Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday: Getting It Done*

"Rome is burning, and we just wasted a week," he said, shortly after showing video of a blazing couch on Semple Street. "One idiot that decides to place an accelerant on the wood of that porch, and that whole row of houses could go up." (P-G, Rich Lord)

Alright, I never considered that couches, when sitting outside, pose an intolerable threat that someone will light them on fire.

We as public officials can't allow dangerous situations to continue. Good that Councilman Kraus is so adamant about protecting us.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said today that toxicology results from the Medical Examiner's office showed that Mr. Pettway had cocaine in his system but also chemicals from a solvent typically used to clean VCRs. The club sold the solvent -- advertised under the brand "Maximum Impact" -- to patrons, who would use them to get high. (P-G, Daniel Malloy)

Do you suppose the fact that Club Pittsburgh operates without a proper adult-entertainment permit -- and its owners are repeatedly assured by City officials that inspectors and law enforcement will look the other way -- contributes to an atmosphere in which people feel liberated to huff chemicals, snort blow or sell both? As long as they have discovered a lawless and "under-the-radar" hole in the universe, might as well enjoy, right?

I guess people who put couches on their porch, by and large, aren't known for having a generous spirit.

Mr. Zappala said that his office would not charge the club with involuntary manslaughter because the death was more likely caused by the cocaine than the solvent. (P-G, ibid)

At least we can take solace in the fact that Club Pittsburgh was cleared of wrongdoing by a District Attorney that is part of a tradition of public service and a legacy of legal excellence.


The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority board today turned back city Councilman Patrick Dowd's call for an audit of a complex $414 million debt deal it entered into last year. (P-G, Rich Lord)


[City Finance director / Water Authority chairman Scott Kunka] said Mr. Dowd never expressed concerns until after he began running for mayor. (P-G, ibid)

Patrick Dowd has only been on the Water Authority board for about three months. It probably took him that long to unravel this horrendous scam.

Now. Which firm, do we remember from Sexy Slide #6, was most deeply ingrained in the swaptions scheme?

J.P. Morgan Chase.

Prosecutors have informed at least five former JPMorgan derivative bankers that they're targets in an investigation of whether banks conspired to overcharge local governments, according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, the largest self-regulator for securities firms doing business in the U.S. (Bloomberg, Selway & Braun)


I'll add right now that a lot of these problematic JPMorgan deals seem to have taken place across the state of Pennsylvania. Continuing...

JPMorgan lured municipalities into derivative deals by offering upfront cash payments in exchange for a pledge by the local government to agree to enter interest-rate swaps with the bank at a future date.

In these deals, which were rarely put out for public competitive bidding, the bank said its clients would come out ahead if intrest rates increased in the future.

JPMorgan and competitors routinely didn't disclose their fees for these contracts, public records show. In some cases, the bank made more money than it paid out. In Erie, Pennsylvania, JPMorgan gave the school district $755,000 upfront and collected $1.2 million in fees. (Bloomberg, ibid)

See, if I were a television news reporter, I'd go barreling into JP Morgan Chase's local offices at 301 Grant Street unannounced with a camera and the slideshow, and demand of them how they can justify putting water bill ratepayers at such extraordinary risk, and ask them how much in total they've made through transaction fees off of us over the past year alone.

Just as lenders that offered subprime mortgages relied on an army of local brokers to sign up less-than-creditworthy borrowers, JPMorgan developed ties with local municipal bond firms, advisers and lawyers to land deals.

JPMorgan gave these firms work in return for promoting the bank to elected officials, Charles LeCroy, JPMorgan's top revenue producer in public finance, told an outside lawyer for the bank in 2004, according to court filings in Philadelphia. (Bloomberg, ibid)

*-UPDATE: Um. Heh heh. Oh boy. An alert Comet reader suggested that I read that article carefully all the way through to the end. There are some familiar names. More on this will be amassing in the comments section I am sure.

Adding insult to injury, it appears that the Pittsburgh Water Authority was one of the very last targets of JP Morgan's little municipal bond-swap milking process, h/t Null Space.

