Ravenstahl chief of staff Yarone Zober appears before grand jury

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A federal grand jury probing the city of Pittsburgh heard testimony Tuesday from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's longtime chief of staff Yarone Zober, and from a woman the mayor has dated.

The closed-door inquiry reached ever closer to the mayor on the same day that a judge set an Oct. 18 date for the guilty plea of former police chief Nate Harper, who was indicted in March.

Despite the developments, Mr. Ravenstahl's attorney said he didn't think federal agencies would find any wrongdoing on the mayor's part.

"We're not concerned that Yarone Zober is there," said Charles Porter Jr., who is Mr. Ravenstahl's private attorney, in a phone interview conducted while the chief of staff was testifying. "I don't think the government is going to find any criminality."

He declined to comment specifically on the morning grand jury appearance of Ashlee Olivo, 26, an account executive with KDKA-TV who has dated the mayor.

"It does appear that the government is intent on exploring every aspect of the mayor's personal life," Mr. Porter said. "We don't know where they're going. ... They can explore what they will."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Cessar, who is leading the investigation, declined to comment.

Mr. Zober, 38, said nothing to reporters after spending an hour and 15 minutes in the grand jury room. Attorney Douglas Sughrue later issued a statement indicating that the chief of staff "was subpoenaed to testify as a fact witness" in the probe.

"To that end, Mr. Zober appeared before the grand jury, testified truthfully and to the best of his ability," Mr. Sughrue wrote. "Out of respect for the grand jury process, we have no further comment at this time."

Mr. Zober has been the day-to-day manager of most of the city's non-public-safety operations since late 2006. In April the Post-Gazette explored Mr. Ravenstahl's travel arrangements and found that Mr. Zober was sometimes involved in planning political trips, and occasionally accompanied the mayor.

Mr. Zober also is the chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority board. Federal investigators have asked people questions about at least one URA contracting process, in which William Penn Parking of Green Tree was awarded leases to manage two publicly owned lots even though other companies offered the agency higher payments.

Mr. Zober was involved in email discussions of the lot lease process, and Mr. Ravenstahl was copied on some of the communications, the Post-Gazette reported in June. Mr. Zober said then that he didn't recall directing the agency to bid out the lots, which had long been run by another company, nor did he remember why the mayor was copied.

William Penn Parking is owned by Robert Gigliotti, who also runs Tri-State Valet. The latter firm received unusual numbers of variances to park cars on city streets. Federal prosecutors have received records of variances from the Bureau of Police.

Neither URA nor city officials would provide information about Mr. Zober's grand jury appearance.

"All I can say is ... that the city has cooperated with the investigation from the beginning and we will continue to cooperate," said city Solicitor Dan Regan.

Ms. Olivo of Venetia has worked as a dance coach at Peters Township School District. This year she was named one of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation's 50 Finest.

"Ashlee was subpoenaed as a fact witness," said her attorney, David Cercone, shortly after her departure from the grand jury room after more than half an hour. "She is not being investigated and is not a target for any wrongdoing and is cooperating fully with the authorities."

Ms. Olivo is a 2009 graduate of Allegheny College with a bachelor of art in communication arts and a minor in writing and history. She was also on the cheerleading squad and with the Orchesis Dance Company, an on-campus troupe.

She volunteered for the Young Women's Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation. Last year, she was involved in organizing a fundraiser called the "Power of Pink Challenge" with Panera Bread, a competition between Pittsburgh and Cleveland franchises to sell the most pink ribbon bagels.

Mr. Ravenstahl's office last year issued a news release announcing the event, and the mayor personally plugged it in a roundtable interview on KDKA. "Any time you have a chance to battle Cleveland it's a great opportunity and for a wonderful cause," he said during the interview. "All city departments, we're going to ask them to participate."

The grand jury has in past months heard from three police officers who have served on the mayoral security detail, the mayor's executive secretary, the former chair of the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority and a mayoral acquaintance named Ashley Barna.

A separate grand jury, which has since concluded, indicted Mr. Harper in March for conspiracy in relation to the alleged diversion of some $70,000 in public money into an unauthorized account, of which he is accused of spending about $30,000 for personal uses. He was also indicted on four counts of failure to file tax returns.

Nearly six months after his indictment, his attorneys declined to file motions challenging the charges, and U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon scheduled his change of plea hearing.

"At the present time there is no plea agreement with government," said attorney Robert Leight, who represents Mr. Harper. Prosecutors, he said, "haven't offered him a good plea agreement."

Mr. Leight said Mr. Harper has been interviewed repeatedly by federal agents investigating the city, but not since June. Federal prosecutors have not offered any sentencing consideration in return for his cooperation, he added.

Mr. Leight said federal sentencing guidelines suggest 15 to 21 months in prison for a person facing the charges against the former chief, and with his lack of any prior criminal record. The defense will argue at sentencing for home detention.

In federal court, sentencing typically occurs about four months after the plea hearing.

"He feels bad," Mr. Leight said of Mr. Harper. "He's embarrassed more than anything else. He's lived a good life. He's an honest person. The situation just got the best of him."

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 and on Twitter: @richelord. First Published September 10, 2013 10:00 AM


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