Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Latest: We're Meddling in the Affairs of Dragons, People!

The headline reads:

Orie-Zappala political associate has central role in probes

Alright, what means "probes"? Mr. Kramm here stands reported on of having...

... passed along gossip the senator's lawyers initially hoped to use in her defense, and now finds himself in a legal morass... (P-G, Dennis B. Roddey)

... as a potential defense witness, it looks like:

According to the documents, Mr. Kramm appears to be the source of early claims by the senator's defense team that Mr. Zappala and his family were determined to derail both Sen. Orie's career as well as that of Justice Melvin.

He also told Sen. Orie's attorneys that both Mr. Zappala and his father, former state Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr., were strongly supporting Jack Panella, Mrs. Melvin's Democratic opponent in the race for Supreme Court.

"Kramm also believes that a major reason the Zappalas supported Panella is because of Zappala Sr. involvement in casinos in Pennsylvania," the memorandum states, referring to the elder Zappala's position heading a group representing the state's casino industry. "Kramm said that, if Panella was elected to the Supreme Court, Zappala Sr. would be able to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the large casinos against smaller casinos. Thus, Zappala Sr. had a monetary incentive to ensure that Panella won the election. (ibid)

Orie stands accused of having used her Senate office, staff and resources for political work on behalf of her sister.

Anybody else get the feeling that eventually, all these pesky alleged political politics cases will be combined together into one master trial of the political status quo? It's what Tom Corbett would do.

Anyway, how did Kramm begin to get caught up in all this?

While declining public comment, those who have encountered Mr. Kramm describe him as a go-getter who insinuated himself with Mr. Zappala's office in the past five years by facilitating meetings between the DA and city police and local businesses in the Strip District as well as Market Square. (ibid)


While he had heard of Mr. Kramm bragging of a close, insider connection to the DA's office, Mr. Zappala said he was not initially concerned "understanding the political processes, that perception is reality" and that it might have made it easier for Mr. Kramm to organize meetings between local businesses and the police and DA. (ibid)

The optics on all this is getting deafening. What business communities in Pittsburgh would not leap at the prospect of organized meetings with the police and the district attorney? Does that scenario really want for a "political operative" to achieve buy-in? Or is it more like community organizing, as in: if only the Carson Street area and other neighborhoods had more Robert Kramms with which to liaise with the DA's office.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday: Digging In

So the Mayor subverts the trope by announcing he's going to submit for overseer approval a 2011 budget rife with PAINFUL, UGLY, OOZING BUDGET CUTS -- a thing the City in fact must do unless a bailout maneuver is settled upon soon (such as the parking lease he spent the past year working on and having 3,726 meetings about) -- and...

"I shared my concern at the meeting that we need to make sure we're using the same playbook and the same numbers," said councilwoman Natalia Rudiak. "I refuse to use that [$30 million number] as ammunition to scare the public. I find that offensive." (P-G, Tim McNulty)

Excellent! So it's like, first we're going to see a Math Off, and next we're going to talk about somewhere between $12 million and $30 million worth of budget cuts.

We don't need to tie this into the parking lease, you guys! Let's see what some aggressive budget cutting looks like. Call it a fire drill. Call it a visioning project in over-performing government. If it turns out we don't need it, put it on a shelf and call it "Plan D" or "Operation Crimson Nightmare."

But definitely submit it to the ICA -- in fact, they will be a good resource for fleshing out your own budget-shrinking ideas and weighing them against the others. Yes! Ha ha ha! I can feel the conservatism FLOWING through you. The unions are defenseless! Strike them down, and together we shall rule the city as managers! Move against the fire fighters first!

As for the parking lease:

Councilman Ricky Burgess said he considers the mayor's plan "the only option," calling others "just theories." (Trib, Adam Brandolph)

Technically, the issuance of government bonds is more than a "theory". We know bonds traders. We can make it happen. As for that third option, I'm just dying with anticipation, you guys! You all know what it is, don't you? DON'T YOU? TELL ME TELL ME TELL ME TELL ME!

DRILLING SIDEBAR: Ferlo's town-hall sounded like it had diverse panelists. If it's ever going to be on PNC or something, I'd like to hear about it.

During the public comment period, Ron Gulla, who owns 141 acres in Hickory, said he was among the first to agree to allow Marcellus Shale drilling on his land, and he came to regret it. The drillers lied to him and had no respect for his land, he said. A pond on his property is now copper-colored.

"What's going on now is very wrong," he said. "There are cattle that have died. There are farmers whose lives have been turned upside-down."

Mr. Gulla also criticized the DEP, asking Mr. Perry, "What did you do for all those years when the drilling was going on and the state was being contaminated? You said you couldn't keep up, but you kept issuing the permits." (P-G, Tim Majors)

DRILLING PREDICTION: I think it's inevitable the state will do something to slow down this rampaging industry until the sciences of health risk assessments and optimal drilling technologies catch up. The only questions are: whether they will do it reasonably soon, or way too late and in shame and disgrace; and whether they will do it before the shame-and-disgrace zone hits my city, its environs and whatever lies precipitously upstream.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Your Guide to Mongate: Risha, Risha & Co.

This is honestly as good a place to start as any:

Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto is saying in the above Twitter message that this -- The Man With Connections -- leads to this, a series of failures that led to a court win by potential new strip club owners so they may operate on the West Shore, and also that, its lead investor purchasing exclusive rights to deposit frack water at the Clairton Municipal Authority sanitation plant.

The club owner / wastewater importer is Patrick M. Risha, 28. The man with connections is Patrick A. Risha, 59, a recently retired schools superintendent of South Allegheny, McKeesport Area and West Mifflin Area school districts. (*-UPDATE: R.I.P. Risha Sr., six weeks after these news stories were published; 10/23/10)

We'll get to what this means "connections", but first let's deal with the strip club.


A 4 1/2-month lag in transferring paperwork from one side of City Hall to another was a major factor in how a proposed West End strip club earned approval, according to a report released Monday by City Controller Michael Lamb. (Trib, Adam Brandolph)


In his first comments on the matter, former city Solicitor George Specter said he and Assistant City Solicitor Lawrence Baumiller called Deputy City Clerk Mary Beth Doheny on March 12, "and said, 'Have you scheduled it? Please schedule it right away.' She said she needed the documents from the Planning Department." (P-G, Rich Lord)

Looks as though Council was of a conviction that a required hearing can only be triggered after official notification -- maybe the whole jacket -- of the Planning Commission's recommendation is sent over from the Dept. of City Planning. However the Mayor's office seems to have been operating with the conviction that Council might schedule or even conduct its hearing at any time, as long as the Planning Commission did in fact make its recommendation.

What is clear is the hearing never got scheduled, that Patrick M. Risha's rights to due process were violated, and for that he wound up with his adult entertainment permit deemed approved by a judge -- despite vocal opposition from most city decision makers.

What is also clear is that for whatever reason, Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczko did not send those documents over to City Council in a routine manner -- and it's also clear that nobody over at City Council, many of whom were highly concerned with and well aware of the issue, assertively took some action or made a fuss about the apparent lack of activity.

For you see, the strip club issue was thorny from the start. The City Code permits adult entertainment such as at strip club, but only as a Conditional Use. That is, ultimately only if the Council agrees that it's okay and it won't cause harm to the community. In order for them to legitimately vote that a strip club would not be okay, they'd need to at least cite some harm. It's a little like fracking, actually.

There are some ways the City might have tackled this:

1) Launch an intensive and possibly groundbreaking research project to link adult entertainment to an increased incidence of something bad -- how about cocaine addition and overdose? How about ambulance trips in general? (*-UPDATE: No, how about other things) Then vote to disallow it.

2) Launch a PowerPoint presentation relying mostly on puritanical argument and speculation, then vote to disallow it. Hope the plaintiff doesn't realize that the case can be appealed to Commonwealth Court, where due to its weakness it possibly (but certainly not definitely) may be overturned.

3) Launch a fishing expedition to figure out other stuff we don't like or say we want changed about the dude's strip club -- parking and traffic issues, trailway access and LEED Gold environmental certification -- making it so expensive and time-consuming that the guy gets the point. Some call this the Don Barden route.

Most of these, in ascending order, would have been difficult to pull on Risha the Younger, because Risha the Elder has experience and resources to bring to bear on these matters. Still, some blocking tactics of some kind would have been called for -- instead everybody just stood around, seemingly daring one another to make the first move against the incoming strip club.

What's of more interest, if we're talking about Patrick M. Risha, is the frack water concession.


Greene Disposal LLC, a new firm with several governmental ties, now serves as a middleman between gas drillers and municipal authorities, paying sanitation facilities to take tainted water and getting payment from drilling firms, while never actually touching the stuff.

Its team includes Patrick M. Risha, 28 -- son of former West Mifflin Area Schools Superintendent Patrick A. Risha -- and relatives of two officials of the Clairton Municipal Authority, which has contracted with the firm. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Now, in terms of pure economics, that doesn't seem like a productive role. It's like Pennsylvania can't tax energy companies for fear of dampening the expanding industry and driving it elsewhere, but a guy named Risha can tax it because he thought of it, and partnered with people who know a municipal waste water treatment plant somewhat intimately.

But we're not talking about pure economics, we're talking about what this story means.

The vote came only after one of the absent board members, James Cerqua, disclosed in writing that he has a family member with a stake in Greene Disposal. Authority solicitor Gary J. Matta, of the law firm Dodaro Matta & Cambest, advised in writing that he, too, had a "potential conflict of interest" that required him to avoid any involvement in contracting with the company. (ibid)

Turns out Matta is representing Risha's ownership group. Turns out John "Jack" Cambest has represented many of the school districts run by Patrick A. Risha, as well as notably the Allegheny County Democratic Committee (lawyers' professional lives are known to get excruciatingly intricate). And finally, it turns out that when people read the name "Dodaro," due to some old business relationships they see the name "Zappala," one among whom is the present Allegheny County district attorney.

When Superintendent Risha's bumpy ride got bumpy enough that a newly elected school board ousted him and started investigating old contracts -- and finding some seeming wrongdoing (e.g. repeated substantial change-orders for the same contractor, work performed on behalf of and at the home of Patrick M. Risha, non-competitive changes of vendors which on one occasion prompted ongoing litigation, awarding a contract to the fifth-lowest bidder), and handing those records over to the state -- it became noteworthy that Risha and these contractors are quite actively supporting PA Attorney General Tom Corbett.

"When you're talking about public corruption cases, we have authority over state employees and state officials," [Corbett] said. "School districts, that's the district attorney, unless the district attorney [refers it to the attorney general], and I do not recall a referral ... in this one." (P-G, Lord & Neiderberger)

Very strange that for this act of journalism, D.A. Stephen Zappala was not also asked whether he is familiar with the revelations, and for how long, and whether he agrees allegations of wrongdoing such as these fall into his jurisdiction. Private investigations and media reports can easily be called into question, but one hopes eventually to see a policing authority provide clarity.

The West Mifflin Topix Forum has been alive with these issues surrounding Risha the Sr. for what seems like years, and occasionally somebody will throw in the term "Zappala" together with the Risha as though these are great buddies, or joined at the hip. I really can't say.

I will say that if there's a Zappala-Risha partnership, then strip clubs and importing frack water would seem to fit in nicely with what I described in a very imperfect blog post a year ago: with municipal bond "swaptions", juvenile detention facilities and the disposal of raw sewage. These are the jobs most Americans won't do, and the kinds of jobs that require winning superlative government contracts or government licenses, some important litigation and quite possibly some new regulations.

NOTE: There's always another viewpoint. If you don't like Superintendent Risha, maybe that's because you're lining up behind the newer school board. If you don't like a Zappala or a Verbanac, maybe that's because you are lining up with a David Matter or a Robert Lewis. Something to keep in mind.

OH! The golf course! Westwood Golf Club in West Mifflin!

The contractors have repeatedly made contributions to the same political candidates at the same time. In May, numerous contractors who did business with districts led by Mr. Risha appeared on the host committee for a fundraiser for gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett, a Republican and the state attorney general. The event was held at a golf club in which Mr. Risha's son has an interest. (P-G, Lord & Niederberger)


Their firm bought the club in March 2009 for $1.5 million. In May, the West Mifflin Area School District -- which employed the elder Mr. Risha as its superintendent until November -- filed a civil complaint against the golf club's owners, saying they owe $34,185 in property taxes for 2009, plus penalty, costs and interest. (P-G, Lord)

Huh? The son buys the golf club, the father sues it to finance his School District and pay its contractors, and then the whole gang uses it to throw a fundraiser for Tom Corbett? I guess I don't get the world of wheeling and dealing at the very edge of government. Not hardly.

I recognize the need to surround oneself with the right sort of Top Flight attorneys, though. I'm interested to see where this all leads.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Joe Sestak on PhillyClout: Toomey as a "Bag Man for the Ultra Rich."

He was quoting John McCain, approvingly. Great interview.

The Philadelphia Daily News is responsible for the blog PhillyCout. However having surfed over there, I found a sensational Philadelphia Inquirer story about a powerful governmental affairs attorney named John Estey who is in some hot water. Really adding to my workload.

Tuesday: Clear the Room

Everything else out of the way first.

1. You know how they say, "Where's the outrage?" Well, the Tribune-Review provides it, while the rest of the world plays catch-up:

Gov. Ed Rendell's acceptance of two no-bid, below-market leases of state land for natural gas drilling is yet another example of how his penchant for awarding contracts behind closed doors costs taxpayers dearly. (Trib, Edit Board)

If business like this cannot be competitively bid out, so that (if nothing else) we can be assured of getting the best value for sacrificing what were protected lands, what hope is there in this world for the rest of us? One has to wonder what both PA gubernatorial candidates think of this maneuver. It leaves something of the vulgar taste of the Marc Rich pardon; one hopes Rendell will further discuss the quickee land deal before he moves on to Transportation.

2. Oh, I get it, it's "Opposite Day" at the Trib. The headline reads, "Economy dampens turnout at Pittsburgh's Labor Day parade" and...

"There's a lot of unemployment right now," said Dan Gilman, 29, of Fox Chapel, who watched the parade pass on the Boulevard of the Allies with his wife and two young children. "If the economy were booming, everybody would be out here celebrating. But a lot of people are disenchanted." (Trib, Chris Togneri)

Wow, I'm reading this online obviously ... but if they pinned an A-1 above the fold story on this hook I'm howling. *-CLARIFICATION: Different Dan Gilman, 29.

3. It's go time. You hear?

"No question, it's going to be a tough year," said Michael Lamb, the Pittsburgh controller. "But there's eight weeks to go; today's the day when this race really starts." (P-G, James O'Toole)

Expectations recalibration on my mark ... mark.

"It's a scary year for Democrats," said state Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Robinson, as he strode toward Grant Street. "It's not just what's happening in Washington. [Gov. Ed] Rendell is an anchor in my district. That's going to hurt Onorato as well," he said, referring to the Mr. Corbett's rival, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato. (ibid)

There's a moment of opportunity here, clearly.

"The leadership of our party sometimes was more concerned with politics than policy," [Sestak] said, endorsing the widespread perception of an anti-incumbent mood among voters. (ibid)

The President (et al) is going to campaign for this guy. Makes sense. Sestak is sixish points down, it's a winnable enough seat for Democrats among some bad options, if Obama can help push him over the top (in PA of all places!) he could flip the post-election narrative no matter how bad it gets, at least as it relates to him. I imagine that will be sort of a Joe Biden relationship on the campaign trail but practicality works.

4. Whatever can be done to effectively help forestall the onslaught of widespread drilling and hydrofracturing in our general vicinity, that's super. All we have to do is hold out until the trickle of evidence arising from elsewhere grows to a torrent, and it becomes obvious that energy schmenergy, jobs schmobs, this is not the world's best idea. We don't want to become an exhibit ourselves.

The tests in Pavillion found that 17 of the 19 wells tested contained petroleum hydrocarbons as well as napthalene, phenols and benzene, the Environmental Protection Agency said in a report issued late on Tuesday. (Reuters, Jon Hurdle; h/t Fractracker)

This is the big thing that the industry has been maintaining can't possibly be happening. Everyone has been manipulated by a fringe avant-garde radical filmmaker, has been the idea. The goal posts will have to be moved accordingly.

4b. The Great Briemholio: Equitable Gas is angering his bunghole!

5. Here is supposed rendering of the Penguins' known short-term plans for the lower hill area, as provided by Reuse the Igloo!

I can't personally vouch for the accuracy of the "Yes or no, all surface parking through 2015?" question, I almost have to imagine it's in dispute. But I like this photograph for several reasons. First of all it really gives a sense of the canvas being worked upon, and how much land is developable with and without the arena, allowing for thoroughfares in both cases. Second, one has to wonder -- if this picture manifests, how much will it cool off the Downtown parking market? Do the lease bidders know about this? Finally, it reminds me of something Carl Redwood offered a while back-- he thought it appropriate that the community receive a tiny taste of parking revenue on this trapezoid. "At least they're bidding out the garages," he pointed out, so the city gets something in return. "They're just giving this one to the Penguins."

6. This just needs to be added:

As of Sunday, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hadn't updated his personal Twitter account since Thanksgiving, and a reporter's request to be his friend on Facebook has been awaiting confirmation for months. (Trib, Adam Brandolph)

I'd have to ask that reporter: well? Are you his friend? If not, you're still welcome to like him.

Monday, September 6, 2010

LABOR DAY FEATURE FILM: "Dirty Hands" [expdanded]

Battlestar Galactica S3 EP16

"The Organized Labor Episode"

Full program: HERE.

(Sorry, couple of pop-ups.)

Crowning moment of awesome only, here.


In this episode of Battlestar Galactica, Deck Chief Galen Tyrol calls a general strike among civilian military-support workers which service the titular Battlestar -- that being the only military protection for the ragtag fleet of civilian spaceships which compromise the sum total of human life remaining in the universe (our species is being hunted to extinction by psychotic robots).

The stakes aren't usually this high, in real life labor disputes.

In the sorts of labor stoppages we actually contemplate, there might be angry parents of schoolchildren whose education and routines have been interrupted, citizens who can't use public transportation to get to work and to their doctors, factories no long producing metals, manufactured goods and fossil fuels. Clearly there are still consequences, to say the very least. Best to avoid unleashing strike power if it's not absolutely necessary.

Chief Tyrol and his cohort act up on behalf of workers on the tillium processing ship -- "tillium" being the fuel for all spaceships. Again, a big deal. His grievances however were those that are terribly common in real life: dangerous working conditions, long hours, lack of time off and lack of functional grievance procedures of any kind. It was the exploitation of child labor, in the end, that sent everybody over the edge.

Management, in response -- in the form of Admiral William Adama of the Colonial Fleet -- had Galen Tyrol arrested for mutiny. Jailed, he was then threatened with the prospect of his 'ringleaders' (including his family) being executed if the strike wasn't called off. Tyrol gave up entirely, calling off what had by then become a limited general strike against the military. Gave it up like that.

Because this is television, Tyrol was immediately rewarded for his ardent sincerity and practicality by winning a good-faith bargaining session with President Laura Rosylin of the Twelve Colonies -- so the episode can deliver some lovely Aesops. But in real life -- in a trend that has become more pronounced since probably Homestead -- Labor seems generally content with using its 'soft power' rather than the 'hard power' of a work stoppage.

Soft power means: threatening to strike, making a case to the general public, picketing a few times, lawyering and lobbying, and rejecting a few contract offers. Brinkmanship. But that's all we've been seeing. And NEVER do you see sympathy strikes, strikes of solidarity, franchise-wide strikes ... these are just observations. Am I wrong? If I'm not wrong, it seems everyone is fundamentally content with their jobs and with the social contract. Or else organized labor is just that weak and diffuse.

Another thought. One issue that tended to emerge during Tyrol - Rosylin negotiations was social mobility. In real life, social mobility isn't a labor issue at all. "Social mobility", or at least the idea of it, is something actually that works very strongly in favor of management. "If life is that bad as a janitor, be something better than a janitor! Don't insist on health care, cost-of-living raises, time off and maternity leave!" If President Rosylin could have said that with a passably straight face in her situation, you get the idea Tyrol's movement never would have gotten off the ground, save perhaps for a few well-organized bargaining units looking out for themselves.