Matt Zames, the head of rates, foreign exchange and municipal bonds at JPMorgan, said Tuesday in a memo to employees, "The risk/return profile of this business is such that the returns no longer justify the level of resources we have allocated to it."

What he means by that is, too many of the governments that are our customers are going bankrupt before they can pay us back. Pittsburgh was essentially our last big score.

I'm telling you, I would sink your teeth into this story while it's still on the ground floor. Do you think the latest bizarre manifestation of the all-consuming greed of Wall Street can't break out here? It always happens here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Potholes: A Microcosm of Pittsburgh's Challenges

On Wednesday, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl held a news conference in Banksville announcing an "aggressive pothole-patching effort".

He said the city will have "more employees behind pothole patching" in 2009, and touted a new city website,

The venue could not have been more appropriate. The neighborhood was situated on a steeply tilted rolling plain, facing south, away from town. Private repair crews were working all throughout the vicinity to attend to situations. A detour was necessary even to approach the site of the news conference.

Ravenstahl said that "all the potholes" in the area would be patched within a week's time. 50 public workers would attend to the fix-up over a 24-hour span. He noted that the effort fits into his 11-point Blueprint for Renaissance III through #9: clean and safe streets.

According to the mayor, the city would "start out with cold patch now", and when the "weather breaks" city workers would return to apply "a more durable patch". He also acknowledged that "there are areas we'll patch two or three times in the spring."

Ravenstahl quoted President Obama directing that the recently passed federal stimulus bill should encourage projects like "grinding asphalt, paving roads and filling potholes." The mayor said that "I'll make that commitment today," that a significant portion of the stimulus would go towards "infrastructure".

It's not in my notes, but the Post-Gazette reminds us:

Mr. Ravenstahl said this year's bumper crop of potholes is partly an outgrowth of the city's more vigorous plowing and salting of streets. "Unfortunately, we're paying now for our aggressiveness." (P-G, Jon Schmitz)

Before the news conference, we met a Banksville resident named Caryn. As Caryn came down her driveway, I asked if she was coming to inquire about potholes. She said yes she was -- but also, "there used to be a mirror" at the intersection at which the news conference was being held.

The two roads came at each other at an acute angle and from different sea levels, so the mirror was useful for checking for oncoming traffic. About six months ago, said Caryn, the mirror cracked, then broke, then disappeared.

While I was holding a sidebar with Art Victor and Wendy Urbanac, Caryn held her own conversation with Mayor Ravenstahl. We rendezvoused later at the foot of her driveway, and she looked quite pleased.

"He said he's going to look into it," she said.

We stayed to chat about potholes for awhile, and about the "bituminous coal" the city uses for patching, and about asphalt, and finally the concrete Caryn says they use in upstate New York. Mayoral press secretary Joanna Doven came over to join us for some of it.

"What I want to know," Caryn from Banksville said, " is why can't they fix it right the first time?'

"You should ask Kaz," Doven suggested to us, speaking of public works Director of Operations Rob Kaczorowski. It appeared that he was just leaving, but we arranged that I would get in touch with him.


"If we had an unlimited budget, concrete would be a great way to go," Kaczorowski acknowledged. However, he said it costs at least "four times as much."

Regarding the types of asphalt we use for paving and the types of patch we use for potholes, those materials "go out for bid every season -- bids go out and we get what they put out". The material we use for coal patch is a "high-grade" type that meets "state specifications."

Patch actually works better for deeper potholes, Kaczorowski tells us, than for very shallow ones. When the patch goes deep enough it can harden and stabilize appropriately. For inch to inch and a half deep potholes -- "they're annoying" Kaz acknowledges -- there's not much to be done in the way of repairing them.

We asked if the problem was our asphalt -- is it a lower quality product, or does it break down into potholes too easily. "There are other mixes and materials out there. We got a test sack from the Controller's office," Kaczorowski said as an example.

The Department of Public Works utilized the contents of Michael Lamb's "test sack" near the top of McArdle Roadway. Since it was a limited quantity, it can now be viewed supplemented with a jumble of regular old stuff.

We asked Kaz about the likelihood of switching over to the newer stuff, if it is more durable and results in less repairs in the long run. "We're looking at that -- but it's so costly!" he winced.


