Pittsburgh controller questions some city council spending as 'self-promotion'

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Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb on Tuesday scrutinized the way city council members have been handling discretionary spending, characterizing some of the expenditures as “self-promotion.”

City council members receive about $8,000 in discretionary funds a year, which represents an infinitesimally small portion of council’s overall spending. Nonetheless, Mr. Lamb, who released an audit of city council on Tuesday, called some of the spending problematic and recommended council formulate guidelines, a process that’s already under way.

“A lot of things are stuff you would think you would use campaign funds for,” Mr. Lamb said. “We just think it’s a situation that raises some ethical questions.”

He did not believe any of the expenditures was illegal but said funds spent on things such as advertisements for council members and parade entry fees raised eyebrows.

The same issue has been brewing in city council since Councilman Bruce Kraus was elected president of the body at the start of the year. He began scrutinizing invoices and has refused to sign a handful on the grounds that he believed “could be perceived as being political or campaign related.” The invoices have been approved by city council without his signature and paid out of the controller’s office.

One invoice he refused to sign off on was a $200 donation to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee from Councilwoman Darlene Harris’ office. The check was returned by the committee for reasons that were not clear. A committee spokesman did not return a call for comment.

Ms. Harris said it was a donation, not an entry fee, because she did not even march in the parade.

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak made similar donations to the parade committee in 2012 and 2013. A letter attached to an invoice indicates the committee asked for money from participants.

“In [an] attempt to maintain the quality of the parade for the community, we are asking for a minimum donation of $200 from all community leaders, just as we request donations from other participants in the parade,” the letter reads.

Ms. Rudiak said “the parade donations were donations that were approved by the president at the time, and they were also not the only ones like that by me or my colleagues that were approved at that time.”

Mr. Kraus said he’s formed a rules committee that will, among other things, clarify what the funds should be used for. He’s used them to purchase a vacuum cleaner for his office and for drinks and food for meetings.

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published May 6, 2014 1:40 PM

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