Ravenstahl's home renovations linked to Pittsburgh city contractor

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Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's home last year underwent renovations performed by a company whose president also runs a firm that does extensive work for the city Department of Public Works.

New Homestead entrepreneur William J. Rogers is president of R & B Contracting and Excavation Inc. Of the $2.2 million the city has paid the firm since 2010, $1.8 million was issued in 2012, according to Controller's Office records.

Mr. Rogers is also president of Allstate Development, which applied on Aug. 28 for a permit to do exterior renovations at a Fineview home then owned by Jennifer L. Eisner.

On Aug. 31, Mr. Ravenstahl bought the house.

Mr. Rogers would not say this week whether he has been asked by federal investigators to testify or provide documents in relation to an ongoing federal probe of city dealings. Also mum were the Allstate employee who signed the permit and, as usual when asked about ongoing investigations, the FBI and U.S. attorney's office.

So is it OK for a mayor to hire, for renovations to his personal home, someone who also has business with the city? That depends, said Ellen Kaplan, vice president and policy director for the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia local government watchdog group.

"Is the mayor getting any different price than any other person for whom the contractor would do similar work?" Ms. Kaplan asked.

The mayor's use of his own money to improve his home isn't a matter of public record, she said.

"The mayor may decide to be fully transparent, and it would probably behoove him to do that, if people are raising questions about services that are happening at his house," she said. "I don't know that the mayor's obligated to answer you."

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked mayoral spokeswoman Marissa Doyle eight questions about the way the mayor chose Allstate, the ultimate cost of the renovations, and whether either the city or the mayor had been approached by federal authorities in relation to the improvements.

Ms. Doyle referred the questions to Charles Porter Jr., the mayor's privately retained attorney. He could not be reached by phone, but indicated by text message that investigators "have not to my knowledge" asked the mayor for information about the renovations.

Online city Bureau of Building Inspection records indicate that the anticipated cost of the work was originally $8,500. A revision submitted to the BBI on Sept. 25 indicates that the job grew to include interior renovations and a 3.5-foot-high retaining wall, at an estimated total cost of $14,500.

Asked both Wednesday and Thursday whether federal agents had contacted him, Mr. Rogers would not say.

"I have no comment," he said Thursday. "I don't wish to go any further with this conversation."

Peter Hundiak, the Allstate employee who signed the permit application for work on the house, also would not say whether he knew if federal agents had reached out to the company.

FBI spokeswoman Kelly Kochamba offered only "a strict no comment on that question."

Created in 2004, R&B first was engaged by the city in 2010, when it was one of a slew of contractors retained on an emergency basis to move snow. The city paid R&B nearly $300,000 for that work.

R&B's subsequent work with the city was approved under a series of broadly worded contracts. In June 2010, the company received a 31/2-year contract for "general [rehabilitation], repairs and renovations for various sites" that runs to the end of this year. Another contract, approved in November 2010, was for "earth excavation and snow removal."

City officials said there were good reasons for hiring the contractor.

Some of the work was in relation to a landslide that closed P.J. McArdle Roadway in South Side in early 2012. Originally estimated at no more than $300,000, and granted through emergency procedures that don't require competitive bidding, the cost of the job eventually ballooned to around $700,000.

The landslide closed the road and created "a hazardous situation that needed to be remediated," said public works director Robert Kaczorowski.

"A grassy, muddy section that was undermined that was about to come down," Mr. Kaczorowski said. "There was probably only one other contractor we had [on the city's preapproved contractor list] to handle that."

He added that "R&B bid on a number of contracts with the city and didn't get everything they bid on."

The city's largest payment to R&B, for $357,900, was dated Aug. 13, 2012, for work on Riverview Park athletic fields. City operations director Duane Ashley said R&B was the least costly of around eight bidders for the work.

The mayor bought his house for $110,000. The prior owner had purchased it five years earlier for $133,000. The prior owner could not be reached for comment.

Online assessment records indicate that the house has three bedrooms and two full baths in roughly 1,400 square feet of living space on a 17,424-square-foot lot.

A pallet piled with stone beside the driveway Friday suggested that work on the grounds continued.

Allstate Development has a rocky history in its dealings with the city.

The firm was at odds with longtime residents of New Homestead -- a neighborhood next to Lincoln Place -- in 2007 over its work on a development called Cassabill Estates. Residents complained about massive timbering and earth moving, including truck traffic on local roads into the evening, despite a city permit that allowed Allstate to clear only 6 acres, change elevations by a modest 8 feet, and run trucks until 3:30 p.m.

A month after the Post-Gazette wrote about the permit violations, BBI terminated Allstate's land operations permit and began withholding occupation permits, effectively suspending house sales.

Allstate resolved the permitting issues and the development continued to grow. Mr. Rogers now lives in the development, in a sprawling house with an inground pool at the end of a freshly laid street.

Federal agencies are in the midst of what appears to be a wide-ranging investigation of city dealings.

Last year, U.S. Attorney David Hickton's office indicted Robinson entrepreneur Art Bedway and charged former city systems analyst Christine Kebr, alleging bribery and bid rigging in the award of a contract to install and maintain radios and computers in city police cars. Ms. Kebr has pleaded guilty, and Mr. Bedway has pleaded not guilty.

In March, Mr. Hickton's office indicted former city police Chief Nate Harper, alleging diversion of public funds for personal use. Mr. Harper has pleaded not guilty, but his attorneys have said that he plans to plead guilty and is cooperating with federal investigators.

This month, the city complied with a grand jury subpoena for records of parking variances granted by the police bureau. And this week, the grand jury heard testimony from mayoral senior administrator Melissa Demme and mayoral security officers Sgt. Dominick Sciulli and Sgt. Matthew Gauntner.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 and on Twitter: @richelord. Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. Joe Smydo and Liz Navratil contributed.


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