Friday, March 20, 2009

Comet Twittercast


Well, that's one way to motivate me to do a new Comet Twittercast. Why doesn't the mayor want to have a debate in May? Is he ... chicken? Bok bok bok? (more)

Volunteers, eh? Why not just promote some of them to staff, if he's having trouble finding decent help in the city? (more)

My favorite Vince Lascheid memory: the P.A. Announcer says, "The Pittsburgh Penguins welcome our guests from the Toyota Car Company!", and the organ plays that Chinese music snippet that goes, "Da na na na - na na - na na - NA!" Totally inappropriate, totally hysterical. (more)


Every breath you take!

Ravenstahl vs. Dowd (Now on YouTube!)

This is it. This is the one we've been building toward.

The Pittsburgh Comet is wholly responsible for the content of this advertising. Actual blog posts forthcoming....

Thursday, March 19, 2009

No Time to Blog This Morning...

... but as a public service for anyone who missed it, we present this video of last week's Announcement Speech, or at least the good parts:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wednesday: I'll produce information. Computer unnecessary.*

Council members said they doubted building inspectors would be scouring the city for porch couches, but thought enforcement would be driven by neighbors' complaints. (P-G, Rich Lord)

It's surprising to me that this thing passed unanimously. Not one voice on Council to stand up to those nebby alarmists in favor of the right to be left alone? One of these days, Kraus, one of these days...


Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl started the process of shifting city building inspectors from their Downtown office to neighborhood police stations yesterday. (P-G, Team Effort)

There are alleged synergies to be taken advantage of with this maneuver. One thing to watch out for: eventually we will be shown a bump in "citations". Remember it's easy to issue citations -- there, I just cited you for being ugly!

The challenging bit is following through to the point where a target responds to a citation, is brought before a judge, and the cause of any violations is abated.

Speaking of building inspection...

Pittsburgh officials have agreed to delay a looming deadline for landlords to register their rental properties with city building inspectors. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

This is like the 2nd or 3rd time this initiative didn't get done. I guess the takeaway lesson is to run everything past the Law Department, even if it seems "obvious" to the bill sponsor that something should be legal.

On the plus side, Council is getting its own dedicated attorney soon. If that's moving forward.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009 - 1:30 P.M.

Discussion regarding Bill No. 2009-1039; Ordinance supplementing the Pittsburgh Code, Title One, Administrative, by adding a new section, Article XIII, entitled, Campaign Finance Regulations.

I assume the starting point at this Post-Agenda will be the Mayor and the County Executive's proposal to limit contributions to $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for organizations -- which, to the best of my knowledge, would give the City of Pittsburgh the distinction of having the highest campaign finance limits of any government in the United States that does limit campaign contributions.

Looking forward to the discussion; glad we are at least moving in the right direction.

Now, on the ETHICS REFORM front...


At least not according to the City website. On December 12, 2008, Bill #2008-0972 was held for a Public Hearing and a Post-Agenda. And you know that when we start citing full Legislative ID numbers, we are getting serious.

That is the Council's bad and its bad alone, but in fairness, the mayor's administration is several months tardy in filling a vacancy on the City's Ethics Hearing Board. So basically if one happens to be an outsider looking in on city government, this would be an excellent issue with which to gain some traction.

The proposal will come up on council's Wednesday agenda, but no vote is likely until after a special meeting and a public hearing, which could take place next month, Mr. Shields said. (P-G, 12/15/2008)

There have been a great many post-agenda and hearings scheduled and already conducted since that time. What are we saying about government ethics by shelving anything remotely having to do with it repeatedly?


I've really got to recommend the movie Watchmen to you, although if you are squeamish about violence (or very squeamish about sex) it's only appropriate to give you fair warning. I further recommend to you The Changeling, which is now out on video, although if you are looking forward to seeing Angelina Jolie for the usual reasons I also ought give you fair warning that you'll be disappointed. UPDATE: Well, as disappointed as you can be.

These two movies comprise what I think are an interesting double-feature for Comet readers.


