Friday, June 27, 2008

For The Love Of Chair

The above council chair belongs to the Reverend Ricky Burgess. It remained empty through much of last Wednesday’s council session because Councilman Burgess was threatened with forfeiture of office if he spoke or participated in any way regarding the business at hand on that day. The same threat was leveled at three other councilmen, but only Ricky took it seriously enough to forego his legislative obligations and abandon his chair. The other three, Council President Doug Shields, Councilmen Bill Peduto and Bruce Kraus, decided they would not be bullied. They thought too much of their elected office, their own council chairs and the institutions those chairs represented. You might call this a very deep-seated Love of Chair.

Who threatened the good reverend? Was it the Mob? Did an angry group of atheists finally take umbrage to the pastor’s penchant for prayer during televised council sessions? Did one of the five known city Republicans attempt to wrest a single council seat for their near-extinct party? A party which has not held one elected city office in almost 100 years?

Nope, oddly enough the intimidation came from the city’s own law department!

You see, council got wind of a blatantly corrupt but kinda standard scheme involving the mayor, a few of the mayor’s top administrators, illegal signage permits for Lamar Advertising who regularly gave the mayor hefty “in-kind” campaign contributions, additional illegal sign permits to another advertising company who gave substantial cash contributions to the mayor, gifts of undisclosed amounts between various parties, awarding of no-bid contracts that turned out to be sweetheart deals at taxpayer expense, diversion of city decision-making powers to non-city officials who would help the scheme progress unimpeded. You know …. The normal kind of second-class corruption that regularly occurs in cities of the second class in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Well, council at first foolishly sought legal advice from City Solicitor George Specter on how best to null and void the latest illegal sign permit. This is the same George Specter who on March 20, 2008 told the legislative body that it was in fact illegal for them to legislate. But even after receiving and enduring that bizarre piece of legal advice along with scores of others equally as wacked out, many on council still felt obliged to involve their solicitor, impotent as he was. In the end, Specter would not or could not and ultimately did not provide council with any viable legal advice in this pressing matter. And with a time-sensitive clock running out, four councilmen including the Reverend Burgess, filed a last-minute appeal with the Zoning Board of Adjustments to try to stop Lamar Advertising in their tracks. The Four hired outside legal counsel Hugh McGough to represent them as Specter was useless. The Four then delivered McGough’s bill to the full council body for payment.

Dum-ta-dum-tum-taaaa! (Drum roll ‘cause the shit’s about to hit the fan)

For a legal department who took nine weeks to render an opinion as to whether or not a sign was in fact a sign, Specter and his minions blasted out an ominous and threatening opinion to The Four in a matter of days. The opinion stated that since four out of nine did not constitute a majority of council, their zoning appeal and accompanying attorney fees were of a private (not public) nature. Never mind that a fifth councilman, Patrick Dowd, did also file. Unfortunatly for The Four, Patrick filed as a private citizen, not as a councilman. And never mind that a sixth councilwoman, Darlene Harris, was advised of and gave her consent for the hiring of McGough even though she could not be physically present at the zoning counter to join in on the appeal. This situation provides an interesting glimpse into the world of governmental arithmetic where four plus one plus another one still only equals four.

Specter reasoned since the zoning appeal action was of a private nature, the accompanying legal bill would also be private. And since payment by the city of a private bill would constitute a personal gain, this personal gain would signal a conflict of interest. Specter warned that if any of The Four so much as spoke of the attorney bill, much less voted on its payment, they would be knee-deep in conflict of interest complicity. The penalty for such an illegal act? They all “SHALL immediately forfeit their office.”

Wow. Could this be true? Well …… not quite. Not quite that cut-and-dry. Specter immediately started his back-peddling upon grilling by Council President Doug Shields.

Shields: “Mr Specter, in your opinion it was alluded to or construed as generally by the members of the council and the public that somehow or another there was a self-executing removal and forfeiture of office at issue here. Is that so? Would you like to clarify that please?"

Specter: “Yes I would. We did note in our opinion that [forfeiture of office is] not self-executing and we did refer to the fact that additional processes would have been necessary. And that there is a constitutionally mandated impeachment process which would come into play and we did say that in our opinion. So it’s not as though you automatically are removed.”

Shields: “Where in your opinion did you address that?”

Specter: “On page 12 …. It reads 'not withstanding the clear mandate of the charter and the statute, it may be that the Pennsylvania constitution may require some process other than the self-executing nature of this penalty.'”

Shields: “May require. It is ‘may’ or ‘does’ it require?”

Specter: “It ‘does’ require.”

