URA board calls for state ethics investigation on billboards

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The Urban Redevelopment Authority board voted today to seek a State Ethics Commission investigation into its Executive Director Pat Ford. Deputy Executive Director for Strategic Planning and Development Robert Stephany will serve as acting executive director while Mr. Ford is on paid leave pending the results of the investigation.

URA board Chairman Yarone Zober said the agency "is not going to miss a beat" and will be "all systems go."

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said today that he wants the commission's investigation into "anything and everything that they feel they need to look at" in relation to Mr. Ford and his receipt of gifts from a billboard company executive with business before the city.

"Pat personally has requested the State Ethics Commission to review the matter and render an opinion on whether any wrongdoing occurred," the mayor said. The URA, though, will be the entity making the formal referral, likely to be handled by its General Counsel Don Kortlandt.

The mayor outlined what he wants an investigation to tell him: "Whether or not anything improper was done. Whether his receipt of these gifts was legal or illegal."

Lamar Advertising executive Jim Vlasach, Mr. Ford and Alecia Sirk -- the URA director's wife and the mayor's spokeswoman until her resignation yesterday -- were close friends for years. Mr. Vlasach said he gave the couple gifts including a surround sound system, and probably neckties and cigars.

That came under scrutiny because Mr. Ford was very involved in smoothing Lamar's receipt of a no-bid lease for an electronic billboard on the Grant Street Transportation Center, and a permit for the advertising sign in an area in which they're normally barred under the city code. No hearings or votes were taken on the permit.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, a member of the URA board, also called today for a "broad" investigation into news that Mr. Ford and gift-taking.

The investigation should not be restricted to news that Mr. Vlasach gave gifts to his friend Mr. Ford and Ms. Sirk, he added.

Mr. Ferlo described Mr. Ford as a friend who is "very talented and creative" at getting development done.

He said he didn't have all of the facts regarding the relationship between Mr. Ford and Mr. Vlasach.

"It's not really for me to judge," he said. "You don't take certain gratuities ... Have I ever taken gifts or benefits of any sort? Absolutely not."

He applauded the mayor's decision to accept Ms. Sirk's resignation and Mr. Ford's offer to go on leave pending an investigation. "When the mayor takes decisive action and acts in this manner, I think he's clearly sending a signal" that "appearance of impropriety" won't be tolerated, he said.

Mr. Ravenstahl said yesterday's events involving Mr. Vlasach and Mr. Ford were very difficult for him, because of his friendships with both men. "We've socialized from time to time at different events," he said of Mr. Vlasach. He said he'd received "no gifts" from Mr. Vlasach.


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