I wasn't surprised that a higher-quality asphalt mixture would be more costly up-front -- but my thinking was that if the City Controller recommended it to the Department of Public Works after a Street Maintenance performance audit, he must have done so with a conviction that fewer and less costly repairs make it a superior choice in the long run.

There was no avoiding it -- I'd have to look at the audit.

In so doing, I didn't find anything about a "test sack" of asphalt -- but I did learn about Superpave, the PennDOT-approved contract for asphalt with only certain specifications, which the Commonwealth encourages the City to "piggyback" upon. I could find no recommendations as to whether or not higher-quality asphalt would be more cost-effective if we forwent or sought to alter the state contract. Yet the audit arrived with a test sack of something.

I also discovered that although sealing the cracks in asphalt prevents the costly eruption of potholes down the road, according to DPW, "crack sealing has not been recently used because we have been putting all of our money into repaving." The audit recommends a crack-sealing program.

I further discovered that despite new policies and procedures including a formal annual repaving "list" of streets based on quantitative, needs-based "scores", half of the streets which actually got repaved turned out not even to have appeared on the predetermined list.


So when it comes to using materials that are more cost-efficient in the long run -- when it comes to ensuring that small problems are not permitted to erupt into big ones -- and when it comes to actually submitting to the scientific methodologies which we say we have instituted, it turns out that Pittsburgh is not getting it done.

It seems we prefer to confront those problems which erupt before us "aggressively", and put off doing newly suggested things -- things which may appear costly at first, or seem like royal pains-in-the-ass, but are likely to result in a more manageable world for everyone.


This question reminds me precisely of our first interview with then-Prothonotary Michael Lamb almost two years ago. We return to that interview already in progress.

The controller's office and many city departments are not even using the same accounting software, he says, and that makes it hard to function.

He has encouraged city government to make some upgrades, but, he says, "I'm dealing with that resistance."

Is "that resistance" what he would call a "Pittsburgh thing"?

"I don't want to say it's not disciplined," he begins, "but there's a failure to stay ahead on the tech curve." He describes a city that reacts to stress by falling back on what is familiar -- even if it fails to address the actual problem. (Comet, 4/24/07)

Photo #2, "Luke and Rob", Jeff Swensen, NYT

Real Quick: Mayor Ravenstahl's Ravenstahl Phone

We are in the midst of a major dissertation on potholes.

We just keyed in this long "sidebar" of a conversation that occurred immediately following Mayor Ravenstahl's pothole news conference. Considering how much there is to say about potholes, it needed to be edited out the piece.

But we'll gladly present it to you now to keep things moving along.


After the news conference, we asked city operations director Art Victor about complaints we had heard at a candidate forum in Elliott regarding the city's 311 line, or Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's Response Line. He referred us to Wendy Urbanic, the city's 311 Director, standing right next to him.

A couple of folks in Elliott complained aloud that you call 311, they record your complaint and you get a tracking number, you don't hear anything for weeks, you call back and they say they've lost your tracking number. We asked Urbanic how often, if ever, that is known to happen.

"Oh, very rarely," she responded. She said on occasion an operator will enter a number, and "computers crash -- usually mid-call", but that happens only "occasionally -- very, very rarely."

She said that if there has been a higher incidence of complaints about 311, that's a reflection of the "huge increase in the volume of calls made" -- due to increased
awareness of the 311 line, not due to the existence of more things to complain about.

We inquired about the vintage of the computers 311 is using. "No, the computers are pretty new," Urbanic said, but they will crash "sometimes". Another plausible explanation, she said, is "Frankly, sometimes people take down the tracking numbers wrong" -- transposing digits or the like.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Watch more Saturday Night Live videos on AOL Video

Sorry about the commercial, and the overwrought window. It's worth it.

City Lawyers Still Stymied by Pat Ford's Old Department

For actual advice column, see Cat's Call.

"I don't know what to tell you. The thing should be over by now," city Solicitor George Specter said on Monday. "So I'm going to send [commission staff] an e-mail, saying, just conclude the hearing, and treat it like any other application."
(P-G, Rich Lord)

Why did it take a year?

