Friday, July 12, 2013

Ravenstahl, Gigliotti and delicate sensibilities: InvestigatePGH demands strong stomach


by Bram Reichbaum

Has a businessman built an empire upon showing our highest public officials an illicitly good time?

That is the question before us, and only the justice system can answer it.

Nobody in their right minds, however, ought to be asking questions such as, "If so, should we care? Should we go after it? Should we bother revealing, punishing and deterring such practices by politicians and influence-peddlers in the future?"

I would not trust Mayor Peduto or anybody else to keep their heads on straight with that sort of temptation and the infrastructure for it swept under the rug, filed under "Normal, Inevitable and Acceptable."

If our efforts are geared toward making Pittsburgh an economic and cultural world-class City once again, we need to be capable of stomaching a purgative All-American scandal when it is warranted.


A federal investigation into a no-bid contract with the Police Bureau led to revelations about an illegal slush fund managed by the Bureau's Office of Special Events, including a studious lack of oversight of that office's operations. Debit cards tied to the illegal fund were distributed among Mayor Ravenstahl's police security detail. One former officer has come forward with allegations concerning altering time cards to shield the Mayor's "late-night carousing" from scrutiny. Those allegations have been taken seriously enough by federal prosecutors to warrant an invite to "spill his guts" at length before a grand jury.

As this was all unfolding, the lead City investigative reporter at the Tribune-Review began to get published a flurry of items regarding one Robert Gigliotti, a valet service and parking facility entrepreneur as well as a noteworthy local political operative. These initial reports concerned aggressive business practices and favored treatment in handling a Market Square valet amenity initiated by the Mayor himself. They also included information on Gigliotti's connections in the Police Bureau charged with regulating him, such as the now-indicted Chief of Police.

In short order, the feds began taking a look at valet permits from the special events office, and poking around questionable parking facility contracts that arose earlier in Ravenstahl's tenure involving Gigliotti.


During the same week federal authorities raided the Police Bureau special events office, it was reported that authorities also raided what we here will call a "Marty Griffin business."

The Andy Griffith Show
Only two days into being named Acting Chief of Police at the crest of a burgeoning white-collar crime scandal, Regina McDonald attempted to bar officers from working off-duty at Marty Griffin businesses.

When the outspoken mayoral security guard's attorney met with a gaggle of reporters following that officer's testimony before the grand jury, the Post-Gazette edited its short video report such that it begins with a television reporter asking an overly specific question about whether the illegal funds were used to purchase the services of what we will call "Nate Guidry workers."

The Post-Gazette recently reported that Mr. Gigliotti appears to be a "central figure" in the investigation. Its lead, longtime and thus-far unimpeachable investigative reporter made multiple prominent mentions of the fact that Gigliotti has at least one Marty Griffin business for a client - and that he "sat in on" at least one meeting along with representatives of the Marty Griffin industry. The aim of the meeting was to dial down legislation designed to safeguard Marty Griffin businesses from spawning Nate Guidry work and other black market activity.

It should be non-controversial that the car services industry frequently has close relationships with the Marty Griffin industry - not only in the form of direct on-location client services, but also in terms of paid advertising, and its drivers providing concierge-like recommendations to passengers.

We know that in the few, guarded words of the bodyguard's attorney, the Mayor was supposed to have misused public money so that he might enjoy the services of a "driver" or "chauffeur".

Patrick Ford, the city's "development czar" under Ravenstahl during the period in which one of the questioned contracts began to coalesce, took a leave of absence before it was executed and later resigned in a firestorm. He accused the administration of fostering a "culture of deception and corruption" and of being made "a scapegoat for the inappropriate affairs and activities of others."

The Mayor and his spouse separated after his reelection and ultimately were divorced; federal investigators recently attempted to question her.

Ravenstahl denies all wrongdoing. Yet the investigation into these matters not only instigated his decision against running for reelection, but has effectively driven him underground.


To the extent these perceptions have any validity, one might speculate that somebody bearing the name Robert Gigliotti may have been inspired to so skillfully manage such an ambitious, illicit endeavor in part by the late State Rep. Frank Gigliotti, who hailed from the same part of town. Frank Gigliotti plead guilty to extorting bribes to award contracts, was described by contemporaries as "old-school" and "overreaching," and had reputed ties to "mentors" in organized crime.

However, we have no idea if the two men are related, or if any further "mentoring" was paid forward between them. We have never known anything about Rob Gigliotti's side of the story. He has opted not to respond to press inquiries since this all began.