There are some rabble-rousing events I'd really like to promote, but in order to conserve the nation's bandwidth I'm going to refer you here and here instead. Take pics!!!!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tuesday: Who's Up for Change?

To wit:

Last summer, before the American economy sank, Mr. Lamb faulted the water authority contracts and said they were far from transparent. "Why are we participating in these complex deals, when the board members don't understand them, they've caused huge losses in other communities in Pennsylvania and they've led to criminal [probes] in other jurisdictions?" he told the Post-Gazette.

On Thursday he said that even if the economy had not soured and even if the deal had gone well, "it still would not have been right." (P-G, Edit Board)

What is the Water Authority's stated excuse for sweeping this swaptions fiasco under the rug? That they don't appreciate how Patrick Dowd highlighted the issue while running for mayor? Maybe he would not be running for mayor if he were not discovering all these cow patties lying around.

One thing you cannot take away from Patrick Dowd is that he is a man of action -- who knows how to get things done in a world full of complex and recalcitrant institutions.

This is the guy who replaced a School Superintendent and drew up a whole new performance-based contract. This is the guy who forced the URA to surrender ill-gotten grant money. This is the guy who wrestled with the ICA until it consented to make conservative, transparent investments on our behalf. This is the guy who successfully protested the GSTC billboard permit, for crying out loud.

Show me a pious statesman without any political calculation or cunning audacity, and I'll show you Bill Peduto. I'm thrilled to live in a city in which Bill Peduto is a bona-fide progressive leader, but as we've discovered Peduto only gets us so far. We need something extra. We need a Hercules. We need a Shaft. We need someone who knows how to (ahem) get 'r done.

I bet you the Water Authority winds up reconsidering within a month.


OMG, the Citizen's Police Review Board is perking up. Did they pick the right fight, I don't know, but it's good to see. (P-G, Jonathan D. Silver)

Dan Onorato appears to be accomplishing a fair bit in the way of efficiency, given that few other governments are cooperating with him in this regard. (P-G, Karamagi Rujumba)

Something about calling A+ Schools a "community group" doesn't sit well. The Riverlife Task Force also perpetrates like it's some kind of community group, but they're both more like government authorities -- with a bunch of heavies sitting on their boards and very significant funders. Just sayin'. (Trib, Bill Zlatos)

Now read this:

Few were more closely involved in the North Shore Connector than Mr. Biehler.

He helped conceive the project as a Port Authority executive, then left the agency in 1996 for a private firm, Frederic R. Harris Inc., which got a multimillion-dollar contract to serve as the authority's consultant on the connector. Mr. Biehler headed the consulting team for Harris.

Still later, as Mr. Rendell's transportation secretary, Mr. Biehler actively supported the Port Authority's efforts to secure federal and state funding for the connector. (P-G, Jon Schmitz)

Now we're getting somewhere. There are always jokers finding ways to make careers out of these atrocious boondogles, influencing events around the periphery.


Lady Elaine posts questionnaires for each of the District 2 candidates. (View from the BurghChair)

Run your own Patrick Dowd Field Office out of a box. A virtual box! (Thoughts on Schultz)

Actually ... um, do that!

Ruth Ann Daily be drivin' Ed Heath up the wall. (Cognitive Dissonance)

Luke Ravenstahl: Impenetrable Fortress of Solitude. (Busman's Holiday)

Does your family or do any families that you know need a little help right now getting food on the table? Because there are resources for that. Really, it's alright. (PghLesCorr)

She thinks about problem-solving a way politicians either don't or won't. (PGH is a City)

Once again, a stand-alone link to my Mary Beth Buchanan piece is right here. (Pgh Comet)


And now, one of my favorite posts from the old TWM has been reprinted in the Chadical Middle (ha!), because it is still extra-relevant.

Recall the North Shore Connector, the resourceful Mr. Biehler, and how projects won't die? Well, this triply redundant amphitheater won't die, and I think it's time to break out the wooden stakes and cloves of garlic.

