Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's political foes accused him yesterday of violating the city's ethics code by attending a golf event as a guest of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The mayor's administration countered that golfing at the two-day Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational, which costs $27,000 for a threesome, did not run afoul of the rules, which include exceptions for charitable events, complimentary meals and gifts "of nominal value."
"I have discussions with all major stakeholders and business owners and businesses in the city of Pittsburgh, and UPMC is no different in that regard," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "It just so happens that our discussions took place on a golf course, rather than my office."
News of the sponsorship, though, raised an issue that has been a recurring theme during the mayor's 10-month administration: What are the limits on the perks of the city's top office?
"I would never take a gratuity of any sort whatsoever from anybody either doing business, or not doing business, with the city," said Republican mayoral nominee Mark DeSantis. "As mayor, I'm not going to hide behind some administrative rules."
City Councilman William Peduto, who abandoned a Democratic primary challenge to the mayor in March, said he has turned down things of value.
"Nobody who does business with the city is allowed legally to offer this kind of a gift to an elected official," he said. As an official, if one is offered, he added, "you have to say 'no.' "
If such gifts are legal, he said sarcastically, "let's let council do it, too, because I could use a new car."
Mr. Ravenstahl said the emergence of the issue was politically driven.
"I think it's unfortunate, I think it's cheap, but I've grown to expect that over the course of time, specifically with Mr. Peduto, and now I'm seeing the same from Mr. DeSantis," the mayor said.
The event June 27-28 at Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier included golf, breakfast and lunch in a private dining area, a gift bag, a commemorative money clip, an evening social and prizes for top finishers. The Mario Lemieux Foundation, which conducts the annual event, gives the proceeds to cancer research.
The second day, June 28, conflicted with City Council's public hearing on the recent promotions of police officers who have faced accusations of domestic abuse. The mayor's decision to golf that day angered women's organizations.
"We're getting a lot of pretty words from the mayor that he wants zero tolerance for domestic violence," said Jeanne Clark of Squirrel Hill, a member of the state board of the National Organization for Women. "But when he had a chance to listen to the citizens on this issue, he chose to golf instead."
Mr. Ravenstahl said he did not attend the public hearing because mayors almost never attend such council functions.
On the day of the hearing, according to UPMC, the mayor golfed with George Huber, formerly the health system's senior vice president of corporate relations, and Robert Kennedy, the vice president of government relations who was city operations director before leaving for the health care giant in 2005. Mr. Ravenstahl said the Penguins captain, Sidney Crosby, was their celebrity partner.
"Our patients benefit from the Lemieux Foundation," said UPMC in a statement explaining its support for the event.
On the first day, the mayor said, he golfed with Penguins President Dave Morehouse, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, PNC Bank President Sy Holzer and former football great Joe Theismann. Mr. Onorato also was a guest of UPMC.
The mayor said he used both opportunities to try to advance city business.
"The Wednesday discussion was arena funding," he said. "And Thursday was just general city business with UPMC."
The city code of conduct bars any "interested party" -- anyone with a contract, seeking a contract or suing the city, or with a business that "may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance" of city duties -- from offering officials "anything of value," with some exceptions. Officials also are banned from taking anything from an interested party that doesn't fall within the exceptions.
The exceptions include gifts of nominal value, complimentary travel for official purposes, admissions to charitable or other public events, free meals and drinks, and admissions to cultural or athletic events. Officials can't take more than $100 worth of cultural or athletic event tickets from any one source per year, or any more than $250 total.
The administration contends that attendance at the invitational falls within the exceptions, because it was a charitable event with a free meal. The mayor took a gift bag, but yesterday said he would return it.
"It doesn't sound like there's any legal violation, because the mayor never had the money," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause PA. "Any personal benefit he got -- that is, the value of the golf, the value of any goodies he got, the value of any meals he got -- needs to be recorded on his personal ethics statement."
The mayor said he will include it on annual financial disclosures if his lawyers so advise.
"I think it's been pretty well disclosed here today, anyway," he quipped.
UPMC may be the ultimate "interested party."
Council, for instance, is scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether the city should act as a pass-through for a $10 million state grant toward expansion of UPMC's Shadyside cancer treatment complex.
The day before the golf outing, UPMC won a 6-1 city planning commission vote allowing it to post 20-foot-tall signs bearing its logo on the U.S. Steel Tower. That decision came two weeks after a 3-3 vote by the commission, which constitutes a rejection under its rules, and marked a rare instance of a revote by the panel.
The three members who originally voted against the sign all said yesterday that they were not pressured by UPMC or the mayor's administration to change their positions. One, Lynne Garfinkel, said she abstained on the second vote because she was swayed by arguments that the city had no legal grounds to stop the sign. Another, Kyra Straussman, did not attend the second meeting because of a family matter. The third, Barbara Ernsberger, voted "no" both times.
"Nobody tried to lobby me," Ms. Ernsberger said.
The health care giant also has a contract to handle city workers' compensation claims. It recently lost a slice of the city's overall health insurance business when Highmark Inc. underbid it and secured that entire contract, effective in January.
UPMC's participation is also key to whether nonprofit organizations agree to continue to contribute millions of dollars a year to the city's budget after this year, when a three-year agreement expires.
The mayor recently hired David White, former manager of community relations for UPMC Health Plan, to the $88,859-a-year post of director of public affairs. Mr. White was Mr. Ravenstahl's high school athletics trainer.
Freebies have proved a problem for Mr. Ravenstahl.
In March, he accepted a plane flight to New York City, dinner and drinks from Ron Burkle, a Penguins co-owner. He characterized it as a campaign outing, since Mr. Burkle is a big political contributor. Following news media disclosures of the perk, Mr. Ravenstahl's political committee paid Mr. Burkle $1,055 for the flight.
On Oct. 31, 2005, as a city councilman, he attended a Steelers game with the University of Pittsburgh's ticket, argued with a police officer and was handcuffed. He has said he does not keep track of the tickets he receives, but doesn't believe they exceed the city code's limits.
Mr. Peduto said he hopes the city's Ethics Hearing Board will look at the matter, and will better define the limits on giving and taking things of value.
"I've asked today that the mayor take a pledge, and the pledge is for the mayor to never take another gratuity, ever," said Mr. DeSantis.
Mr. Ravenstahl declined to respond to that challenge.
Rich Lord can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1542.