City money, consulting fees
An activist wonk. A tree trimmer. Some buddies who can do office work. A political backer. All have been considered professional services consultants under Pittsburgh City Council's loose spending guidelines.
Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle, whose spending has been referred to county prosecutors and the State Ethics Commission, is council's top spender on consultants. Since 2002, she has steered $134,300 to two dozen private individuals for services, including a half-dozen who were also involved in her 2003 election campaign.
A review of other council members' spending shows that none steered as much money to consultants as she did. But most, at one time or another, have used city funds to pay a friend, buy something for a key community group, or even retain a lawyer to intervene in a private legal fight. The funds have served to build political support.
All council members interviewed yesterday agreed that more controls were needed, but defended their own spending.
"I use this money any way I can to assist the residents in my district," said Councilman Jim Motznik. "I'm not going to change anything I do."
Each council member has a budget of $77,000 for staff, and $8,000 for various other office expenses, mostly for consulting. Under current rules, they can freely shift money from staff to consulting, though most do not.
They had a total of $99,445 each for staff and office expenses in 2003.
Mr. Motznik has been the most creative spender.
Since 2002, he has paid a total of $19,300 to Jack Carabinos, who has done everything from maintaining databases to cleaning community center bathrooms, the councilman said. Yesterday Mr. Carabinos was circulating petitions to get street cleaning services for part of Brookline.
Mr. Motznik has hired lawyers to help residents get a day care center to move its Dumpster and to prevent construction of a cell phone tower. When he found out that John R. Boyle of Carrick had been trying for 50 years to get a neighbor just across the city line to remove a fence from Mr. Boyle's property, the councilman paid attorney Robert W. Kennedy Jr. to sue to have it moved.
Last year, Mr. Motznik paid Gary's Tree & Landscaping $1,000 to cut down three dangerously leaning trees from a neglected property on Fordham Avenue in Brookline.
Mr. Motznik said the people who the lawyers and tree trimmers helped weren't his campaign supporters before. "They're all supporters now," he said.
In 2002 and 2003, Mr. Motznik hired Prime Solutions Capital Corp. to "do some research and financial analysis for me," he said. The wife of that firm's owner was a contributor to his 2001 campaign.
"I don't have a work document," he said of the firm's output. "I would go to their offices with a proposed budget, and we talked about what could be changed."
Councilman Len Bodack paid Robert Kramm, a longtime Democratic Committee member, $28,000 in consulting funds in 2003 and 2004 to staff a satellite office in Lawrenceville and visit senior citizen centers. Mr. Kramm helped seniors fill out applications for tax relief and rent rebates, and brought back complaints about trash, drug activity, noise and sewer problems, the councilman said.
Mr. Bodack also used $4,675 from the consulting fund to buy a photocopier for community group Lawrenceville United. He could have tapped other city funds that are often used for community groups, he said. "I guess [the consulting fund] process was quicker than going through the neighborhood [funding] process."
After Council Finance Chair Doug Shields took office in 2004, he paid Reed J. Millar, who was his campaign manager in 2003, $2,375 to do office work. "He was never getting a campaign check and a city check at the same time," Mr. Shields said.
His main consultant, Connie Sukernek, previously worked for then-Councilman Bob O'Connor, now the mayor. She is frequently seen working in his council office or in the Council Chamber.
"She has an incredible wealth of talent with media relations and for writing," Mr. Shields said.
Councilman William Peduto admired community activist Pat Clark's work battling then-Mayor Tom Murphy's Downtown redevelopment plans. So he made him a consultant, charging him with increasing young people's involvement in public policy.
For $11,500 over three years, Mr. Clark managed the Guyasuta Fellowship. Under that program, Mr. Peduto paid eight young people to do studies of everything from transportation to art, all of which are posted on the city's Web site. The eight fellows were paid from $400 to $3,238 from the consulting budget.
Mr. Clark became a political supporter, helping Mr. Peduto's 2005 mayoral bid. So did at least one of the fellows, Khari Mosley, now director of the Pittsburgh League of Young Voters.
Council President Luke Ravenstahl has proposed reforms that would require temporary employees and consultants to document their work and prevent the shifting of salary money to consultants. Council may vote on the proposal Wednesday.
The reforms wouldn't bar things like the $6,010 he paid to Ryan Connelly, who he describes as "a longtime friend," for office work in 2004 and 2005. He also paid Anthony Beatty, son of a Democratic Committee member, $4,210 for work as a summer intern in 2005.
Ms. Carlisle has not yet agreed to detail what the 24 consultants she hired since 2002 did, citing the legal inquiry. Council members Dan Deasy, Jeff Koch and Tonya Payne, all inaugurated within the last year, have racked up little consulting spending.
Like most council members interviewed, Mr. Ravenstahl did not believe there should be regulations on who council members hire as consultants. "We know who we need on our staff and in our office," he said.
Nor did he believe there was anything wrong with paying from council's budget for work done outside the office, or writing checks from the consulting fund to community groups or Little Leagues, as some council members do. "Those expenditures, for the good of the community, should continue," he said.
On that point, there's no consensus. "All that money is geared to the function of the office, and the office only," said Mr. Shields.
Councilmen Shields, Peduto, Deasy and Ravenstahl have said they will post their spending records on their Web sites by the end of the week.
Rich Lord can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1542.