Pat Ford, the city of Pittsburgh's embattled development czar, said yesterday that he was trying to investigate the Pittsburgh Housing Authority when news stories about his receipt of gifts caused his suspension and prompted an ethics probe.
He suggested it wasn't a coincidence, and details emerged of a bureaucratic struggle between Mr. Ford and housing authority Executive Director A. Fulton Meachem Jr.
Mr. Ford, the Urban Redevelopment Authority executive director, described a monthlong effort to "blow the whistle" at the housing authority, whose board he chaired, culminating in an April 8 meeting with Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
"Within 20 hours, I am smeared by everybody after 20 years of exemplary public service," Mr. Ford said.
Mr. Meachem disputed parts of Mr. Ford's account, as did Internet writers who helped prompt news stories about Mr. Ford's receipt of gifts from a billboard firm executive. Mr. Meachem claimed "zero knowledge or information about Mr. Ford or any of his personal dealings" before they emerged in news reports last week.
Interviews Mr. Ford gave yesterday at the Downtown office of his attorney, Lawrence Fisher of Cohen and Willwerth, were his first since reports Wednesday that he and his wife, former mayoral press secretary Alecia Sirk, accepted Christmas gifts from Lamar Advertising Real Estate Manager Jim Vlasach.
The gift story broke in part because Ms. Sirk mentioned her receipt of a surround sound system from the billboard executive in an Internet posting.
In addition to the surround sound system given to Ms. Sirk in 2006, Mr. Vlasach gave Mr. Ford neckties and cigars last year.
The gifts became controversial because the city zoning administrator and the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, in a process guided by Mr. Ford, granted Lamar a permit and a lease for a 1,200-square-foot digital billboard on the Grant Street Transportation Center without public bids, hearings or votes.
The lack of public process has drawn criticism, including from five Pittsburgh City Council members who have filed zoning appeals challenging the permit.
Mr. Ford was placed on paid leave last week and the URA, at his suggestion, asked for a State Ethics Commission probe.
He yesterday painted a picture of a lengthy battle over spending with Mr. Meachem. It worsened in February, when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl asked Mr. Ford to look into reports by KDKA-TV reporter Marty Griffin that highlighted housing authority spending on concerts, chocolates, clothing and other non-housing-related items.
Mr. Meachem has said that some of the spending preceded his tenure, and some was driven by anti-drug programs.
Mr. Ford said he sought a "forensic audit," but couldn't get it onto the authority board's agenda. "Immediately, Fulton Meachem at the housing authority started doing everything he could to discredit me and discard me," he said.
Mr. Meachem said a reporter's call yesterday was "the first time I've heard of a forensic audit." He added: "To my knowledge, there's no criminal behavior, no misconduct at this agency."
Housing authority board Vice Chair Doris Carson Williams said Mr. Ford's interest in a special audit was news to her. "If he felt the need for an audit, why didn't he just do the audit? A board chair can order an audit," she said.
She said she was not aware of any attempt to resist an audit.
After Mr. Ford began probing authority activities, the agency asked law firm Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll to review whether Mr. Ford could serve as both URA director and a member of the housing board. The authority got a March 25 opinion saying there was a conflict of interest. Mr. Meachem said he sought the opinion after Mr. Ford reneged on an earlier plan to give up his seat on the authority board.
Mr. Ford said that prior to the board's March 27 meeting, he was "coerced and threatened" by Mr. Meachem, who said he would seek federal Department of Housing and Urban Development "sanctions" if Mr. Ford stayed on the panel. Mr. Ford opted not to attend that meeting.
On April 7, HUD wrote to Mr. Meachem demanding "the immediate resignation of Mr. Ford" from the board. Mr. Ford said city Chief of Staff Yarone Zober then asked him for his resignation, and he provided it.
That day, blogger Bram Reichbaum contacted Ms. Sirk and began asking about her receipt of the surround sound system. Mr. Ford said his wife "was contacted and threatened that if she did not, or I did not comment on the entries in [Ms. Sirk's] blog, then they would be released publicly."
He would not say who made the threat. Mr. Reichbaum said he never made anything resembling a threat, though the "implication was that I was at least thinking about writing about it."
The anonymous author of the blog The Burgh Report, who worked with Mr. Reichbaum on the surround sound issue, wrote in an e-mail yesterday that he got news of the gift from sources "unrelated to the Housing Authority." He said he and Mr. Reichbaum held off on reporting the story because they heard the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was working on it.
Mr. Meachem said the authority "hasn't done anything and will not do anything to jeopardize" Mr. Ford. "Until [news organizations] reported on it, we [didn't] know about any gifts."
Mr. Ford last Tuesday told the Tribune-Review about his relationship with Mr. Vlasach.
That day, Mr. Ford was in Mr. Zappala's office, describing concerns about "irregularities in [housing authority] spending, inappropriate lobbying of board members for lucrative contracts [and] reckless mismanagement of a multimillion-dollar project in Garfield, where I had to step in at the last minute to keep it from collapse."
Mr. Zappala said his office initiated the meeting, following Mr. Griffin's reporting and an anonymous tip. He assigned an assistant district attorney to look into it, but said it "would be inappropriate to refer to it as a criminal investigation at this point. ... We're just reviewing, like we do when expenditures come up from different agencies."
The authority has indicated it will cooperate, he added.
That night, Ms. Sirk called Matt Hogue, a former housing authority assistant property manager who has criticized the agency's spending since resigning in October. Mr. Hogue said she asked him to call Deputy District Attorney Lawrence Claus promptly. Mr. Hogue presumed that she wanted him to offer the public corruption prosecutor his insights on the authority's workings, which he did.
Mr. Ford countered HUD's push to get him off of the housing authority board with an April 9 letter from attorney Bernard M. Schneider, of Brucker Schneider & Porter, saying that there was no conflict of interest and asking that he remain on the board. On that morning, though, news of the gifts emerged.
By day's end, Ms. Sirk had resigned under pressure, and Mr. Ford's career was under a cloud.
He said he will cooperate fully with the ethics probe. "I just want the chance to get my job back. I have nothing to hide."
He said the surround sound system retails at $215 -- below the $250 threshold for gift reporting under state ethics rules.
"A $200 gift from a friend is going to sway me on a $7 million billboard?" he asked, hypothetically. Lamar has said in court documents that it has spent $2 million on the unfinished sign.
Mr. Ford was unhappy about the handling of his leave of absence by the administration.
He said the URA agreed to help him file a request for an inquiry with the State Ethics Commission, but then apparently went ahead and filed it without his input. URA General Counsel Don Kortlandt would not comment.
"There's been no effort to freeze him out," said Mr. Zober, who is also the board chair of the URA. "Pat sought the [Ethics Commission] determination himself to clear his name on the issue of gifts, a good idea and one that the URA board accepted on his recommendation."
Mr. Ford said his access to the tools of doing his job was shut off abruptly. "Phone's turned off. I can't even get to my calendar where I keep my doctor's appointments," he said. He said he hasn't been able to access his e-mail.
"Once he voluntarily took his paid leave pending the determination, we discussed his use of authority property and he agreed" to relinquish a publicly owned vehicle he used and other tools, said Mr. Zober. "We sympathize with Pat and his family as this must be an extraordinarily difficult time for them."
Staff writer Mark Belko contributed. Rich Lord can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1542.