Mayor denies Strip District club got special treatment
January 8, 2009 5:00 AM
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl
By Rich Lord and Jerome L. Sherman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Told in June of impermissible sexual activity at a Strip District club that was the scene of a death Sunday, Pittsburgh officials decided not to inspect the inside and didn't take a city lawyer's suggestion that they conduct "an undercover assignment."
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl yesterday characterized the city's handling of Club Pittsburgh, at 1139 Penn Ave. as "normal procedures," and bristled at any suggestion that they got "preferential treatment" because of their political fundraising on his behalf.
For instance, city officials said it was not unusual for them to take the owners' word that the club would curtail sexual activities, rather than sending city inspectors to make sure. Now that Youngstown resident Cleophus Pettway, 31, has been found dead in a private room there, building officials will conduct an investigation that officials would not detail yesterday.
Pittsburgh police are continuing their investigation into Mr. Pettway's death and didn't release any new information yesterday. The medical examiner's office is awaiting the results of toxicology tests before determining a cause of death.
Mr. Pettway wasn't the first person to die at the club. Alonza Barton, 44, of Stowe, suffered a fatal heart attack there on Oct. 13, 2006, according to the Allegheny County medical examiner's office.
On June 30, the city got a complaint about Club Pittsburgh. It alleged open sex, the sale of paraphernalia, and the screening of pornography -- activities not consistent with the building's occupancy certificate that permits a "health and fitness center."
A building inspector looked at the outside of the building a week later but didn't enter or write a report, said Bureau of Building Inspection Chief Sergei Matveiev. He did not know why the inspector didn't go in.
The bureau issued an Aug. 21 order that paraphernalia sales, pornographic movie screening, rental of rooms for sex, and go-go dancing cease, or the club would be shut down.
When club owners Peter Karlovich and Steven Herforth approached the city, they got a meeting with Mr. Ravenstahl's chief of staff, Yarone Zober, Solicitor George Specter and Assistant Solicitor Lawrence H. Baumiller. The owners were weighing whether to seek permission for the activities, or curtail them.
In an Aug. 29 e-mail, Mr. Baumiller wrote to other officials that the city will "have to find a way to verify that the adult uses actually cease" and recommended "an undercover assignment." No such assignment occurred, officials said yesterday.
The city on Sept. 11 withdrew the cease-and-desist order based on an understanding that, as Mr. Specter put it, "maybe certain behavior on the roof of the building" would stop, along with paraphernalia sales and go-go dancing.
Mr. Ravenstahl said he had never heard about any improper activity at Club Pittsburgh until yesterday.
The club receives high marks on cruisingforsex.com, a Web site aimed at gay men who are looking for casual sexual encounters.
"This place is great on Friday or Saturday nights. Lots of nice people and a lot of action," one anonymous posting said on the Web site. The posting went on to describe explicit sexual activities that take place at Club Pittsburgh.
Another posting wasn't as complimentary: "The crowd is also not all that great. It's mostly older guys who don't bother to try to work out or look good -- and get [angry] when their interest isn't returned. Some of them follow and are aggressive but most people are nice enough to move on if there is no interest."
The club's entrance is on the 12th Street side of 1139 Penn Ave. Pulsating dance music plays in the elevator, which takes visitors up to the fourth floor, where there is a small lobby. A onetime membership costs $9, according to Club Pittsburgh's Web site. An annual "silver" membership -- which includes locker rental and "full use of the club" -- costs $600.
Mr. Ravenstahl vigorously argued that the owners, who donated $2,000 to his 2007 campaign and held a fundraiser for him at their Mount Washington home, didn't get unusual consideration when Mr. Zober, the city's number two official, became directly involved in their case.
"It's our prerogative to meet with who we want to meet with," he said. "We want to try to help businesses grow here, stay here, expand here, and that was no different" for Club Pittsburgh.
"Nothing was done for those individuals that wouldn't be done for someone who sent a random letter to our office,"
He defended fundraising activities and denied that contributors expect something in return.
"Every contributor that has ever given money to me is not given preferential treatment, and the story line that continues I think is unfortunate," he said. "I also believe that every contributor that gives to us should not be scrutinized or penalized for the fact that they give money. They give money based on their First Amendment right to do so, and I think it's unfortunate some of the story lines that continue to linger that are bringing average people into situations that are giving money to political campaigns for no particular reason."
Council President Doug Shields, who also received campaign funding help from Club Pittsburgh's owners and was approached for help with the zoning problem, said there is "pay to play" politics in Pittsburgh. But he said it was not necessarily wrong for Mr. Zober to get involved with a building inspection issue.
"It would be inappropriate to involve yourself and then take action to stop the process," he said, asking for evidence that nothing like that occurred.
He said the proper course of action for the Law Department would have been to tell the club's owners: "Get in compliance [with city code], go before a judge, and if you're in compliance it will be fine. No special favors."
Councilwoman Tonya Payne, who represents the Strip District, said she knew of the club but never heard any complaint about it.
"They operated very low under the radar. The community they serve basically stayed under the radar."
She called Mr. Karlovich and Mr. Herforth "good community activists ... They're not normally people who ask for favors. They're the ones doing favors."