What if I really wanted the state to pony up $4 million of a $12 million business venture? And what if my primary business were worth, at least according to Forbes magazine, about $929 million? Would my request, my attitude, my sheer freaking audacity make any sense to you whatsoever? Would you, living in an overtaxed city in an overtaxed county in an overtaxed state, think that would be a fine and fitting investment of your hard-earned, too-easily-taken money? Or would you laugh in my face, tell me to use my own damned money, and remind me that the last people in the world who ought to feed (once more) at the public trough are rich, arrogant, always-thinking-you're-entitled people like me?(P-G, Radical Middle)

As it happens, the Pittsburgh Scribblers actually made Gov. Rendell blink for half an instant. Now he says he's only prepared to give Continental Real Estate / The Steelers $2.5 million instead of the full $4 million they originally had earmarked for themselves.

How much do you want to bet Our Commonwealth will wind up giving them at least $6 million by the time this dance is over? The one great thing about zero is, it's a nice round number.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Loading Positive Narrative...

Monday: Speaking of Which...

"Former state Sen. Vincent Fumo was found guilty by a federal jury today on all 137 counts against him." (P-G; A.P.)

Mayoral challenger Carmen Robinson does not think it is sporting for mayoral challenger Patrick Dowd to criticize Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in the way that he does. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Remember Dowd's previous issue, the fund in the nature of an irrevocable trust? The ICA appears to have caved to his demands after all. Someone must have blinked. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

A+ Schools gives the School District a C+. Incidentally, the Healthy School Bus campaign will be organizing at the School Board meeting this evening to agitate for diesel retrofitting of school bus engines. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Something we can more or less all agree on: excellent that state Rep. Dan Frankel's statewide LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinance is making good progress. Cheer him on. (PghLesCorr)

If you should happen to require direct access to my thoughts on U.S.A. Buchanan and the federal Justice Department, here is the link: (Pgh Comet)

Oh, yeah! "Divas". What do you think about that, fellow bloggers? (City Paper, Chris Young)

Mary Beth Buchanan: Still There, and I'm Glad. *

President Barack Obama has been in office for 55 days as of this writing almost six months as of this 6/02/09 UPDATE (see below *), and the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania continues to be George W. Bush appointee Mary Beth Buchanan.

I think you're stuck with her, and I really couldn't be happier.

"I am open to considering further service to the United States," Ms. Buchanan said. (P-G, 12/04/08, Paula Reed Ward)

Somehow that statement got widely spun into a scandalous "refusal to leave". How one can refuse to do something that hasn't been asked of one is beyond me.

Obama seems cool with the Buchananator for now.

Now. Continuing.


Let's look at what just happened:

March 11, 2009: A California-based company that produced and distributed obscene materials and its owners pleaded guilty in federal court in Pittsburgh today to violating federal obscenity laws, United States Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan announced. (W. Pa. USA's office)

Federal obscenity laws.

Stuff that's on the books, like it or not.

Mr. Zicari and Ms. Romano were indicted in August 2003 for selling videos and clips online and through the mail. The videos feature graphic scenes of simulated rape, torture, defecation and murder.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft had made prosecution of pornography one of his top priorities. (P-G, Paula Reed Ward)

Attorney General Ashcroft, and more importantly, President Bush, made the enforcement of our obscenity statutes a high priority. They had every reason to believe they had a mandate to do so.

Personally, as a secular individual, I'm not entirely sure we need graphic scenes of simulated rape, torture, defecation and murder floating around through our society -- at least not via interstate commerce, by which any dumb kid can get a hold of it and take it back to the clubhouse.

I'm not sure George W. Bush's successor would disagree. I am sure that a U.S. Attorney takes direction from the President of the United States and the U.S. Attorney General.


Now you can say, well! There are more important things to prosecute.

Mary Beth was wasting a fair bit of the public's money and resources, wasn't she?

Federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh last year collected twice as much money through fines, restitution and seizures as it cost to operate the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The office for the Western District of Pennsylvania collected $20.4 million — mostly in so-called financial litigation recoveries, which include civil debts, defaulted loans, criminal fines, restitution and civil penalties. Forfeitures represented $5.4 million of that total. (Trib, Jason Cato)


The Department of Justice spent $9.5 million last year to operate prosecutorial offices in Pittsburgh, Erie and Johnstown. (Trib, ibid)

So she runs a big operation. It should be noted that she is by now familiar with the operation, and we should not treat that lightly.

Now, where did all that money come from?

The Pittsburgh office's best haul in the past decade was in 2001, when it collected more than $67 million. However, $61.3 million of that came from one case: A judge ordered financial manager John Gardner Black to repay money to 50 Pennsylvania school districts in a securities fraud case. (Trib, ibid)

Seeking restitution for school districts that have been ripped off by Wall Street executives. Raise your hand if you've got a problem with that.


In marking the one-year anniversary of the Western Pennsylvania Mortgage Fraud Task Force, the U.S. attorney's office today announced charges in eight separate cases.

A total of 16 people have been charged either by grand jury indictment or criminal information in a variety of counts related to mortgage fraud. (P-G, Paula Reed Ward)

Mortgage fraud would be big this year. Indicates that she's doing her job.

The task force was created to "combat the threat mortgage fraud poses to the country's housing industry and credit markets," said U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. (P-G, ibid)

Clever to have had the foresight to formally organize these resources one full year ago. It reminds me of something we here in Allegheney County set up thanks to the innovation of Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen and the Court of Common Pleas.


Aaaaaaah, but you are thinking: Come off it, Bram.

Actor Tommy Chong, of the cult Cheech and Chong movies, has been sentenced to nine months in jail for selling drug paraphernalia over the internet.

He was also fined $20,000 (£12,500) for conspiring to distribute marijuana pipes and other equipment. (BBC News)

There go those pesky laws again.

Five years after taking the lead in "Operation Pipe Dreams," which prosecuted people who sold marijuana pipes around the country, U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan is leading a similar investigation called "Operation True Test."

The newest project for Ms. Buchanan is looking into companies that sell "masking products" that are supposed to help drug-users pass employer drug tests. (P-G, Paula Reed Ward)

Okay, how about this:

O, GREAT PRESIDENT OF THESE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA!!! Hear my plea! Know that I cannot countenance any longer the enormous waste and cruel, arbitrary injustice that has always been part and parcel to this ancient, unchanging War on Drugs! It is by definition a war against the people, We the People, and it is waged with too little justice and much less mercy. This war -- this war that is earnestly and honorably waged by so many good law enforcement personnel --it pains me to say it, but this war is a dumb war, a costly war -- a war we did not enter into with clear objectives, and a war in which we still are not employing a winning strategy.

I ask that you take action to end it! I ask that you (as soon as the economy is doing okay, and we finish Bin Laden) form a Task Force that will submit legislation to the Congress that would substantially scale back criminal prohibitions on controlled substances wherever it may be appropriate to do so. In the meanwhile, if Mary Beth Buchanan can be put to good use going after unscrupulous business people or public malefactors of any kind, I bid you guide her as well as you can in that direction. And if she be insubordinate, I bid you chastise her as you would a stubborn lamb.


Yes, but. But but but but but.

Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh, has long been the subject of questions as about partisan prosecutions. But in 2006, Buchanan raised more than a few eyebrows when she went after former Allegheny county Corner Dr. Cyril wecht, indicting him on multiple counts of various federal crimes, including theft from an organization that receives federal funds. (Salon "War Room", Alex Koppelman)

Sheeeeee's partisan! She's a Republican hack!

A federal grand jury today indicted a state Superior Court judge for bilking two insurance companies out of nearly a half-million dollars, federal prosecutors said. (Trib, Jason Cato)

Judges shouldn't bilk insurance companies, but continuing...

Joyce also claimed in paperwork submitted to the insurance companies that he had received the Republican endorsement and nomination for the 2002 Pennsylvania Supreme Court race, the indictment states. Buchanan's release said he'd received neither. (Trib, ibid)

He's a Republican. She indicted him.

