fuck ups at BBI that hurt progress. Make Graziano and example of red tapke, bad communication and bureacracy. To support him is to stifle progress. Then you'll bridge driectly to a response city open to progress.

Pat - if you don't have examples I do. Like the 26 art students in a hotel right now because BBI changed their static air pressure requirement on a developer that has done 4 downtown conversions for students and just got crushed by the beloved Ron Graziano.


Fasting forward to 2008, and more staffing:

From John Verbanac, 2/25/08, Subject: URA Personnel
To: Yarone Zober, Pat Ford


You guys had mentioned, as part of your URA right sizing, ARt Fidel's kid, Bob. Please be advised, this is Bill Rudolph's brother in law. I recognize that he is less than an exemplary performer; however, this is Bill's family and I think I speak of us all when I say he is a friend. Let's just leave it there.


Robert Fidel is still listed as the "Business Liaison" in the URA's Business Development dept.


Many of the e-mails involve speech writing, talking points and advice for how to handle the press. In terms of city business however -- leaving aside the casino sweepstakes, the Penguins arena and "strategic planning" -- the kicker involves the LTV Coke Works site in Hazelwood.

The site is owned by a consortium of non-profits and other foundations called Almono LP.

Forest City Enterprises had been on the list of developers that had submitted bids for the site since 2003.

In August of 2004, Governor Rendell announced $6 million in RACP funds would be going towards the LTV Coke Works project. In March of 2005, when City Council officially requested these funds, it was reported that Forest City was the "preferred developer" according to a spokesman of the Heinz Foundation.

Years later:

From John Verbanac, 1/09/07, Subject unknown
To Pat Ford


Heads up. I wanted you to know that I'm a joint development partner with Forest City for the LTV site. I understand you're meeting with some of the folks tomorrow.


We know Verbanac had already been with Forest City since at least 2006, and that this was not a mystery to the City. The occasion of Verbanac's declaration to Ford seems to have been the forthcoming meeting with "the folks".

Bear in mind this was during the period we now know that Verbanac was sending out strategy and communications memos to the Ravenstahl administration on a regular basis.

From John Verbanac, 2/21/2008, Subject: The Truth
To Yarone Zober


I need to know the truth regarding what you are doing relative to the 6 million in RCAP that has been granted to Almono for the LTV site? Are you attempting to transfer these dollars to Piatt?

When I asked you about this yesterday, you indicated that the City was not doing this. I now learn that you specifically directed the URA to do this. I sincerely hope that is not the case.

You know very well of our interest in the site. To be involved in this issue and not have a conversation with me, is very hurtful to me personally and from a business perspective. It cuts my legs totally out from underneath me with my business partners, RIDC and a host of others. Further, it is highly troubling to me on a personal level

I hope that my understanding of this issue is wrong. To be prudent, I'm going to stop short of saying anything else pending a conversation with you.


Verbanac certainly seems irate that the City leaders which he works so hard to support would do something contrary to his business interests. Five days later, Pat Ford sends Verbanac a response which seems to mollify him.

From John Verbanac, 2/26/08
Subject: Re: CONFIDENTIAL: Brief on meeting with Don Smith
To: Pat Ford

Thank you. That jives with everything I've been told. Each and every point. That's very good to know. Gives me further confidence. We were shortlisted by Almono on Friday. Stephenson informs that he feels we're far out in front. Last cut by almono will be made April 15.


That Mayor and you and Yarone will need to get oaklanf focused. I'm not sure that it's LTV or portal yet. It may not be either or. It will take further dialogue with pitt, upmc and cmu to arrive at a conclusion. It seems the pieces are in place and moving forward. The City must be the beneficiary in the end and oakland must get their act together. I'll talk with you tomorrow.

Considering the "We / Me / Our" talk above, the frequent agonizing over Ravenstahl's speeches, press releases and preparation for television interviews, and the dogged insistence on replacing so much city staff, I started to wonder whether Verbanac considers "The City" to be synonymous with himself.

The LTV contract remains unawarded, and the site remains undeveloped. One of the sticking points according to the Acklin campaign is the fact that a long-mulled over expansion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway would cut straight through the 178 acre development site. Without a plan for closure on that issue by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC), the development must remain in limbo.

In an excellent 2006 article about awarding the casino license, we learned:

Mr. Verbanac said he met Mr. O'Connor in his role as a consultant to the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission. (P-G, Rich Lord)

That is only one front-door example of Verbanac's immense backdoor government influence, employed for private enrichment, which makes me uncomfortable.

Because even back then:

"I have no official role with Bob O'Connor, and never did," Mr. Verbanac said.

"If Bob ever asked me for my advice on something, I offered it to him," Mr. Verbanac said.

