Thursday, September 16, 2010

Historic Preservation: Where's the Juice in That?

There's a danger in contemplating the existence of a discrete, well-connected network of symbiotic contractors, financiers, attorneys and political operatives in terms of counting up whether those individuals get too many of those government contracts which happen to exist. You know: did that one go to a Network guy? How about that one? Was it competitive at all? What is their batting average?

This kind of thing is so much more interesting:

Despite Pittsburgh's rich history of preserving and reusing old buildings, local preservationists say political officials pay little attention to the effort.

"When you look at the mayor's history, you can see that he's been in favor of new development, no matter the cost," said Scott Leib, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the region's historic, architectural, cultural and environmental heritage. "It's definitely not surprising, but it is disappointing." (Trib, Adam Brandolph)

It's very hard to imagine why any self-respecting contractor network would seek to foster in its governments feelings of deep respect and inspiration over the possibilities which historic structures might offer. After all, preserving and adapting these mean less total conventional work, less total bond issues, less total churn and upheaval, and less total that is potentially at one's own disposal.

This isn't about the Civic Arena or an Aldi, and it certainly isn't simply about historic preservation. I'm more interested in what happens generally, in terms of the broadest of policies, when our leaders take as their most trusted advisers -- mentors from day one -- members of an ambitious network of service providers (who, incidentally, are in it for the long haul).

I feel like we've only scratched the surface.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Almost Time to Peruse Dowry Offers from Infrastructure Investment Consortiums! *

I'm going to be off-the-grid a titch whenever 4:00 and this evening rolls around, so use this space to discuss the results of the Great Parking Caper. I'm putting all my chits on "Best and Final Offer." (*-UPDATE: Yup, see Trib)

Officials have invited a judge to sit in on today's opening, saying that's a way to demonstrate "transparency" when the public is being kept out. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

I don't think "transparency" is quite the word they're looking for -- maybe something more like "assurance" or "peace of mind". It is after all virtually impossible bribe a judge.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Glance around Network Space

Just some quotes which are standing out to me presently from the Great Connectening:

RDM President Joseph M. Hohman said he has heard criticisms of the ways his firm gets work. He contended that it's not the businessman's job to tell prospective client to first issue requests for proposals, or RFPs, from multiple firms. "[S]peaking from a marketing standpoint, when those opportunities present themselves, I don't say back to the municipality, 'Well, I really think you ought to RFP that.' " (P-G, Lord 3)

Sounds more than correct. No car salesman should recommend to a prospect that he or she spend a few extra weeks testing out all the other cars on the market. You should stride right up with confidence, a handshake and a great sales pitch, and if it's potential repeat business you should ask, "How are the kids?"

At the end of the second of two short-term contracts to train authority personnel to manage themselves, a municipal authority board majority and RDM negotiated a new pact, for 14 years, at a fee that would start at $750,000 annually. Gone was any reference to RDM training the authority to manage itself. Instead, RDM would manage. The contract required that the authority's top employee, Mr. Kerr, jump from public servant to consultant at the private firm. (ibid)

Well, that guy sounds like he brokered something unusually fancy for himself. Being a public servant at the time, that sort of thing leaves a bad taste among many.

Justice Zappala said he never helped RDM. "Emphatically, the answer is I had nothing to do with RDM, and if you suggest otherwise, you'll be hearing from me." (ibid)

Zappala's emphasis would seem to have been in light of the fact that he happened to be chief justice of the state's Supreme Court in 2002, when a long-term contract awarded to this RDM -- which here is being described as a Network "cornerstone" -- was in dispute. RDM's contract was nixed at the lower courts but saved in middling court. I'm not sure whether the high court is in the habit of describing the theory behind hearing or declining certain cases, but I don't see particularly why it should not be. One trusts an explanation would pass a basic reasonableness test.

[Dodaro] added that people who have served in government sometimes face a perception issue when they leave. "When relationships assist them in developing business contacts, it's called political. When it occurs in business, it's called networks."< (P-G, Lord 1)

Again, this strikes me (and most) as the height of reasonableness. Social networks, even the analog kind, are useful in general. One hopes that the occasional perceived nasty entanglements like those which momentarily tripped up RDM are exceptions rather than the rule in the life of prominent civic networks -- and this was the Thrilling Crescendo of the series, after all.

