The businessman whose role in the Ravenstahl administration has become a top election issue was instrumental in saving Pittsburgh's troubled pension fund from state takeover, officials said yesterday.
Cranberry development professional John Verbanac helped General Assembly Republicans to get information on the city's pension plans that they had long sought, making some of them comfortable with the city's plan to replenish the fund with proceeds from leasing parking garages. That plan took a step forward this week, when the Pittsburgh Parking Authority started seeking a firm to negotiate a long-term lease of the garages.
Mr. Verbanac "happens to live in my district," said Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless. "I've dealt with him on other issues in the past."
During a debate on new pension laws, she said, "He just spoke to the point of view [that the city pension fund is] going to be above 50 percent [funded] if we can do this" garage lease.
On Wednesday, independent mayoral challenger Kevin Acklin released e-mails he said he received from a former city official, which show that Mr. Verbanac advised Mr. Ravenstahl on issues big and small, and sometimes urged the mayor to take positions favorable to developments in which the businessman had financial interests.
"John Verbanac is a lobbyist and corporate developer who is in the room when important decisions are being made," Mr. Acklin said at a news conference yesterday. "It doesn't smell right, guys, at the very least."
He said he hasn't "uncovered evidence of dollars changing hands."
Mr. Ravenstahl said he "never made any decision that directly impacted Mr. Verbanac or enhanced him or enriched him in any way.
"Mr. Acklin has failed to connect the dots," the mayor countered. "He knows it. And he's desperately attempting to create buzz shortly before the election."
Mr. Ravenstahl, a Democrat, has both the Democratic and Republican nominations in the Nov. 3 general election, in which he also faces independent Franco Dok Harris.
Mr. Verbanac has been a political consultant, a political analyst, and an aide to two Republican U.S. senators, and the mayor said he's tapped that political experience.
"He has been consulted there and talked to there and advised me there, just as he has on other issues," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "He's never written me a check. Has he raised money? Yeah, I would assume that he's asked folks to contribute."
When it looked like the General Assembly was going to pass legislation that would, among other things, fold the city's anemic pension fund into a state pool, Mr. Ravenstahl called on Mr. Verbanac.
"His relationship with the Senate Republican delegation was a strong one," Mr. Ravenstahl said. The businessman argued the mayor's position -- that the city should get two years to solve the problem locally before facing takeover -- with several GOP lawmakers.
"I'm thankful for that help," the mayor said. "I think that led us to the ultimate decision that we wanted to achieve, which was a two-year exemption, and I credit him with being a very critical part of making that happen."
Sen. Pat Browne said he talked with Mr. Verbanac, but was not swayed.
"He was saying that [the city's] current financial projections ... would allow the city to achieve an over-50-percent [pension] funding status in a two-year period," Mr. Browne said. He still voted against the final bill, in part because it gives the city pension fund a reprieve.
"It's interesting that [Mr. Verbanac] in effect was lobbying a state senator but doesn't show up as a lobbyist" in state disclosures, said Mr. Acklin.
Mr. Verbanac said Wednesday that he does not, and did not, lobby. "I simply made my comment."
Mr. Browne said he did not view his conversation with Mr. Verbanac as an example of lobbying. "No, having someone who has knowledge of an issue give me a call, and express his knowledge, is valuable to me," he said.
"I understand the context where Acklin is going with that," said Ms. Orie, "but I wouldn't compromise myself with anybody on any piece of legislation."
On Wednesday the Parking Authority invited around 20 firms to send in proposals to serve as advisers on the planned lease of public garages and metered spaces in the city, possibly including those owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Sports & Exhibition Authority. The firm selected would have until Aug. 15 to negotiate a lease deal, which Mr. Ravenstahl hopes would net at least $200 million that would be invested in the pension fund.
Mr. Acklin said he had more documents detailing relationships between Mr. Ravenstahl and development interests, including businessman Edward Grattan, and his staff is trying to "make sure that they're real and that they're relevant" before releasing them.
Rich Lord can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1542.