"Bob continues to be a friend of mine," Mr. Verbanac said. "I talk with Bob occasionally." (ibid)

What luck, being such a close personal friend to two mayors in a row!

It's understandable why Ravenstahl would want to stay a galaxy away from this subject, claiming that Verbanac is "just a friend" who he "has conversations with".

Yet don't we all deserve to be treated like grownups already? None of us were born yesterday, anymore. Mr. Mayor, you don't see anything questionable about investor John Verbanac's active string-pulling in your administration? Are you going to continue to deny anything that Mr. Acklin said tonight?

And we haven't even discussed the fund raising yet.



  1. Funny, but after near daily press releases from the Acklin campaign, I haven't received any since I mentioned Saturday that I'd be voting for Harris.

  2. Maria, go ahead and vote for Harris. After his very strong performance tonight, I'm near-undecided between both of them.

    What do you think of all this?

  3. OMG! Do you think this will lead to an investigation? Kudos to Acklin for bringing out the smoking gun (backing up allegations).

  4. Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Pat Ford issued a strongly worded resignation letter today, alleging a "culture of deception and corruption" and saying he will no longer "support the actions of what I believe to be a failed administration" nor seek to "return to a position where I will again be forced to serve as a scapegoat for the inappropriate affairs and activities of others."

    These e-mails help to clarify why Team Ravenstahl decided to shell out taxpayer-funded hush money to Pat Ford. They also explain what he was referring to in his letter of resignation.

    Excellent work by the Acklin campaign.

  5. thank you, Kevin Acklin, for bringing out evidence of corruption. I was undecided between you and Dok, but you have earned my vote.

  6. Pat Ford paid in full
    Now the the truth may finally come out. Priceless!

    Voting for Acklin, I like Dok Harris, but seems to be a little unaware of city operations that most would seem to know, this to me, was gleaned straight from the dialogue he provided.

  7. Maria,

    I also have not received any Acklin press releases since your declaration. Do you think they're taking your decision out on me too?

    The next time they send one, I bet we both get one.

    Until then: get over yourself.

  8. Verbanac is hanger on who thinks he has more influence than he actually does. His claim to fame is influence with Harrisburg, particularly the republican senate leadership. The question then is why the State Senate shot down the administration on the pension issue?

  9. That may or many be true, Anon: 9:19, however, It appears he had more influence at a time when many people were getting their legs cut out from underneath them for doing their jobs.
    The PG has alleged email mentioning, McNeilly, I assume that is Cathy McNeilly, the other alleged emails mention Graziano, for doing his job holding a contractor to the code, one alleged email is keeping people in positions that they are knowingly unqualified for. Not sure, but that looks to me like influence.

  10. Anon 9:19...if you read Bram's post you see that Verbanac isn't really interested in helping Luke, he is interested in helping himself. He only advises Luke on how to stay in power so Verbanac still has the keys to the shop, not so he can find real policy solutions.

    Johnny V is all about getting kickback money for his buddies, thats all he was ever interested in.

  11. Team Acklin was superb in this discovery, and this only strengthens my vote for him on the 3'rd.

  12. Anon 10:26 - Funny you should mention Commander McNeilly. The material I have has Verbanac mentioning that situation on several occasions, but I think more as an illustration of the kind of stuff the Mayor shouldn't be worried about. Also how to handle press inquiries regarding that flare-up.

  13. First, it's nice to see a mayoral candidate with the stones to call Luke out on his incessent lying. DeSantis never really did it. Dowd, for all the anger he generated from Ravenstahl, never did it either.

    Second, this won't make a bit of difference, and Pittsburgh will still give Luke 65%+ of the vote. They just can't help themselves. They gotta pull that lever.

  14. "Second, this won't make a bit of difference, and Pittsburgh will still give Luke 65%+ of the vote. They just can't help themselves. They gotta pull that lever."

    No, Pittsburgh will give Luke 15% of the vote and 80% won't vote. The problem isn't the voters. I give great props to anyone who actually gets up on November 3 and makes it to the ballot. The problem is the vast majority who don't vote. And maybe they have valid reasons not to. A candidate needs to really reach out to the non-voters and give them a reason to do so. 2 weeks left.

    Kudos to Acklin for sticking it to Ravenstahl. And kudos to Bram for dissecting all this information in an easy-to-understand manner.

  15. I said it last week, and I'll say it again now. I was on the fence too until about two weeks ago. There is a lot of underground support for Acklin - particularly in the East End and the South Hills. I think having the cojones to stick it to Luke - with evidence - will give lots more people a reason to choose Acklin. Dok Harris unfortunately has not given people a real reason to vote for him as Mayor.

