Mayoral candidates, from left, Kevin Acklin, Franco Dok Harris and Luke Ravenstahl debate in the WTAE studio yesterday.
By James O'Toole Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Challenger Kevin Acklin accused Mayor Luke Ravenstahl of having improper ties to an influential businessman as the mayoral campaign took a sharply acrimonious turn as it entered its final weeks.
Mr. Ravenstahl rejected Mr. Acklin's charge that he had lied about his relationship with the businessman, John Verbanac, when he said he had no formal role in his administration.
After the campaign's second televised debate, the Acklin campaign sought to buttress its accusation with the release of an extensive sheaf of e-mails between Mr. Verbanac and various members of the Ravenstahl administration. The independent candidate contended that the e-mails were evidence of "outright corruption" within the administration.
Mr. Ravenstahl countered that while Mr. Verbanac was a friend, he had never taken any campaign contributions from the businessman nor had he allowed him any undue influence in his decisions.
The exchange and its aftermath largely overshadowed a fairly substantive debate in which Franco Dok Harris, another independent mayoral candidate, also criticized the mayor on issues ranging from his tax proposals to the state of his relations with lawmakers in Harrisburg.
Through the opening moments of the hour-long debate, taped yesterday afternoon at the WTAE-TV studios, the forum followed a familiar route for a mayor's race, with questions about neighborhood development, public safety, the city budget and city-county consolidation. Then panelist and station anchor Wendy Bell asked how Pittsburghers could trust the candidates, given the recent string of well-publicized ethical lapses of political figures nationwide.
Mr. Acklin had set the stage for the renewed attack in a previous debate last week on KDKA, when he asked Mr. Ravenstahl to identify Mr. Verbanac and another businessman, Ed Grattan, and explain their roles in his administration. The mayor said then that they were friends but played no formal role in his administration.
Yesterday, Mr. Acklin -- standing at the mayor's far right, with Mr. Harris between them -- renewed the line of questioning.
"Our campaign has come into receipt of very specific documents and e-mails that prove that Mr. Verbanac has had a very intimate relationship with your administration," Mr. Acklin said to the mayor.
"He has written your speeches. He literally puts words into your mouth. He's called the shots on who you hire and fire. He advises you on city policies and developments. . ... It is very clear, Mr. Ravenstahl, that you lied to the people of this city on Saturday."
The mayor responded, "Your accusations are wrong, they're inappropriate and I think it shows the level to which apparently this campaign is going to go over the next couple of weeks, bringing private citizens into conversations, making accusations that are false like Kevin just did. ... I would just advise Mr. Acklin to be very, very careful."
Mr. Ravenstahl observed that he "wasn't ready to be mayor" when he took office after Bob O'Connor's death in 2006, "but I am right now."
Mr. Verbanac worked on Mr. O'Connor's 2005 mayoral campaign and was an aide to Republican Sens. John Heinz and Rick Santorum. Mr. Grattan is a consultant who worked to bring former President Bill Clinton into town for a Ravenstahl fundraiser in late 2008. He is the brother of former city Fraternal Order of Police President Gene Grattan.
The Acklin campaign said the e-mails were leaked by "a former high-ranking official in the Ravenstahl administration," whom they refused to identify. The campaign said they received the documents after the KDKA debate aired Saturday.
Andy Gastmeyer, Mr. Acklin's press secretary, said the documents had been turned over to the FBI.
The Acklin release included numerous e-mails in which Mr. Verbanac weighed in on issues ranging from personnel to development issues to the content of the mayor's first campaign announcement speech. They did demonstrate extensive contacts with the administration. They did not appear to provide specific evidence of how the businessman may have profited from those ties.
The most significant development issues involved two instances in which Mr. Verbanac worked as an adviser to Forest City Enterprises -- the battle over the award of Pittsburgh's casino license and the selection of a lead developer for the former LTV site in Hazelwood.
In a subsequent telephone interview, Mr. Verbanac noted that his position had not prevailed on either one of those. Forest City was not selected for the LTV development and its preferred casino applicant was rejected in favor of the Detroit businessman Don Barden.
And Mr. Ravenstahl pointed out that, contrary to Mr. Verbanac's wishes, he had supported yet another unsuccessful casino applicant, Isle of Capri. The license decision was not the city's but that of the state's Gaming Control Board, although Mr. Ravenstahl, like many politicians cross the state, was vocal on his preference among the bidders.
The e-mails include several in which Mr. Verbanac urges the mayor to place his own stamp on the administration's department heads and other personnel.
While reporters shuttled between the mayor and Mr. Acklin, Mr. Harris, who turned in a solid debate performance, was largely ignored by the media.
The next and final debate is scheduled to be taped at WPXI-TV on Oct. 29.
Rich Lord and Timothy McNulty contributed. Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at