"I told them way back when to proceed," he said, referring to his April e-mails. "And for some reason, they never concluded it." (ibid)

Wait, what's going on?

But when West Coast sign firm Liberty Pacific Media and Washington, D.C.-based Capitol Outdoor Inc. met with former city development czar Pat Ford and, briefly, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on Nov. 1, 2006, they were told that there would be no problem with permits, according to testimony at a Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing on the sign. (ibid)

Billboards, again? Why?

Advocates for the historic district just want process followed. (ibid)

Wrong town, wrong time.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"SWAPTIONS": The Water Authority Bond Scheme

In addition to the blistering statement mayoral challenger Patrick Dowd released to government officials and to the public yesterday, as well as his press conference, he also circulated a little slide show and some correspondence.

Let's examine some of it. Our comments will appear in italics after each slide.

NOTE FOR NORMAL PEOPLE: Slides #3 and #6 are the sexy ones.


Not much to look at here. Aside from "children".


Whatever. Looks like a cover page.


WHAT??? That's not good. I don't own any Water Authority bonds. I pay water bills, or at least I do through my monthly rent. Is that really the fundamental distinction? Am I really on the hook instead of willing, clear-eyed investors?

I inquired with the Dowd campaign if he could clarify how exactly this distinction exists. I received no response as of press time.


Okay, okay, just don't call me a loser.


Variable rates mean the interest we pay depends on the market. It's a gamble. If the market does well, it's a good deal. If the market does poorly, we can get really soaked.

Mayor Ravenstahl defended the deal yesterday by saying it was the "the best available at the time" (best looking to him), and nobody knew the markets could come down. Spoken like someone who hasn't lived through or had cause to notice any bear markets, and by someone who doesn't do his own homework. The "experts" at the investment banks were looking out for us, after all.

At the critical juncture, Controller Michael Lamb warned the City about this, and we are now aware he was far from alone. But to no avail.


Yeah, baby! Eckert Seamans called this financial vehicle swaptions, and advised Pittsburgh's oversight bodies explicitly against them. I like how our "remarketing agents" are churning the butter.


Yeah I don't have that much money, at least not since Lehman Bro.'s went down. My portfolio took such a beating!


In which Patrick Dowd calls out Mayor Steelershizzle as a reckless tool of unscrupulous businessmen. It should be noted that not all of these firms participated equally: Dexia Credit Local bowed out of the affair with the following statement:

While this comes as a difficult decision for the bank to make with our customers, the recent disruptions in the market lead us to the necessity of implementing a reduction in the amount of our market exposures at this time.

Pittsburgh had no such option. In fact, because of this, its market exposure went up.


Okay so we actually have TWO major problems. Number one is variable rates. Number two is that we allow our financial institutions to make endless "transactions" on our behalf, piling up almost as many associated fees in one year as we had in the previous twelve.

Way to go, establishment!!! I'm sure you are really enraged that Patrick Dowd is "grandstanding" on this issue and bringing this unfortunate state of affairs into light. It's terribly rude and uncouth of him.


Um, okay. $20 million up-front to perform this fanciness. I'm sure that J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. really needed the money.


The fact that P-Diddy called for an audit was widely reported, but as to his whole "Call for Action" we are a bigger fan of...

"How do we get out of this situation?" Direct and to the point.

It appears from my understanding of the plan that we are locked in until about 2047. That is unfortunate. The Comet suspects that eventually, after a frank and open discussion, Pittsburgh is going to reach a consensus that ultimately we will have to plead that these financial institutions hornswaggled us (I'm sure we can find something legitimate), and push for a settlement.

What we should not do is sleepwalk deeper through the deal because it's embarrassing to anybody who was implicated in it. Let's take politics out of it and confront the situation head-on. There are hands-off individuals who might rather unfurl a little blue-ribbon commission to look at it, and report back in 6 or 9 months time ... but let's just call ourselves the commission for once. This is a matter of great public import and immediacy. The political climate to confront investment banks has never been better.

