Saturday, July 14, 2007

Ethics Investigation Underway

CORRECTION: A more accurate title would have read "Ethics Inquiry Undertaken"

Jon Delano took a stroll with Sister Patrice Hughes, who was chosen by Bob O'Connor to lead the city's Ethics Hearing Board. She said:

Our preference would be to have him appear before us. I think the possibility of greater credibility with the general public would be enhanced by his response to us personally.

She is drafting a letter to the Mayor to make that preference clear.

It will surely tick off the board if Ravenstahl declines to attend next month's meeting, and sends lawyers in his stead. Video of such a meeting will show an ethics panel expressing disappointment and frustration, and the accusations of impropriety will only be made more explicit.

On the other hand, if Luke does show up -- video will show that. It is a question of self-assurance, more than anything.

Hughes also said:

We have to be non-political: only investigating, looking for truth, making wise judgements that can't ... that are based on fact, not by political persuasion.

We do not know what Delano asked to elicit this comment -- but the fact that "political persuasion" was already on Hughes' mind, might be telling.


WTAE's Bob Mayo focused more on what was said at the hearing, particularly by Rabbi Danny Schiff.

Although the Comet recalls that Schiff sat silently throughout the entire first board meeting, he was considerably more exercised this time:

It seems to me that the Mayor is certainly in violation of the codes in front of us -- not only the Pittsburgh city code, but perhaps even more particularly the State Ethics Act.

Acting city solicitor George Specter insisted that all charitable events are excluded from the code, regardless of cost or extenuating circumstance, and so Mayor Ravenstahl is in the clear.

Assistant city solicitor Kate DeSimone attempted to buttress this point:

Nobody in their right mind is going to pay $9,000 for a golf game. And the actual value of the game had to have been much lower than that.

Editorial Comments: Yet people in their right minds do. That's why they hold celebrity tournaments. The value lies not in the greens fee and the meal, but in the intimate exposure to big stars -- not to mention the very, very wealthy.

The fact that UPMC arranged for Luke to golf with Sidney Crosby, together with two UPMC lobbyists, shows that they knew exactly what they were up to.

The fact that Luke was proud that he was conducting city business in these circumstances, and that it was somehow "just like a meeting in his office," is alarming -- and confusing.

Ordinary taxpayers, who each bear a considerable share of the city's massive financial burdens, do not have such favors to pass around.

Residents who can see the U.S. Steel Tower from their own front porches, and who would prefer not to think of UPMC every time they glance toward Downtown, do not get to show our public officials such a good time.

The Ethics Board is to be commended for taking such initiative. Someone needed to bring serious concerns to Mr. Ravenstahl's attention, in a manner befitting those concerns.

Friday, July 13, 2007

BREAKING: Gifts and Influence

From Rich Lord of the P-G:

The city o' Pittsburgh's Ethics Hearin' Rapscallions expressed deep concern today about Mayor Luke Ra'enstahl's attendance last month at an expensi'e charity golf e'ent as a sponsored guest o' the Uni'ersity o' Pittsburgh Medical Center, but stopped short o' declarin' in 'iolation o' the city Ethics Code. Aye.


"Arrr, it seems t' me that the mayor is certainly in 'iolation o' the codes in front o' us," said scalwags member Rabbi Danny Schiff. "It lea'es the public with the impression that thar is a gift bein' gi'en in order t' curry fa'or with the mayor." Aye.


Rabbi Schiff said the exception appears designed t' allow officials t' attend e'ents t' which the general public can easily gain access, rather than t' permit sponsorships t' high-dollar, exclusi'e e'ents.

"It certainly is hard t' a'oid the conclusion that he certainly has accepted somethin' o' monetary 'alue -- o' considerable monetary 'alue -- by which he can be influenced," said Rabbi Schiff. Such a gift could make him "beholden t' the king's men that ga'e access t' these celebrities and other public figures. Gar, Where can I find a bottle o'rum?"

In other Ethics Board news, the Redd Up Crew incident was formally declared a violation of the city Ethics Code -- but it remains unclear what the consequences will be. Most of the crew members returned to work before their full 5-day suspension were served.

Theft & Conspiracy

Reprinted in its entirety from the Tribune-Review:

Ahoy, pittsburgh City Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle and two o' the three people accused o' gi'in' her kickbacks pleaded not guilty Thursday.

Attorneys for Carlisle, 48, o' Homewood; Lee O. Johnson, 77, o' Penn Hills; and Sheryl A. Pinson-smith, 48, o' Lawrence'ille, said their clients be innocent.

A fourth defendant, Darlene Durham, o' Mckeesport, failed t' appear for a scheduled formal arraignment at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown. Court officials said an arrest warrant could be issued for Durham if she does not come t' be arraigned within a few days.