You don't care, do you?

Sheeeeee's partisan! And she's petty!

What, exactly, did Wecht do? Apparently, his transgressions included the improper use of the coroner's fax machine for private work. There was no evidence "of a bribe or kickback" and no evidence that Wecht traded on a conflict of interest. (Salon, ibid)

Okay, this is where problems tend to arise.

First of all, there were originally about a thousand counts in that indictment, about the very least of which involved a fax machine. Feel free to do your own research -- I'd humbly suggest starting with the limousine service and working your way around from there. The concept that the prosecution was pushing was that Mr. Wecht generally helped himself to whatever he wanted from the government.

The other two problems of "no evidence" of a bribe or kickback and no evidence that he "traded" on a conflict of interest is that A) it's a matter of interpretation to say the least, and B) it does not define the universe of illegal activities.

Innocent until proven guilty? How about indicted until acquitted.

Let's proceed, and allow a judge to be done with it. If it takes a new judge, a new venue, whatever -- and if it doesn't, just as well. But let's proceed already.


However -- this is where problems tend to arise.

Since Dr. Wecht was indicted in January 2006, the case has been wrought with sarcasm, hostility and snide remarks from all sides. (P-G, Paula Reed Ward)

Indeed? You don't say.

In the meantime, Dr. Wecht's attorneys and the government had been working with Judge Lewis in an attempt to reach a civil settlement in the case -- something very rare in the world of criminal justice.

However, this week, Judge Lewis said those negotiations had broken down.

"In this matter, one side did not exhibit the interest, desire or willingness to participate in as meaningful a way as the other," he said. (P-G, ibid)

"One side", said the judge.

Yesterday, Defense Attorney Jerry Mcdevitt said it appeared talks had stalled since U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan had not responded to e-mails or phone calls to schedule a negotiation since early October.

"We never heard from her again, nor did that office respond to Judge Lewis last week, when he tried to establish a time for further discussions," he said. (P-G, ibid)

Oh, really?

However, after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called seeking comment from Ms. Buchanan on Mr. McDevitt's allegations, both attorneys joined in a conference call, saying there had been a miscommunication because of demanding schedules. (P-G, ibid)

See? It was the Wecht camp that was conducting itself with a lack of seriousness -- I'd stake my blog on it. They were stalling.

"In the last month, we have seen the collapse of the national economy, with taxpayers having to foot the bill for over a trillion dollars amidst widespread allegations that such a financial disaster could not occur without widespread criminal fraud. The Justice Department and FBI stated in the New York Times that it lacks sufficient manpower to investigate and prosecute those responsible, yet now want to dedicate substantial resources for a mulligan prosecution of nickel-and-dime charges against Dr. Wecht that nobody wanted reprosecuted even before this economic disaster," he said. (P-G, ibid)

OBJECTION! Irrelevant. It even reads like a filibuster.

We don't let people off the hook in this country because they can exhaust us. This is the United States government.

*-6/02/09 UPDATE: We let people off for things like not having attached a supporting affadavit of probable cause to a search warrant. See the Post-Gazette and Paula Reed Ward.


There may be some amongst us who continue to have reservations. Surely, it is exceedingly uncomfortable having a Republican prosecutor running around amok in broad daylight.

Do you understand what we mean?

Alright. For our friends just joining us:


In Pittsburgh, we have had Democratic mayors since 1933.

We have had Democratic unanimity on Pittsburgh City Council since as far back as anyone can remember.

The Allegheny County Chief Executive, Dan Onorato, is a Democrat who operates with a strong majority of Democrats on County Council. He is seen by many as the likely successor to Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, also a Democrat.

I've been a Democrat all my life, but there can be too much of a good thing. I'll let you do your own researches as to our local and state situations.

I will, however, get you started with a little-known recent item:

Pittsburgh's suspended development chief resigned Wednesday and used his exit to criticize Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration for fostering a "culture of deception and corruption."