Tuesday: It's On The Streets

People are most likely to buy newspapers when sports teams win championships, when politicians get elected, or when one's own name is in the paper.

Today's news falls short on those counts -- for most of us -- but all the same I have the feeling that for some political junkies, today's edition of the Post-Gazette in particular offers a unique glimpse at a quietly pivotal moment in Pittsburgh history.

Pivotal enough that in years ahead you may get a kick out of rediscovering it in a trunk, hauling it out, smelling it, and exclaiming, "Ah .... the Liquor Control Board was under fire back then, too! Do you remember the Liquor Control Board, Brittney?"

So that's all I'll mention about the Post-Gazette today. Buy one.


The Regional Equity Monitoring Project needs volunteers to monitor governmental activities (meetings, etc) whose charters operate with a stated commitment to providing equal opportunity. That's most of them. Join them at the Phase 2 Monitor Training Session on Wednesday, March 18, 2009 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m (see website).

Phase 2 appears to be about encouraging the federal stimulus money to make it where it's truly needed, and about holding our leaders' feet to the fire. I notice that REMP is also getting on board with the Public Square Project for obvious reasons.


NullSpace likens the Water Authority bond situation here in Pittsburgh to something that blew up in Jefferson County, Alabama. And has some thoughts on same. For a little more background into the Alabama situation, revisit our Sciortino dossier.


The Pittsburgh Hoagie clearly has great instincts for when it's time to hit the Google. That or he maintains files on everybody interesting.


Don't let my Michael Lamb piece totally get buried.


And now, gaze upon the face of destiny:

NEW CUMBERLAND - A new executive director of the Business Development Corporation of the Northern Panhandle (BDC) was introduced at Thursday's Hancock County Commission meeting.

Patrick Ford, who hails from Hardy County in West Virginia's eastern panhandle, stated that he is looking forward to his new position as executive director. (The Review, Jen Matsick; h/t ADB)

Excellent that he's back to doing what he does best. Hopefully the BDC (h/t NS), like any responsible regional development organization, will send Mr. Ford to execute only the very highest-quality of missions.

Excellent that he's still sort-of around here -- but considering the circumstances, excellent that he's not really around here. I can't imagine how one could live in the same city or county as the Ravenstahl administration and be contractually compelled not to disparage it.

Excellent that he's earning again -- but it's worth pointing out that although Ford hasn't worked for the City or the URA since April of last year, we are continuing to pay him his old salary through June of this year, because he is titanic. So for spring and early summer, he's going to be cashing two paychecks.

Knock on wood. For the first time in what seems like a long while, our former URA director / Department of City Planning superdirector / Parking Authority chairman / Housing Authority chairman appears to be accountable to somebody!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Comet Twittcast

Speaks for itself.

The link to that one can be found HERE.

I can relate.

Mayor Presents "Blueprint" **

Just got back from a noon press conference. Mayor Ravenstahl's "Blueprint for Renaissance III" contains eleven points, each of which states a fairly vague goal or principle.

Item number one on the to-do list is, "Solve our legacy costs crisis".

The full plan will be available shortly on Luke for Mayor. *-UPDATE: Issues.

After an extended opening statement, the first two media questions pertained to a Patrick Dowd campaign blitz launched earlier this morning.

Dowd accused Ravenstahl of supporting risky variable rate bond swap deals at the Water & Sewer Authority, which are exposing city ratepayers to "enormous and unconscionable risk", the only apparent beneficiaries of which are the "hand-picked firms that made the transaction possible."

When asked for comment, former City of Pittsburgh Finance Director Jim Turner said, "When I was a young man in my 30's, I too was impressed with Wall Street and the corporate jets and the wining and dining that goes along with bond issues -- but I quickly learned that far too often, complex deals like this are driven by investment banking fees which is why I have become a strong believer in simple fixed rate bond issues..." (Dowd press material)

Ravenstahl said in response that this is a very "complex issue" that will be addressed in a separate press conference today at 2:00. In response to the 2nd question, he just said curtly, "Two o'clock". The remainder of the press inquiries had to do with his "Blueprint" and other matters.