  16. +1 on illyrias's point; incumbents in local politics are incredibly successful, but let's hope either DH or Acklin can pull this out. A few other questions:

    It seems to me Harris and Acklin are going to be pulling votes away from each other (not good for either in a mayoral election); any chance they team up or one withdraws late to support the other?

    How can Pittsburgh stand LukeR? Not only is he the most unqualified candidate and possibily corrupt, he's also shown he's not taking the city in the right direction and not doing enough for the neighborhoods.

    Finally, two part question: (a) How does LukeR respond? The "deny, deny, deny" tactic rarely works in the face of such evidence, so where do they go from here? And (b) does Acklin run the risk of alienating voters (namely, the elderly) by being a bit too harsh on the young, good looking mayor?

  17. Ultimately, the question is whether any of this will matter to voters. It is one thing to place doubt in the mind of the electorate, and quite another thing to turn that electorate in your favor.

    The political problem for the Acklin campaign is how to convert Ravenstahl's ethical lapses into a meaningful issue for the average citizen. For local office, if the streets are paved, the garbage collected and the police and fire are present when needed, incubents usually win. How this Acklin turns this information into votes for him will require swift strategic action.

    If I were advising the Acklin campaign, the strategy would be 1) bundle together and summarize Ravenstahl's ethical lapses into a concise soundbite to be used EVERY TIME HE SPEAKS, 2) articulate a brief, inspiring statement outlining the vision for Pittsburgh's future to be used EVERY TIME HE SPEAKS, and 3) aggressively defend the onslaught of misinformation that will likely come from organizations supportive of the mayor, 4) thank Dok Harris for his time and ask that he quietly bow out of the race.

  18. how is it ravenstahls campaign is about trashing acklin as the republican but the guy who is his friend advisor and confidant is a disciple and former staffer for rick santorum?

  19. Acklin has a 2pm corruption meeting at his office today.

  20. Alright, I realize what the big news story is today. But there's something in this (and nearly every other Pittsburgh mayoral) comment thread that needs to stop:

    "Gee, really wish that Acklin guy would take one for the team and drop out; Harris has his dad's name and no one knows who Kevin is, except for Rick Santorum!"

    "Boy, Acklin's got a really crack team. And I hear he gave himself scurvy because he was so busy doorknocking that he forgot to stop at a grocery store. I wish Dok would go away, because Kevin could really win this thing if it were a two man race!"

    Let's get one thing straight, Pittsburgh prognosticati-- No. One. Is. Dropping. Out. Of. This. Race. How could they? They spent most of the summer attacking each other (Acklin's complete loser of a lawsuit has been well-covered, but there are other examples); to drop out now would essentially admit their opponent was right about everything. Acklin would be admitting that he lacks the charisma and star power to win an election of any import, particularly in a very blue city; Harris would be admitting that his campaign wasn't marshalled strictly enough and was too focused on style over substance. They won't do it. They're too young and early in their political careers to admit to something like that.

    But more importantly, they've both developed a following, essentially cleaving the anti-Luke vote right down the middle (the exact problem everyone's fantasies remedy by one of them dropping out). Acklin supporters believe Dok is glib, immature, and sloppy. Harris supporters think Acklin is quixotic, vindictive, self-aggrandizing, and petty. And each of those groups, despite the view of many in the media, have spent lots of time and money attempting to make this a real race. You can't ask those people, numbering in the thousands on both sides, to make a leap with a vote in two weeks. You just can't. Hillary Clinton took months upon months to drop out of a race that had become unwinnable. It's pure fantasy that a different result would occur here.

    So quit dreaming that you'll get one united front against Luke, and pick someone. I've personally picked Harris, because (a) I thought the petition lawsuit was frivolous and Acklin as a lawyer should have been ashamed of himself; (b) I think he's the more true progressive in the race, and (c) his name makes him more electable and (most importantly) more visible if elected. If Acklin wanted, he could hide in his office just like Luke does. I doubt Harris could do the same; celebrity power cuts both ways and forces charismatic politicians into the sunlight (see, e.g., progressive criticism of the current president). But that's my call. Others have made theirs. My point is, begging for a candidate to drop out, this late in the race, out of nothing but altruistic notions of giving the other person a slightly less remote chance of victor, is not making a call. It's speaking gibberish.

  21. Why should Harris bow out of the race? Why not Acklin? Harris is polling higher, has better name recognition, if Acklin gave his supporters the go ahead to vote for Harris maybe Luke would finally get beat.

  22. Anonymous 1:16 #1, I wish I waited to hit post. You are right. And you put me in my place. I'll totally concede your point, everyone can just ignore my comment...

    Anonymous 1:16 #2

  23. Have either candidate spoken about working for with / for the other? The inside / outside model of the old rag trade? It is interesting to note that Acklin has not, to my knowledge, linked Dok via Franco to the JV / Forest Cities / Harrah's deal.