Mr. Verbanac's response: "Ed Grattan is working on the finance plan right now."

After that e-mail, the funds that rolled into the Coghill campaign account were laden with contributions from sources tied to firms that do business with the city or its authorities. (P-G, Lord 2a)

The Network was getting all juiced up over a City Council race? Between two kids and a crazy roofer?

Why? Man.

The Pittsburgh Parking Project goes Viral

Former mayor Sophie Masloff:

and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl:

Make sure to set the embedded frames to HD 720p resolution. You'll feel like you're actually in Pittsburgh.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Network: Getting it Over With...

So you've been reading about this network of individuals who are involved in the businesses of working with the government. Their trades have included legal and financial services, political advice, electronics, construction, waste management, casinos, one detention facility caught up in a bribery scandal and possibly a strip club.

Then you noticed, "Hey! Three out of these dozen or so guys have the same last name!"

Then you remembered how your newspaper kicked off the entire reporting affair:

Mr. Kostovny was changing bulbs outside the school a few years back when a black SUV pulled up beside him.

A man got out, said Mr. Kostovny, "And he said, 'Who are you, and what are you doing?' "

Mr. Kostovny, who had done electrical work for the district in which he lives for two decades, told the man that he was changing bulbs

"And he said, 'We'll see about that!' and drove away," said Mr. Kostovny. (P-G, Lord & Niederberger)

Then suddenly you thought of a certain state Senator's brother recently stating, "What happened was Kramm was warning the girls about the background into the Zappala family, whatever the heck it is." And finally, as though you're not already halfway mortified, you remember Cyril Wecht.

And you thought to yourself, "Oh no! They titled that initial profile article, the Man with Connections! Could the Post-Gazette have possibly been telling us... no, it couldn't be ..."

Could it really be?


Is there enough out there for suspicious investigators, editors and bloggers to generate theories?


With no further ado, Mike Ference of Yardbird:

Newspaper keeps facts from readers

There's something today's readers of the Post-Gazette weren't being told by their newspaper about this fascinating chapter in Pittsburgh lore, I'd learn. And it wasn't because the Post-Gazette didn't know about it. Readers weren't being told the surprising role Zappala family members played in events surrounding the murders of the Volpe brothers and the retaliatory killing of John Bazzano.

A search of public records in the Allegheny County Courthouse reveals only a few clues. Yellowed records disclose that Frank Zappala, Sr., the father of the future state supreme court chief justice, and grandfather of today's Pittsburgh DA, handled the estate of John Bazzano following his mob killing, and represented Bazzano's widow in probate. (

Ference, with more strands of data, goes on to describe the one-time Zappala family patriarch as most probably having been a certain formal type of close functionary to reported criminal magnate John Bazzano.

Longtime Comet readers will remember Mr. Ference for a notable comment left on this blog over a year ago:

Nice job on the article. I've written it beofre and I'll write it again, the Zappala's are Sicilian scumbags. They have done more to detroy this country, like so many other Sicilian scumbags. They are the terrorists. With all due respect to the victims and their families, what happened on 911 is nothing compared to what the Mafia has done to destroy this country. Take a look at the corruption in PA, many are Italian, most are Catholics and all are democrats.
Come and get get me scumbags.
Mike Ference, aka The Mon Dawn
817 Worthington Avenue
Clairton, PA 15025
P.S. You will not defeat these bastards until you show them you have no fear of the mob. To read more of my posts google Mike Ference Zappala (Comet Archive)

Personally, I think the fact that Ference is still standing and posting on the Topix forum is pretty solid evidence that the main gist of his theory is probably bunk -- and the direction of his animosity is evidence that his blog may not be the most neutral source. Even still, there are kernels of portions of facts out there. It's a small universe.

I would imagine that the habits and wisdoms of hard work, relying on family, trusting in a close circle of good friends and dependable contacts, and pursuing opportunities is something which is oft-inherited through family and culture, and has been passed along since long before the 1930's or even the 1830's. It likely contributes towards explaining the many triumphs and some travesties of many close-knit communities. Whether aspects of the Network constitute a constructive or subversive example of this trope is an interesting question, but extravagant comparisons to brute criminality are unnecessary and unnerving -- even when delivered sotto voce.