Shields: “Well, I think the [incorrect] inference, George, has caused a considerable amount of consternation. I don’t know of anything where there is a self-executing forfeiture provision anywhere, so why was that brought up? Why doesn’t the drafter of this [opinion], Ms. DeSimone, explain exactly what goes on in a forfeiture of office or removal of office?”

Specter: “I take full responsibility for this opinion. It’s not unusual for an opinion to be co-drafted by more than one member of the solicitor’s staff. But in the final analysis, I signed it, and I take full responsibility for it. To the extent that the word ‘may’ caused confusion or worse yet, consternation and fear, I apologize for that.”

Shields: “I’ve got an empty seat here. And the reason why I have an empty seat is Councilman Burgess’ interpretation of [your] opinion is that he can’t sit here but to risk his office. I’ll risk mine. That’s my choice. But what I’m really concerned about is the fact that the opinion is unclear and ambiguous on one of the most essential parts of the opinion. And the message to the council was ‘you vote or discuss this, the interpretation is that you’ll lose your seat. Automatically.’”

“So this is a very serious matter to me as president of this council. I find it very very troubling that we have a document here that is so ambiguous and so unclear. The state ‘may’ do something. The state ‘has to do something’. The state ‘shall’ do something. All would mean a whole different kettle of fish. I have an empty chair as a result of that. And you have, by the rendering of this opinion, caused a bit of a crisis here.”

Specter: ‘To the extent that that word ‘may’, and I now see that it could cause confusion, consternation, and at least in one case fear of removal of office …..To that extent I apologize for the use of that word."

Specter renders a legal opinion that says impeachment ‘may’ take the entire state legislature when in fact he knows it ‘does’?? Instead he alludes and threatens that the moment they open their mouth, if they open their mouths, they’ll be bounced from their council seat?? Right then and there?? And this is just a little, itty-bitty misspeak to which he apologizes??

No ….. This is the whole damn crux of this ugly ordeal. It is just the latest in a chilling pattern by the present administration to threaten, browbeat, silence and/or eliminate another branch of government which has proved to be too much of an inconvenient check-and-balance for them.

Kraus: “I just want to reiterate that the picture of this empty chair at this table and the precedent that we are sending here today. We had a conversation in your office, Mr Specter, and I told you this is not about the money [for the legal fees]. This can be paid. This is about the message that we set. We were the minority, having gone out to fight something that was blatantly illegal. It was found to be blatantly illegal. We did do the right thing. Bodies piled up in that hallway, people were fired and permits were pulled because we stood up and we did what was in the best interest of the people of the City of Pittsburgh. And because we did that, and because we are now voting to have our legal bills paid, Reverend Burgess is not in this seat because of the fear that was set. The message of fear that…. If you DO stand up and you DO try to do the right thing, not only will we hang the legal bills around YOUR NECK for having done it, but we may very well remove you from office for having stood up for the right thing. (Bolded caps mean raised voice) For what was PROVEN to be BLATANTLY AND GROSSLY ILLEGAL BEHAVIOR that WE FOUGHT. If you want to send a message to the people of the City of Pittsburgh that their elected officials are actually ETHICAL and STAND UP for what is right, that we will not only work toward but FIGHT to HANG THOSE LEGAL BILLS AROUND YOUR NECK and remove you from office. YOU send that message today. I challenge this body to send that message today.”

Peduto: “We saw something that was wrong. Something that was illegal activity that was going on and we blew the whistle on it. Throughout the entire process of doing so, we have been attacked, threatened and silenced: Questionable legal memos threatening removal of office just for speaking. Denial of expert legal advice in offering alternative viewpoints. Silencing of minority opinion."

"It’s not about this [legal] bill. It’s not even about the four members of council that decided to stand up. It’s about what effect it will have anytime in the future that a councilmember decides to try and stop something that is illegal and has a conflict that is perceived or real with the solicitor’s department."

"I think if there is any visual symbol of today that should be remembered for all of council it should be that empty seat for Reverend Burgess. And being threatened enough to not be able to carry out your job. I think that empty seat represents an injustice to democracy, to due process, and to the ability of those who believe that they should be able to fight the powerful. And to be able to do so with the tools that make them equal.”

Well, back on March 20th, Specter tried to tell council that they had no business trying to do all of that high-falutin’ legislation stuff. He tried to warn them back then but they just wouldn’t listen.

Ricky Burgess finally paid attention, vacated his seat and shut his mouth. One loudmouth, troublemaker downed by Specter and only three maybe four more to go. Amazing.