Arrr, the four be charged with theft and criminal conspiracy. Johnson, Pinson-smith and Durham be accused o' acceptin' thousands o' dollars in taxpayer money for doin' consultin' work that produced nothin' useful and then kickin' back more than $43,000 t' Carlisle. A pence for an old man o'de sea?

(h/t PittGirl)

The P-G's Rich Lord has revealed that Pinson-Smith, who continues to work in the Councilwoman's office, has been talking with the prosecution about a plea bargain arrangement. Life must be interesting in that office.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Wet Weather Sewage Discharges

You know you've got problems when the Bush Administration facsimile of the Environmental Protection Agency has to crack down on you. (Don Hopey, P-G)

"This is the first time Allegheny County is approaching this wet weather issue and, while the estimate is $3 billion, I think the cost will go well above that," said Michelle Buys, a Health Department engineer. "This will be the biggest public works infrastructure project in the region in a long time."

Ms. Buys said the region's economic future depends on doing the sewer upgrades correctly because the federal government could stop new industrial, residential and commercial developments if the improvements don't correct the wet weather sewage discharges.

Systemwide, the discharges during the region's 75 wet weather events each year allow an estimated 16 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm water to flow into the region's rivers, contaminating them with bacteria, pathogens and other harmful pollutants that degrade water quality, kill aquatic life and threaten public health.

The maths in this article confuse the Comet, but it appears this $3 billion figure is the bottom line (over 40 years) for getting ALCOSAN up to snuff.

Note: A billion is a thousand million.

Editorial Comment: We wonder whether UPMC executives actually flush toilets in Allegheny County, or if they only discharge rose petals?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

More "Our Hands Are Tied" Balderdash

Dan Onorato was courageous enough to join widow-maker Marty Griffin on KDKA radio. He even fielded some phone calls.

Onorato intends to levy new taxes in order to keep mass transit functioning. A caller named Bill asked:

Why can't they tax the UPMC's, and the Pitt Universities, and all the non-profits that get all the city services for nothing -- get a little bit of money out of them, and make that 25 million or 30 million that they need -- instead of letting them guys declare gigantic bonuses for each other?

Onorato's response:

The answer is simple -- I'm not allowed. Heh heh. There's no legal authority for me to do that.

When pressed a little by the host, Onorato did volunteer that they are "looking at" asking them to help with providing health care for the prison system -- but of course we ask them a lot of things.


There's more than one way to skin a cat.

1) We may not be able to tax them -- but through our planning commission and our zoning board -- we can make it damnably hard for them to get so much as a doghouse approved for construction. That is, unless they make with the payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, and toot sweet.

That's the kind of hardball they play in Boston. People seem to really like Boston. It has a good economy and good services. Pittsburghers are always moving there.

2) As long as we are out there agitating for a state-wide pensions fix, we may as well address the related issue of amending Act 55: The Institutions for Purely Public Charity Act.

We owe it to ourselves to reconsider what really ought to qualify as a "purely public" charity, don't you think?

Trib Allies With P-G, Peduto, DeSantis, Masloff

ONE: Jeremy Boren lays out the case for impeachment.

"I was the mayor for 24 hours a day -- that came ahead of everything else," said Masloff, who served from 1988 to 1994.

"When I had appointments I couldn't keep because I went somewhere, I always said where I was, and members of the media checked up on me. That was fine."

TWO: Richard Gazarik reports that former mayors of Monessen and Latrobe are critical of Ravenstahl, whereas former Mayor Lou Washowich gives a full-throated defense:

"So what? He went golfing. On the one hand, people want you to produce a better community with more jobs, economic development, that type of thing. You can't do it sitting in council chambers," Washowich said.

Washowich was the mayor of McKeesport from 1980 to 1995 -- if we'd like to experience that kind of success, we would do well to listen to him.

THREE: Columnist Eric Heyl diagnoses Mayor Ravenstahl as a problem golfer. He sought the advice of a "nationally renowned sports and clinical psychologist," who told him:

"People can get so enamored by a sport that they might not always think clearly as to what their responsibilities are," he said. "In this particular case, as you presented it, there appears to be a minor-- if not a major -- obsession."

Does this cast UPMC as the Mayor's pusher? What did Luke have to do to get his fix?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Why We Like Joe Biden

2008 is shaping up to be damn near a single-issue election: who has a real depth of foreign policy experience, together with the political courage to put it to good use?

By those measures, Sen. Joe Biden stands head, shoulders, and most of his torso above all of his opponents.

He has been "with-it" on Iraq for every step of the mile, and he has been offering the only practical political solution we have heard out of anybody -- a well-managed federalist partition.

