Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says a mayor is obligated to support the community by taking part in charitable events, but he can't afford to do so from his own pocket.
City Ethics Hearing Board members say that when someone else is paying a charity thousands of dollars to cover the mayor's participation, however, it raises serious questions as well as good money.
After a 25-minute discussion with Mr. Ravenstahl yesterday about his backing by UPMC and the Penguins in the $9,000-a-head Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational golf outing in June, board members set out to create guidelines on future corporate sponsorships of that sort.
None of the five members who heard Mr. Ravenstahl's explanation of his role in the Mario Lemieux Foundation's fund-raising event accused him of wrongdoing. But they cited concerns about the "perception" that he might owe something to those who subsidized his participation.
"Certainly there would be an element of gratitude toward those who enable you to attend such events," Rabbi Daniel Schiff suggested to Mr. Ravenstahl, an avid golfer who participated in foursomes at Laurel Valley Golf Club that included former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann one day and Penguins star Sidney Crosby the next.
UPMC and the Penguins each contributed $27,000 to the Lemieux Foundation's medical research efforts to sponsor golfers in the event, including the mayor.
The city has had dealings with the Penguins this year over a new hockey arena and with UPMC over a sign it requested to put atop the U.S. Steel Tower, where it is leasing office space. Mr. Ravenstahl denied the presence of any favoritism or conflicts -- real or perceived -- from backing by the organizations in such outings.
"The only thing of value I received was knowing I played a small part in seeing the work of the foundation will continue," he said. "This was not a gift to me. I received nothing from UPMC."
Mr. Ravenstahl pointed out to reporters after the meeting that his administration this spring awarded to Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield a contract covering health insurance for all city employees, over a competing bid from UPMC's insurance plan.
Board members told him, nonetheless, that they want to tackle ambiguities in the city ethics code on the issue of charitable events. Such outings are exempted from a code limit stating city officials may only accept admission to cultural or athletic events valued at $250 or less per year, or worth $100 from a single person or organization.
The board has been researching rules that guide participation in charitable events in other cities. Its members hope to seek agreement with Mr. Ravenstahl on recommendations that would be forwarded to City Council, said Sister Patrice Hughes, the board chairwoman.
Among the provisions they are looking into are capping the dollar value of such sponsorships, or seeking to ensure that the host charities -- rather than corporate sponsors -- subsidize participation by public officials.
"This is a dialogue" with the mayor, Sister Hughes said, noting no complaint had been filed against him and he was not under investigation. "We will make some recommendations, but it will be a matter of arriving at a consensus."
After its public discussion with Mr. Ravenstahl yesterday, the board met privately in executive session to discuss what possible recommendations to put into a letter to the mayor.
Sister Hughes said no decisions were made, and she wasn't sure when the letter would be sent, other than "as soon as possible."
The board can only interpret the ethics code created by City Council rather than write new rules on its own. Ironically, the board first created by law in 1991 never met regularly until the Ravenstahl administration, as a result of his own appointments to it and from selections he made among nominees submitted by City Council.
Mr. Ravenstahl said he welcomed the examination the board is undertaking, but cautioned it to be careful about the limits it sets.
"While I recognize the need for close scrutiny of public officials, we must allow them to be part of the community in which they serve," he said. "It is for this reason the city's code of conduct has a specific exemption for public officials accepting admission to charitable events like this one."
Mr. Ravenstahl, who will be paid $96,511 this year as mayor, said he attends some charitable function on almost a daily basis without paying his own way, although the $9,000 value attached to the Lemieux outing was a high-end example. On another occasion, he said, the Yeshiva Schools in Squirrel Hill invited him to its fund-raiser, providing a table for him and guests for which others would have had to pay $3,000.
"I can probably tell you that Joe Theismann and Sidney Crosby were more of the show [at the golf outing] than I was, but I think at many events the mayor is a draw, and that the mayor is requested to be there to enhance the event, and I think that's important," Mr. Ravenstahl said.
"I can tell you when I am asked to go to events that I don't attend, those organizations let me know about it."
Mr. Ravenstahl's Republican opponent in the fall mayoral race, Mark DeSantis, issued a statement accusing the mayor of sidestepping key questions.
"Mr. Ravenstahl continues to aggressively defend his actions instead of looking at whether his conduct gave the appearance of impropriety," Mr. DeSantis said. "He continues to cling to the letter of the law in an effort to defy its spirit. Being mayor should be about solving our city's problems, not getting personal perks."
In an interview in his office, the mayor acknowledged enjoying the Lemieux outing. He produced two framed photos of the golf groups he joined with Mr. Theismann and Mr. Crosby. But he maintained that if the ethics board goes too far with restrictions on such events, "I think it would be harmful not to me, but to the organizations we are supporting."
Gary Rotstein can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1255.