Peduto closed with some stern words about a lawsuit. I say it’s about time. Top of the list of discovery items? Pat Ford’s super-duper, super-secret, triple-locked briefcase. All of this done, of course, because of a very deep-seated Love of Chair.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Boy’s Got Balls

Trouble Is…..........They’re Not Really His

The mayor vetoed campaign finance reform in the City of Pittsburgh yesterday. He delivered a lengthy letter to City Council, making an impassioned case that his veto was the one true instrument of reform. And Council? Well, they were just hypocritical hucksters trying to pull a fast one on the good citizens of the Burgh.

Ravenstahl’s overall assessment was that council’s campaign finance reform bill was "fraught with problems" and he needed to stop it in its tracks. By contrast, a council majority thought it was the mayor himself who was fraught with problems … all sorts of problems. But the majority did not number six and so the mayor’s veto stood.

So who’s right and who’s wrong? Well, let’s take a look at Luke’s concerns and council’s rebuttals.

We’ll hear why large contributions to Councilman Bill Peduto are bad things but large contributions to the mayor are good. We’ll hear Tonya Payne lament that she’s unable to attract big buck donors, so limiting her opponent’s fundraising capabilities would just be another handicap she doesn’t want to bear. (Yes, I’m aware this makes no sense. But not much of what Tonya says ever does.)

We’ll hear Shields contradict Ravenstahl. We’ll hear Ravenstahl contradict Peduto. We’ll even hear Ravenstahl contradict himself! (Is that a surprise?)

Fraughtful Problem #1: Council’s bill provides an unfair advantage for the wealthy.

Luke: “Last year the bill’s sponsor (Peduto) received $50,000 contribution from a wealthy private citizen whose business specializes in outsourcing work to Asia. Assume for the moment the contributor instead decided to seek higher office, running on an anti-labor platform and self-financing the entire campaign. Under the current bill, the labor community, whose funds are raised at the small dollar level from working men and women and distributed through PACs, would be forced to find fifty PACs to contribute to the maximum levels prescribed by this bill to match the wealthy anti-labor candidate.”

Doug: “Simply balderdash. We’ve had wealthy run and lose. And we’ve had uneven playing fields. It really gets down to the content of the character of the candidate rather than how much is in your purse.”

Ms Pist Commentary: Well, here’s another fraughtful hypothetical to ponder. Let’s assume for the moment that two sign guys blow into town from Oregon and they give a candidate $25,000. The candidate then gives them permits for two Downtown signs even though signs are not permitted Downtown. But the Oregon sign guys turn around and sell the sign space to another sign company for $750,000, making a huge quick profit. Let’s further assume that the Oregon guys decide to move to Pittsburgh because the pickings are so good here. They could cut out the candidate middle-man and just run for office themselves. They could use the $750,000 profit to self-finance their own campaign, and then plaster signs everywhere all over Pittsburgh. Even a big one that says “UPMC” on top of the highest skyscraper Downtown. Just think of this hypothetical. It would be really horrible, wouldn’t it?

Fraughtful Problem #1A: Wealthy people could just buy the election with their own money.

Luke: “The most obvious problem is wealthy individuals could have the ability to circumvent the proposed rules by contributing unlimited amounts from their own coffers.

Doug: “That matter was dealt with 10 years ago in the Supreme Court of the United States. It’s the law of the land in this nation that if you want to donate as much of your money that is available to you personally…you can.

Kraus: “As you stated, that is the Supreme Court ruling. That is the law of the land, not just the City of Pittsburgh, but of the United States of America.”

Ms. Pist Commentary: Can you say ‘Hillary Clinton’?

Fraughtful Problem #2: It would have a chilling effect on the labor movement.

Luke: “A cap on the ability of labor organizations to promote candidates who share their vision is an incredible disadvantage for the labor movement and harmful to what Pittsburgh has worked so hard to achieve in an increasingly outsourced world.”

Doug: “The AFL-CIO, one of the largest labor organizations in the United States, has sponsored and promoted and fought for campaign finance reform in a shape very similar to the bill that has been presented to this council.”

Kraus: “The AFL-CIO web site says ‘Nothing is more important to our democracy than the integrity of our election system, that it be preserved, and that all Americans have full confidence that their vote and voice will be heard. These goals are threatened by a system of financing political campaigns that is widely believed to be corrupt and which unfairly rewards large contributors by amplifying their voice at the expense of ordinary citizens.’”

Fraughtful Problem #3: Challengers will be unable to mount successful campaigns against incumbents.

Luke: Went on a long diatribe about how three of the new councilmen who unseated incumbents were only able to do so because of the many “large” contributions they received. He said “One councilman got $5000, $5000 and $15,000. Another got $2500, $2500, $2500, $2600, $3000, $3200, $3500, $4375, $5000 and $5000. The third got $5500 and $12,500.”

