Cranberry businessman defends political ties

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Portrayed as a puppetmaster by a mayoral challenger, Cranberry businessman John Verbanac yesterday called the accusations that he's exercised undue influence over Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl "a little bit tiring."

Mr. Verbanac called himself "a guy that's highly involved in politics" who has "been a political consultant and is now involved in Summa Development" which is an investor in real estate projects.

He's "a valued friend and adviser to this mayor," he continued. But asked whether he benefitted financially from that relationship, he said only: "It's a hollow [expletive] argument."

Yesterday, independent mayoral challenger Kevin Acklin portrayed Mr. Verbanac as someone who has "written speeches, called shots on who you hire and fire" in Mr. Ravenstahl's administration. He released internal e-mails in which Mr. Verbanac gave the administration advice on development strategy, even as he pursued development projects in which city government played a role.

In 2007, Mr. Verbanac wrote to former city development Director Pat Ford advising that he was "a joint partner with Forest City [Enterprises] for the LTV site," meaning the former coke works owned by a consortium of four foundations called Almono, and managed by the Regional Industrial Development Corp. of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

"That interest of Forest City lapsed and they decided to no longer pursue the project," Mr. Verbanac said yesterday. "My partner and I, Charles Zappala, were big believers in the potential of the project," he said. So under the banner of their firm Summa Development, they pursued it without Forest City.

In February 2008, Mr. Verbanac got wind of talk that $6 million in state funding slated for the Almono site might instead go to one of Millcraft Industries' redevelopment efforts. He wrote an e-mail to mayoral chief of staff Yarone Zober, who is also chair of the Urban Redevelopment Authority board.

"You know very well of our interest in the site," he wrote. "To be involved in this issue and not have a conversation with me, is very hurtful to me personally and from a business perspective. It cuts my legs totally out from underneath me with my business partners, RIDC and a host of others."

Mr. Verbanac said he remembered that e-mail.

"That site needs a new entrance to it to be made real," he said, and state money could help cover that. "I was hyperbolic about the idea that that grant money would be moved. ... I specifically learned that Yarone was involved in those conversations.

"I made a strenuous argument to them that that shouldn't happen," he added. "Yarone's response to me was that they weren't trying to transfer the dollars."

Mr. Zober confirmed that at the time he was exploring the possibility of shifting state money from the slow-moving Almono project to a fast-tracked Downtown effort. He talked with state officials, who shot him down.

"It wasn't John Verbanac's intervention there that stopped that from happening," Mr. Yober said. He said Mr. Verbanac's e-mail was "not unlike e-mails or calls I receive from a number of people," though he called the businessman "an adviser to the mayor and a trusted friend."

In the end, RIDC chose Noisette Co. of South Carolina as the developer, but the firm pulled out in the face of the economic downturn. A few months ago, Almono and RIDC issued a request for proposals from firms that would refine the site's master plan. Four firms responded, and RIDC's project manager for the site, Bill Widdoes, would not name them, since no finalist has been chosen.

"We're not currently working with Summa Development," Mr. Widdoes said. Nor is Forest City involved.

This year, when the city faced a possible state takeover of its ailing pension fund, Mr. Verbanac got involved again. On Sept. 3, when Mr. Ravenstahl e-mailed data to Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless -- in an effort to win her over to his position that a takeover would hurt the city, while continued local management could right the fund -- he sent a copy to Mr. Verbanac.

"I know the issue intimately," Mr. Verbanac explained.

"The mayor originally contacted me to inquire if I have any knowledge or information with regard to the pension legislation in Harrisburg," he continued. "I had several conversations with Sen. Orie and Sen. [Pat] Brown."

He said he made a "strenuous argument" that "it was the worst piece of legislation I had seen, and it was obvious to me that the interests of the city of Pittsburgh were not being considered."

The city was eventually given a two-year reprieve from takeover.

Mr. Verbanac said that what he did was not lobbying, which would be illegal, since he is not a registered lobbyist.

"I don't lobby," he said. "I didn't negotiate with them. I simply made my comment. ... I was simply offering my opinion."


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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