    Has anyone else heard a disturbing rumor about our fearless leader? November sweeps might be early this year. Buckle up...

  24. I will be voting for Luke. Ethical issues be what they may, I feel this additional black stain will bring more transparency to the current administration and hinder further bad judgements. Acklin Rancorous campaign tactics against Dok and Luke are alienating to the general majority. Harris is inexperienced. And lets face it, business developement is crucial in this city, and Luke has been welcoming the challenges. Not to mention programs like "Pittsburgh Promise" to reduce the city shrinkage and FIX THIS HORRIBLY SEGRATED COUNTY!!!

    In addition to Neither of challengers have been explicit about their strategic plan for the future. Cops and neighborhoods... "Cops and neighboorhoods...will not win this election". How will we pay 200 additional cop? And more so where will the additional pension plan expenditures come from? GIVE US SOMETHING MORE!! Not all this trash.

  25. Is that picture in this post of Verbanac? Dammnnnn that man is not campaigning for Ms. Universe is all I can say.

  26. Anonymous, 1:59, tell me again about the great Pittsburgh Promise (which was really a sweetheart deal for UPMC). Tell me exactly how this has reduced the city shrinkage - last I checked (this week) the School Board was singing because it had cut the percentage RATE OF DECLINE, and they have offered no facts about students transferring into the system from other private schools, or families moving into the City because of "the promise." Nor have they offered up any statistics on exactly how many students received Pittsburgh Promise $$$ over the past two years, OR the neighborhood and race of those PPS graduates. I fail to see how this is a great program for the city, and I wish the mayor would start doing his real job which is city government.


  28. Agent Ska - Yup, that's the only pic of JV(2) that seems to exist on the Internet. Credit goes to the Pitt Chronicle.

    Anon 1:59 - "Harris is inexperienced": Luke admits frequently now that he was not ready to be Mayor when he started but he and you seem to think he turned out okay. "Acklin's rancorous campaign tacitcs ... are alienating": Speaking truth about the core problems of an administration is no "tactic", but yes, if it alienates people that'll be a damn shame for him. I give him major credit.

    Anon 1:40 - Yes, I have heard a disturbing rumor and I have come to believe it is a diversionary ploy. Not having it, not before the election, not when there's Pittsburgh to talk about.

    Anon 2:26 - Great points about the cynical feel-good hollowness that is unfortunately the Promise, I love to read it. Unfortunately I don't think we have time anymore to flip Pittsburgh's understanding of it. It was a great PR move for the powers that be and I think we need to take a knee at this point.

  29. care to share the rumor?

  30. what is the rumor?

  31. I especially like this one...
    "You guys had mentioned, as part of your URA right sizing, ARt Fidel's kid, Bob. Please be advised, this is Bill Rudolph's brother in law. I recognize that he is less than an exemplary performer; however, this is Bill's family and I think I speak of us all when I say he is a friend."

    Major snort. So, the guy's a loser, but a "connected" loser? Sounds as if someone has watched The Godfather too many times.

  32. Yeah, that one will remind the folks of the good old days in Chicago.

    Okay. Follow the money on these fixed deals. Who are the lenders and how have these entities performed? I recall a number of smaller institutions (S & T, First Commonwealth, FifthThird,)mentioned in the Verbanac reportage. Who's in upper management and sits on the boards?

    Has anyone called in Ira Glass to examine our city's "economic developoment" industry as part of his series on the economy?

  33. Anon 2:26

    "doing his real job which is city government"
    Because any efforts to educate the inner city youth, invest in human capital, and create more opportunity is clearly not part of his job!!

  34. So I haven't been following this so closely, but from what I have seen so far, we see Verbanac's emails to Our Mayor. My first thought is, someone got a hold of Verbanac's send folder? Regardless of the ethical issue of broadcasting someone's emails, do we have any proof Verbanac actually had influence, some instance of him saying "Luke, jump", and the next day Luke hopping at a press conference. In fact, I have to ask if Verbanac says, in any email, "Luke, I am your father" and Luke replies "Nooooooooooooooooooooooo"?

    Anyway, though, I will say this, Acklin seems like he might be tough and mean enough to hammer Our Mayor's ethical lapses. IF you are in the ABL crowd, and you see Acklin actually do this, that would be a reason to vote for Acklin. I was disappointed that DeSantis did not do this, and the Dowd did not do it effectively.

    But the third party vote against Our Mayor is split, and at least a significant minority of voters will push the "D" button. As RKT pointed out, this won't make a difference. Sharpe James didn't run when he knew the indictments were coming (and Kwame Kilpatrick resigned as part of a plea bargain). I think that is Pittsburgh's only chance.