Doug: “There is a pay-to-play world out there. To suggest that there is not is simply wrong. It goes on. It happens. It’s used to intimidate. It’s also used to keep people from running, period. And that happened last year when there was no money available for any other candidate to get in the race at all. So let’s not kid ourselves about that.

Ms. Pist Commentary: Maybe Doug was speaking of the mayor’s own race whereby he, as the incumbent, received these “large” contributions, which may have made it difficult for the challenger: $25,000, $12,500, $12,500, $10,000, $10,000, $10,000, $10,000, $10,000, $10,000, $10,000, $7000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $3950, $2750, $2500, $2500, $2500, $2500, $2500.

Fraughtful Problem #4: It’s unfair to have certain rules for city offices and other rules for state offices.

Luke: “Worthwhile campaign finance reform can only be achieved by creating a state-wide standard focused on leveling the playing field for all Pennsylvanians. [This bill] does not provide a level playing field between city, county and state office holders.” Luke went on to complain about the disadvantages of a city office-holder who might aspire to county or state office someday. While holding city office, that person would only be able to amass a puny “war chest” because of the proposed city campaign limits. His county or state incumbent opponent would be able to unfairly out-raise him.

Luke Contradicting Himself: “Quality legislation would treat each office differently. [City Council] is elected by citizens in districts 1/9th the size of the city. As such, it would follow that (good) campaign finance legislation would create contribution limitations that reflect this inherent difference between the offices of city council and those of the mayor and city controller. True reform would cap city council races at 1/9th of what may be contributed in races for citywide offices. This concept is not just logical it is also practical. Historically the victor in a city council race raises and spends no more than $100,000. Legitimate contenders in a race for citywide office often need to raise and spend 10 times that amount. The failure of this bill to address the inherent differences between candidates for city council and citywide offices hints that this bill is not about good government or even the sponsors stated intent to end a so-called pay-to-play system. Rather, this failure creates the appearance that this is simply designed to impact the rules for the race for mayor.”

Ms. Pist Commentary: The boy is just freakin’ paranoid, plain and simple.

Kraus: “This confuses me. It seems we sort of go back and forth between a level playing field and the fact that council and the two city-wide offices should be funded differently and at different amounts. Also, [this legislation was not] designed to impact the rules for the race for mayor. We dealt with that SPECIFICALLY early on so that this would not be enacted until 2010 to SPECIFICALLY take that misinformation off the table. This was not going to affect this next round of campaigns at all.”

Doug: “Candidates who are in the city who wish to run in the county or state can simply maintain two fundraising PACs. One for use statewide where they have an unlimited ability and get unlimited amounts of dollars out there.”

Tonya Contradicting Both Herself And Luke: “We just want to make sure [reform] is applied evenly across the board, across the Commonwealth, across all elected offices so that no one is basically left at a disadvantage. I didn’t feel comfortable with creating yet another handicap. It’s a different story when you’re a female in this business. And it’s a different story when you’re an African-American in this business. Those are two handicaps so why would I create another handicap? My biggest contribution ever was $2500. My contributions are never bigger than $1000. I can imagine that every man in this body here can out-raise me two-to-one or more. So why should I create anything that’s gonna handicap me. I already got enough handicaps.”

So did Luke have any helpful ideas for council as to what “quality” campaign finance reform legislation might look like? Yes, Luke said he would like to see 1) An open and transparent process. 2) Which donors are doing business with the city to end an “unfounded suspicion” of a pay-to-play culture. 3) Advocate for true reform on a statewide level with uniformity throughout both the county and the commonwealth. 4) Full disclosure of who is giving what to whom without a dollar amount attached must be at its core. (!!??!!)

Kraus: “Without a dollar amount attached? I do not understand. I thought that was the whole purpose of campaign finance law. Full disclosure of the amounts given, from whom, by whom, to whom was supposed to be a matter of public record.”

Things didn’t end as bleak as one might think. Tonya let everyone know she was voting ‘no’ because the Democratic Machine was not operating at its worst. Or something akin to that:

“This Saturday at the Democratic State Committee meeting a revolution (sic) was passed for campaign finance reform, asking that the state legislature take this issue up and that campaign finance reform become a matter of law throughout the Commonwealth. So I don’t see us saying ‘no’ to this as just the Democratic Party Machine at its worst. Because the Machine actually said to the legislature ‘move forward on this issue.’”

Doug Shields was easier on the ear: “For us to lose this opportunity is indeed unfortunate. But … we’ve had bills vetoed before. I’ve had legislation go down in flames. The great thing about politics and baseball is that there’s always tomorrow. We’ll keep working on this."