Pittsburgh can do little but await further activity from federal authorities. It is acutely mindful that any indictment would most likely result in a years-long, very publicly argued, fiercely contested trial.

What that day at Kennywood did was humanize him. For all of his shortcomings, he was a man. A father. A dad. DAMN IT. (Pgh Mag, Virginia Montanez)

Indeed, that is well and duly noted.

We are aware that layman guilt can be hard to prove in criminal court, and that "honest services fraud" if it comes into play is tougher to prove than it used to be. We are aware that the federal prosecutors in the trial of Dr. Cyril Wecht were outclassed and outmaneuvered, exhausted and made to look ridiculous. We know that when defense attorneys and sympathizers of the accused call this a "witch hunt", about one-third of the public will believe such on the spot, just for starters. And we know that many onlookers who engage in their own borderline forms of influencing public officials will view this merely as the persecution of "successful" people "being successful".

The Backyard Pioneer
Most formidable, however, is the fact that we all know Luke. We know his people. Many of us know Rob. We all have Facebook. This is Pittsburgh.

And these are all things prosecutors are also aware of, as they contemplate undertaking an expensive and bitter war of attrition for the purposes of benefiting this town and combating public corruption.

The Comet therefore finds it crucial to stipulate some things, in the event that any of them have actually transpired:

1. If police equipment and personnel were utilized to transport Nate Guidry workers from point A to point B, and habitually burdened by doing so in a way that keeps it secret, that is massive and unacceptable waste as well as an efficient way to lower professional standards throughout the entire Police Bureau. Ordinary people with families are charged with Nate Guidry work every day with nary a thought. For police officers to see the City's leader using them for that would obliterate professional standards.

2. If police equipment and personnel were utilized to transport employees of a Marty Griffin business from that establishment to some point B or C with public officials, that is the very same thing.  The process by which a Marty Griffin employee can become a Nate Guidry worker is akin to how a business person does a favor for a politician on one occasion and the politician does something for the business owner on a separate occasion. It is rarely simultaneous and there is never a receipt, but that doesn't mean it can't be proven to a jury beyond any reasonable doubt. It results in just as much waste and corrosive effect on the Bureau, because everyone witnessing it will make the reasonable assumption.

3. If police equipment and personnel were utilized to work in concert with a private valet or car service in together accomplishing the same goals as in #1 or #2, that is again the same thing. That would be a truly abominable example of a "public-private partnership" springing up to illicitly service public officials while eluding scrutiny. It's the sort of influence that can affect officials' professional judgment more powerfully than any other type of favor.

4. If the Mayor patronized extensively any Marty Griffin businesses in the City while the staff charged with protecting its employees were in fact off-duty police officers in the Mayor's employ -- I personally find that objectionable, and would support prosecutors uncovering anything which would strongly discourage it. The work environment in Marty Griffin establishments can be plenty coercive already. I cannot see where that employee could turn for relief, how she or he could even consider trying, in the event of encroachments which are an occupational hazard. The knowing participation of peace officers really makes the danger to Marty Griffin or Nate Guidry workers in examples #1, 2 and 3 that much more heinous.

Federal authorities may not be pursuing anything like this.

These points are in response to common perceptions, and perceptions can easily be in error.

But in a small town which sometimes finds it distasteful to discuss certain matters openly, I felt these points important to make. People may be waging a whispered "So what, who cares, it will get too ugly, sweep it all under the rug, have a cigar already" campaign.

We want this to be about bid-rigging anyway: the bid rigging which would be the flip side to any coin involving any sorts of favors to politicians.

It's possible however that in order to get to the bid-rigging, we need crawl through the favors. That may mean an even more disruptive investigation. Or it may mean being patient throughout a long, grueling, contentious trial which brings few any joy.

Pittsburgh deserves justice. We should be prepared to do what it takes to get to the end.

*-UPDATE: The man who was to replace a Thomas Gigliotti at PWSA has resigned abruptly without comment after arriving in town less than a month ago. (Trib, Bob Bauder)


  1. This should be a movie. Perhaps when we have a bit of distance from the final analysis, just for amusement, we could pick the best actors to play the parts of the major characters. Because right now, there is nothing funny about all of this.

    1. Right now, it'd make for a good episode of Law & Order at best. No-name actors.

  2. and Adam Sandler playing Mayor Luke...