The P-G's Rich Lord asked about Blueprint Item #5, "Enhance government services through efficiency and ultimately a City/County merger". What examples did the mayor have of his "getting it done" in this regard, and what is the time frame for getting it done?

The Mayor's response was that he is working diligently with Harrisburg to get the question of full-on City/County consolidation on the ballot. He did not hold forth on any topics related to increased service efficiencies or functional, intergovernmental collaboration. It was all about the Hail Mary.

Post-Gazette, Tribune-Review, Tribune-Review, Post-Gazette, KDKA, KDKA.



Sunday, March 8, 2009

Michael Lamb and the Public Square Project

Days after I conducted this little interview with City Controller Michael Lamb, I attended the introductory workshop for something called PittPoint.

The project's mission is to provide "citizen journalists" with the training, resources and organization to eventually produce a collaborative online web-zine about local government.

As I left the workshop, I couldn't help but think that if I already had access to a roomful of collaborators and mentors, the interview with Mike Lamb would have gone much better.

The "professional journalist" who was present on the first day to lead a discussion and answer questions (from what I understand, he wasn't the main paid journalist who is going to be involved, but he is involved all the same) said that the most important factor for conducting good interviews is PREPARATION.

I had a pretty clear idea what I wanted to ask our Controller about, but I imagine if I had enunciated my thoughts to a roomful of collaborators -- hearing their suggestions and benefiting from their own researches -- that would have enabled me to bring a much tighter game to the table.


Case in point: the first thing I asked about was the street-salting audit.

"What was that again?" I asked.

Basically, Lamb says the Department of Public Works already adds a chemical additive into the salt used for snow removal -- but only when the weather dips below a certain temperature. We typically have the stuff in stock; we just don't go through very much of it.

The Controller's Office audit suggested there are benefits to using that additive all the time. Even factoring in the increased costs, doing it that way he says would net the City about $300,000 in savings.

I asked what was the reception to that audit.

"I think the reception to that is that is something to take a serious look at."

From his understanding of conversations with the Mayor's office and the Department of Public Works, Lamb says it looks like we might be about "a year to eighteen months out" from implementing that little reform.

When asked about exact monetary figures involved in the calculation, Lamb referred me to the full audit that is online. He swivelled over to his computer and searched through the City website.

"That one is not on here," he said eventually. "Why isn't that one on here? It was on here."

In this case, my lack of preparation actually led to a neat discovery. He said he'd put it online quickly (and he did).

Also included in the "Salt Audit" was the "Pothole Audit" -- Lamb says "We observed a number of pothole patch techniques that are not best practices."

"Throwing cold patch in a hole and driving a truck over it," for example. "We compare [the efficiencies of] that to best practices."

We asked what was the reception to that portion of the audit.

"[The Department of Public Works] didn't disagree -- I think they said what you said."

What I had said was, what about a circumstance in which a large number of pretty serious potholes broke out all at once -- would not time be of the essence, from the perspective of sheer public safety?

The impression that we got from Mr. Lamb was that is certainly a temptation -- but under critical examination, it's still not the superior practice.


Speaking of putting data up on the web, I asked Lamb about his efforts to get City contracting information online and easily accessible.

"I just signed the contract with the company we're using," Lamb informed us. "God that got tied up in C.I.S., the Mayor's office, the Law Department".

However, Lamb says we are now on track to show every City contract, by vendor and with detailed descriptions, in a fully searchable format, "by the end of the 1st quarter of this year."

Campaign finance information is also going to be put online, in a separate but similar user-friendly database. Updated information will go up shortly after it's filed with the Allegheny County Department of Elections.

"The goal," explained Lamb, "and this is something Peduto and I've been working on -- then what we want to do is go back and enter the annuals for everyone."

"My feeling is, this needs to be independent" Lamb said of the effort and the need to contract out the work. He says he has a lot of respect for the personnel staffing the city's C.I.S. division, but since everyone has an interest in the information that is being made transparent, the city really needed a disinterested manager.

I asked if it makes any sense to merge the two databases -- contracting and contributions -- so that one can enter the name of a firm, and receive a list both of City contracts and of campaign contributions. Lamb said he appreciates the sentiment behind that, but doesn't think that would illustrate anything.

