Contributions to Westmoreland campaigns modest, frequent

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Executives at consulting firm Resource Development and Management write modest, but numerous, campaign checks. The most frequent recipients are the politicians who appoint the board of the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, which RDM runs.

"I've given to candidates of all sides. I've given to as many Rs as I have Ds, as many locals as I have statewide," said RDM President Joseph M. Hohman. "Are we major players? Absolutely not."

Mr. Hohman said he doesn't host political fundraisers, but does attend them, in part because they are a good place to meet others in his industry. "In small business, if you're going to be successful, you have to build relationships, and you have to network," he said.

RDM Executive Vice President James J. Dodaro was Gov. Ed Rendell's southwest regional campaign chairman during the 2002 election, but has since ceased political fundraising.

Since 2002, former Westmoreland County Commissioner Thomas Ceraso's campaign coffers received 13 checks from Mr. Hohman, 13 checks from RDM Chief Financial Officer Jacob N. Skezas, and 15 checks from RDM Vice President Christopher H. Kerr -- none in an amount greater than $300, according to state records. Those contributions totaled $8,375.

Contributions by RDM executives to Mr. Ceraso's campaign often came at or around the same time as donations to the same campaigns by Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County board members. Those board members are appointed by the commissioners, and that authority has, since 1992, been managed by RDM. Last year the authority paid RDM $825,000 to provide upper management.

Mr. Ceraso said the contributions stemmed from his background as a 14-year employee at the authority, during which he become a serviceman and union vice president prior to entering politics. In April, the authority hired him to serve as its assistant manager, prompting his resignation from the county commission.

Thus Mr. Ceraso, who appointed the board that oversaw the firm whose executives contributed to his campaign, was hired by the authority to work directly under the firm's supervision. "It is kind of a full circle kind of thing," he said recently.

The remaining veteran Democrat on the Westmoreland County Commission, Tom Balya, originally opposed the authority's entry into a long-term contract with RDM. He later dropped his opposition.

Mr. Balya's campaign account got 12 contributions totaling $2,150 from Mr. Kerr, 15 contributions for $2,350 from Mr. Skezas, 20 contributions for $3,275 from Mr. Hohman, and eight contributions for $1,750 from Mr. Dodaro since 2002, according to state records.

"[W]e will continue to exercise our individual rights, First Amendment rights, to be involved, where we choose," Mr. Hohman said.

In 2007, Mr. Balya and Mr. Ceraso faced a tough challenge at the polls. The authority, and much of an informal network of professionals that includes RDM's executives, swung behind them.

Rizzo's Malabar Inn, a Crabtree restaurant owned by Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County board member Jerome DeFabo, hosted a fundraising event for a political action committee called Target Westmoreland. Over three days, the PAC raised $59,200, including contributions from authority board members Mr. DeFabo and Don Ruscitti, authority solicitor Kenneth Burkley, and Mr. Kerr of RDM, state records show.

Three executives from developer Walnut Capital Corp., which two years earlier bought a property from the Municipal Authority for $6 million, gave a total of $5,500.

Three executives with Carnegie-based CLT Efficient Technologies Group, one of whose founders is Charles R. Zappala, also gave to Target Westmoreland. (Mr. Zappala did not give.) So did Edward J. Grattan and John Verbanac, two sometime business associates of Mr. Zappala.

Mr. Balya said that the PAC was mostly funded by people who do business with the county. "I appreciate the support, but there's no quid pro quo," he said.

He added that he and Mr. Ceraso needed the help to counter conservative publisher Richard Mellon Scaife's contributions to the Republican State Committee, which helped the Republicans in the Westmoreland County commissioner's race. Campaign finance records reflect $112,500 in contributions by Mr. Scaife to the Republican State Committee in 2007.

Target Westmoreland spent $50,000, mostly on consultants, advertisements, polls, campaign phone banks and reimbursing Mr. Ceraso's campaign for expenses like stamps and balloons. In the campaign's final weeks, the two Democrats' campaign committees outspent Republicans Kim Ward and George Dunbar by two to one.

Mr. Ceraso won a 4 percentage point win over Mr. Dunbar, giving Democrats two seats on the three-member commission.

"I think they had the huge advantage in money, as well as name ID," Mr. Dunbar, now a state House candidate, said recently. "I think their ability to get their message out better than we got our message out certainly made a difference."


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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