Monday: We All Knew There Would Be Dots

It will take some time to process everything the P-G is delivering, but here are a couple thoughts right off the top:

We have waited long for such an exploration of our region's power politics. The accounts are fascinating, particularly because they are presented (usually) in the spirit of pure anthropology. It sure seems like there is more than a little truth to this idea of there being an informal "network" of key players.

Yet at the same time, we encounter frequent reminders that the political jockeying is all quite legal, if florid and a little foreign to us -- and yes, the major participants are shown to lose their share of battles. There was even one passing reminder that there are other, competing "networks" of professionals.

So far, so interesting. And yet, wwhhooaa....

Bids Day for that potential leasing of parking assets that is intended to resolve our pensions crisis is this Wednesday the 15th.

These funkadellic exposes will have exploded above our folds precisely on Sunday the 12th, Monday the 13th and Tuesday the 14th.

That's pretty scandalous, no matter which way you slice it.

The ominousness of those files-folders alone could persuade me to drop straight out of the bidding process entirely. The sheer size and insistence of the stories together could make me think twice about placing too much stock in this fetid town and its notorious henchmen.

And maybe most significantly, there's a sneaking thought ... it's actually been on my mind for a little while, now ... if Pittsburgh is really going to shoot the curl and jettison our way out of these financial straits, and if we require a bit fancy footwork and opportunity-generating to do so, how much sense does it make to cut our best and most experienced assets out from underneath us at precisely this juncture? Yes, "The Network". Those folks with which I suspect I will rarely agree on developmental policy or certain aspects of electoral politics. In the final analysis, on issues of mutual civic importance: are they not also Pittsburghers? Did they not cheer for the Steelers yesterday? Do they not desire to be lords of a strong, proud region rather than a weak and pitiable one? Are they not more likely and capable than anybody else to jerry-rig some contraptions to squeeze the best deal out of these out-of-town infrastructure investors?

I would be dead shocked, seriously, if several among the P-G's very active "Network" professionals were not already involved in ginning up and goosing along at least three of these competing lease deals. Frankly, they had better be. It stands to reason. Sure they're plutocrats, but are they're our plutocrats.

How did CLT get the traffic lights contract? In the way one does, apparently. Meanwhile, is it saving the city oodles of cash and making it a greener place? Sure looks like it.

It's going to take a long time to reckon with the List-Makers or the Network and what they mean to civic life. I suspect some new regulations will eventually have to come into play, and meanwhile increased scrutiny of the known universe is always a good thing. But when it comes to the drive-by ambushing of a titanic public-private partnership -- one embarked upon with intense transparency -- and so coyly, at the last possible moment: pretty scandalous, man. I hope the City doesn't do anything it regrets. It shouldn't have to.


Which kind of brings me to the next thought:

Asked about Mr. Verbanac's role with his administration, Mr. Ravenstahl said the reporter was "confused, and I'm not going to participate in your pursuit of something that doesn't exist. I'm insulted by it, to be honest with you.

"So I'm not going to respond to something like that. And if you want to quote that, feel free to. That's all I've got to say." (P-G, Rich Lord)

Oh man, THIS IS WHY IT'S NO FUN TO STICK UP FOR YOU! Always with the grave personal offenses. Ask a tougher-than-average question about Verbanac's conspicuous but obviously appropriate public role, or about billboards, or where he was in the snow that one time, and "HUFF! HUFF! YOU'RE OFFENDING ME!" and "SNIFF! IT'S PERSONAL!" Surely this can't be a genuine personality quirk so much as a chapter in the same PR handbook which demands polo shirts even in cold weather. But the point is, it reeks of panic and surrender. Try something else. Try answering the questions coldly and factually, THEN insulting the reporter. Seriously.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

P-G: "Network" incl. Dodaro, Verbanac & Charles Zappala Good for Soaking Up Business

Charles Zappala declined to be interviewed, saying reporting on a network and its history "makes no sense to me." He asked for written questions, and the Post-Gazette posed 34 questions about his views on local governance, involvement in businesses that worked for public entities, appointments to public boards, participation in electoral politics, interactions with administrations, and business relationships with other network members. His attorney, Richard A. Sprague of Philadelphia, responded that the questions "go into personal matters" and that Mr. Zappala would not discuss personal matters. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Dodaro, Matta and especially Cambest were all over the Mongate stories, which means the Rishas appear, as they did somewhat at first, now pretty clearly "In-Network," such as it were.

Here it is, the non-DA version of The Network: