What Fresh Hell Is This?

August 27, 2007

Pittsburgh (City Government) Ethics

Gary Rotstein has a piece in today's P-G that might require a little reading between the lines. Here's the set-up (from the Trib):

Pittsburgh's Ethics Hearing Board on Tuesday cleared Ravenstahl of violating ethics rules when he accepted the two days of free golf. His share was worth $9,000. The outing was acceptable because of an exception in Pittsburgh's rules for charitable events.

The law doesn't require public officials to stay within a maximum dollar limit, and Ravenstahl said playing in the tournament -- which was closed to the public -- wasn't a gift. Board members said they might consult other cities, and revise some rules.

In some cities where ethics rules are stricter, free golf is a gift, said [director of Baltimore's ethics board Avery] Aisenstark and other officials.

"Cleared" might not be the best word as what happened last week was a discussion rather than an investigation. There were no charges brought, no complaints filed, so there was nothing to "clear" exactly. But it's obvious that the board doesn't feel that the ethics code isn't specific enough about situations like this.

So it's looking to change the ethics code. Rotstein:
The five-member Ethics Hearing Board made clear to Mr. Ravenstahl last week that it hoped to persuade City Council to change the code to address occasions of large-scale, third-party gifts, such as sponsorship of his golf play by UPMC and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Why are they looking to chage the code, unless they thought that what Mayor Luke did was wrong?

All kinds of questions can arise from such high-end outings: How much does a public official benefit by participating? Is his participation helpful to the charity? Does it matter who invited and paid for him? How much does the dollar value of the sponsorship matter?

In questioning the mayor about his participation, the ethics board members -- who stressed it was a discussion, not an investigation -- made clear they believe such third-party sponsorships can give a bad appearance. Both UPMC and the Penguins have had high-profile dealings with the city this year.

The state ethics code is little help:

Pennsylvania's ethics code also applies to all municipal officials, but it is worded rather generally and the state commission has had no case with the same issues as the mayor's golf outing to establish any precedent, said John Contino, the commission's executive director.

"The rule on direct gifts is no public official may accept a gift if it's intended to influence decision-making," he said.

Unless you want to assume that even though UPMC and the Penguins shelled out more money than many Pittsburghers make in a year for young Luke to play a couple of days of golf and that they had absolutely positively hand-on-the-bible cross-my-heart-hope-to-die no intention of influencing any decisions our well-dressed mayor will be making about the millions of dollars of business those two corporations have before the city, then all is well.


Anonymous said...

The damage has been done to Luke. The ethics committee even holding a hearing is a major step for Pittsburgh.

But I think the real damage is that the people now see Luke as one of "them" (read: management) instead of one of us (read: union).

Mark Rauterkus said...

Hindsight says:

Citizens -- file those ethics charges in a formal document to the board.

Pass the paperwork. Make a spark.

The wind came out of the sails in this saga when a member of the board had to call for the meeting. A citizen needed to push the issue to the board.

Furthermore, that citizen can't be "ME" -- nor a fellow blogger -- as that effort comes with an order to NOT speak any further on the topic.

Duty calls.

Anonymous said...

Actually, it's fair to use the word "cleared." It's true that formal charges were not brought against the mayor, but several of the board members (Hughes, Welch and Schiff) said in July that Ravenstahl probably broke the ethics code. That sounds like a pretty serious charge to me, and that's what the mayor was "cleared" of: the initial claims by the board that he had broken the rules.