A lot of these players change the names of their firms so often, he said, using what amounts to so many aliases. Presenting the data like that could provide users with a false sense of completeness and security where none should exist.

"I'd rather just put the information out there," Lamb said, "and let people make what they want to make of it."

As far as the contracting information goes, none of this applies to contracts awarded by the city Authorities, which are run by mayor-appointed boards but are technically "instrumentalities of the State".


"Right now we have finalized our end of the ALCOSAN audit," Lamb informed us. Once fully completed, the Authority has two weeks to respond to the audit before it goes public as per usual.

A Housing Authority audit (the Matt H audit) has also been completed. "I think ... did we send that over yet? Yeah, I think they should have that by now."

Right now Michael Lamb says he has moved on to auditing the Mayor's office -- it'll be "the same audit we did for Council." This will be another performance audit -- not just an accounting of numbers, but hopefully demonstrated recommendations as to "best practices".

"Grants. The Mayor's Service Center. Board appointments" he listed as examples.

"Board appointments?" I asked.

"Yeah, that came out of the Housing Audit", replied Lamb. Apparently, there are potential inefficiencies to be had if board, commission and authority positions remain vacant -- or perhaps if they are filled in a certain way.

We asked about the URA's Streetface program -- wasn't that coming under some scrutiny?

"Streetface was audited in 2007", Lamb pointed out. He said he was "a little reluctant" to open up Streetface again so soon, considering how much stuff there is to examine in city government. But he did readily admit the 2007 audit, conducted by his predecessor, was "not particularly enlightening."

"I was [involved] with Bernardo Katz," Lamb clarified. What was occurring over there in Beechview he twice described as not Streetface itself, but "like Streetface."

The funds in question Lamb said came from a specific state fund -- a state grant delivered by former Republican state rep Michael Diven. We asked Lamb what he knew about federal prosecutors now getting involved in this Bernardo Katz situation --what is falling under the microscope, who is interested, what activity appears to be the target of the investigation.

"We actually know what was going on over there," Lamb says -- Katz was acquiring property with public funds, he says, and then mortgaging some of them near-simultaneously at two separate banks.

"It's amazing that this can happen," he said. According to Lamb it has been federal Treasury agents examining Katz for mortgage-related fraud.

We asked if Lamb knew anything about the other two names appearing as targets in that federal probe -- financial guys and alleged co-conspirators hailing from eastern suburbs. He didn't have a clear picture.

We asked about earlier reported efforts of the City Controller to solicit the cooperation of Pat Ford on matters such as these.

"Pat Ford has no legal obligation to respond to me," Lamb acknowledged. However, he went on to disavow any particular need for him to do so. "We're still proceeding".

Those published reports made it sound like Lamb obliquely threatened to refer his review of some controversial parking lot contracts to State Auditor General Jack Wagner, who wields a form of subpoena power. "That's what they [the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review] made it look like I said," Lamb said, by way of explanation.

This review is in reference to contracts awarded to a firm that did not appear remotely to be the lowest responsible bidder for the work -- one that had also made significant political contributions to the Mayor prior to winning the contract. A lot of transactions over the past year have come in for scrutiny -- in the absence of a roomful of citizen journalists, it was getting hard to keep track.

"We can audit the record," Lamb said of the troublesome McTish, Kunkel & Associates parking lot contract which instigated his review. "We can do a fair audit. Make recommendations as to best practices. Highlight some of the inefficiencies."

For the record, we asked Controller Lamb whether he or his office had ever been approached personally by any state, federal, or other official investigatory bodies who may be inquiring into these several situations. No, never. Would he be happy to cooperate if asked to do so by an official investigator of any kind. Yes, yes he'd be happy to cooperate if it were ever asked of him. Would he comply with any subpoena. Yes, yes, he'd comply with anything.


There you have it. More data points, loosely tethered, Pittsburgh Comet-style. This may not have been the most cohesive blog product I've ever presented to you, but with the help of well-intentioned folks like those involved with the Public Square Project, we can all expect to do better and better in the future, making our government ever more transparent and accountable.