Pat Ford, leaving his post as executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, said he lost faith in Ravenstahl's administration, which he said forced him "to serve as a scapegoat for the inappropriate affairs and activities of others" and sullied his reputation as a city planner.

"It is clear to me that as long as I continue to fight to have my name restored by this administration, I will only be further tarnished by this culture of deception and corruption," Ford said in his two-page letter to Yarone Zober, the URA's chairman and city chief of staff. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

This caused Mayor Ravenstahl to scamper back to Pittsburgh from the Democratic National Convention in Denver, CO, before casting any votes as a Pennsylvania delegate.

The mayor responded to the accusations, but here's how it has turned out so far:

The URA -- which has been paying Mr. Ford since he went on leave in April pending a state Ethics Commission review, will continue paying him $9,822 a month through the end of June -- a total of some $93,000 -- and cover his health insurance.

In return, the agency and the city get a guarantee that Mr. Ford won't sue, nor publicly speak ill of, his former employers.
(P-G, Rich Lord)

So we're still paying him, a full year after he left city government -- and we will continue to do so for several more months hence.

City Controller Michael Lamb called it "a horrible decision on the part of the URA.

"We shouldn't be paying people to shut up about what's going on in these organizations. We should be encouraging them to talk about what's going on in these organizations." (P-G, ibid)

In a perfect world. Like I said, welcome to Pittsburgh.


It is not as though we are entirely without law enforcement capacity in these parts. We do frequently avail ourselves of the services our Allegheny County District Attorney -- Gov. Ed Rendell appointee Stephen A. Zapalla, Jr.

The Obama administration hasn't approached Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. about his interest in the U.S. attorney's post in Pittsburgh, even though his name circulates as a candidate, Zappala said Wednesday.

"It's a very powerful office. You can coordinate a lot more assets. I'm very interested in how that office works," Zappala said. "But I'm not sure about the job." (Trib, Greenwood and Kerlik)

The idea is, he may not be interested in the job personally, but he'd be happy to make some recommendations. Far be it from me to begrudge the Zappalas a chance to flex their political muscles -- entirely legitimate.

U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president, and Buchanan, appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, almost certainly will be replaced. (Trib, ibid)

That's the contention I'd like to contest. I'm no attorney myself, but I can find no evidence at all to support that -- and I see absolutely no need to execute the maneuver.


What do we know about Barack Obama? We know he is dead set against duplicating the errors of his predecessors. That he wants to fundamentally heal what ails our politics.

George W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton both sought to order the Justice Department in a politcally partisan manner. So we should accept this as standard practice?

We know President Obama has some tough choices ahead.

The Western District of Pennsylvania may be an ideal opportunity for Obama to demonstrate some things. Perhaps what the nation truly needs right now is right here in Pittsburgh, PA.

Mr. Katz, 50, who has owned more than 100 properties in Allegheny County since the early 1990s, has defaulted on numerous mortgages worth millions of dollars.

He owes the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority nearly $800,000 on loans he has not repaid to develop the main business district in Beechview. Many Beechview residents and politicians whose districts include the South Hills neighborhood blame Mr. Katz for eroding the quality of Broadway Avenue.

"It's great," state Rep. Chelsa Wagner, D-Beechview, said of Mr. Katz's name appearing as a target. Ms. Wagner and her office compiled a detailed report that was given to federal authorities about Mr. Katz's real estate dealings and associates. (P-G, Jonathan D. Silver)

Great is great.

As I hope I have demonstrated above, by all fair measures, Ms. Buchanan has proven herself to be a fundamentally competent, responsible, tenacious and sincere U.S. Attorney -- who is now a highly experienced and accomplished one. Let's not waste this resource by rushing to install yet another Democrat in these environs. Frankly, she has never been given a fair shake, anyhow.

Now, if Buchanan cannot reconcile herself with adhering to the priorities of Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama administration, rest assured mine will be the among the first voices calling for her ouster. In the meanwhile, in the absence of any problem, let her do her job.

Because let's face it, Pittsburgh. You want her on that wall. You need her on that wall. Let the President know about it right now.