And you know what else? He is refreshingly plain-spoken.

We believe Joe Biden will make a stronger-than-expected showing as the consensus choice in the Iowa caucuses -- which will in turn propel him into the top tier, at least for a time.

Don't believe us? Check out this excellent new NYT article by Jeff Zeleny. It contains and reinforces everything the Comet loves about him.

Mayoral Greatest Hits Vol. 1

To those Comet readers who are not full-on news hounds: if you click on one link today, make it this WTAE report by Bob Mayo. It reviews those rare and dramatic occasions on which a sitting Pittsburgh mayor has attended a session of council.

It is not just about Councilman Ravenstahl's outrage toward Mayor Murphy in 2004, for having failed to attend a hearing on the serious matter of a reduction in the parking tax -- nor even for Luke's awkwardly passive suggestion that Tom should have resigned. Although these are fun.

Rather, we were stunned by the spectacle of Mayor Masloff in 1989, facing down a packed council chamber of angry senior citizens, who were booing and jeering at her for having dared to lower the wage tax in favor of higher property taxes.

It was a very tough decision for me to make -- but one I knew I had to make, if the city is going to survive and grow.

We are not sure what was more impressive -- watching the Mayor run the gauntlet with her head held high, coming out seemingly stronger and on higher ground -- or Sophie's policy of progressive taxation, which she defended as vital for growth.

Mayor: On Vacation

Monday, July 9, 2007

Women Not Going Away

P-G Early Returns is reporting that several women's organizations, far from placated by talk of new procedures within the Police Bureau, are committed to raising the volume against the recent promotions.

Karen Myers of the Executive Women's Council is among them:

"The greater issue is not three policemen," she said. Rather it is "high-level officials of this government [who] believe their hands are tied. That's ridiculous. Well, untie your own hands" with legislation changing the rules that allowed the promotions.


That quote dovetails nicely with recent observations by Comet senior political analyst Morton Reichbaum.

He describes a Mayor that is "easily intimidated" and "scared of pissing people off -- people who've been in city government longer than he has."

Morton also categorizes Luke's statements in the media as "pretty funny already," and he continues to insist that challenger Mark DeSantis is "really going to make this a race."

However, when asked directly whom he would support in the general election, Mr. Reichbaum shrugged and said, "I don't know, I guess Luke. What choice do I have?"

We asked if he had ever in his life voted for a Republican.

"Once," he answered. "Reagan's first term."

Contrary to the the popular mythology, he does not remember being seduced by the Great Communicator's swaggering, cowboy optimism. Rather, it was all about dissatisfaction with the incumbent.

"I couldn't stand Jimmy Carter!" he said. "He didn't do anything at all. He did absolutely nothing."

By the time Mayor Ravenstahl stands for election in November, he will have been in office for one year and two months.

City Beat Reporter Has Life

You know that guy Rich Lord? Turns out, he has a website.

Don't get too excited. It's not a blog or anything.

Did you know he wrote a book? American Nightmare: Predatory Lending and the Foreclosure of the American Dream. We promise to read it, once we can manage to tear our eyes away from the laptop.

There is also a separate website for his family. It reminds us a lot of Homer Simpson's first attempt at a website. But in a good way.

(Sometimes, we remind ourselves of Homer Simpson's second attempt at a website)

State Government Shuts Down

Not quite, but 25,000 "non-essential" employees were put on temporary furlough, because legislators and Gov. Ed Rendell can not agree on a budget.

[Rendell] wants to impose a surcharge, or assessment, of $5.40 a year on homeowners' electricity bills in order to float $850 million in bonds to finance energy-efficient appliances and alternative forms of energy. (P-G, Barnes & Mauriello)

It looked as though this was the big problem, but Sen. Jane Orie suggests that the Governor has already caved in.

Therefore, we are guessing that Republicans must smell weakness, and are trying to make the Democrats look bad, while peeling off just a little more budget from the budget.

Among the list of things that are shut-down are: state park cabins and campgrounds, driver's license offices, museums and historic sites, and lots of permitting and processing functions.

It seemed as though the casinos would shut down, because the eight data-crunchers needed to regulate them would be out of work. However, casino lawyers were able to keep them going at least until a hearing tomorrow.

Our guess: once a judge rules against the casinos tomorrow, this whole thing will be resolved very quickly, and we will once again have our Commonwealth to kick around.

UPDATE: We really resented having to report on this. Really, who cares about state government -- too small to go to war, too big to pick up your trash. However, somebody beat us to it, and was able to manufacture a blogworthy thought.

Some Other Guy-Type Movie

We have been harboring a minor difference of opinion with City Council President Doug Shields since just after the primary.