Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's city hall secretary was involved in arranging travel that was paid for by his political committee, according to receipts his campaign provided to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The receipts show that airline and hotel reservations for events including the annual Pennsylvania Society gathering in New York City and the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., were handled using a city email account. Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign attorney said Friday that the practice was normal for governmental executives, though other elected officials described different practices.
"Any time I have any political travel, that is not handled by anyone on the state staff," said state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills. He added that his schedule is probably not as crowded as the mayor's, and that "sometimes it is difficult to separate" political from governmental matters.
The Post-Gazette requested, through the Allegheny County Elections Division, receipts documenting 59 travel-related expenditures listed on Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign finance reports from 2009 through 2012. The campaign provided records, including emails from travel websites and hotel companies, with some of the email addresses of senders or recipients blacked out.
The Post-Gazette asked for unredacted copies, and the campaign allowed the newspaper to view the originals.
The most recent was a Nov. 27 email, from Delta, confirming a $216.80 flight from New York to Pittsburgh on Dec. 9. The email was time stamped 10:42 p.m., and went to the private email account of Melissa Demme, the mayor's senior administrator.
The mayor's campaign paid for the flight. It corresponds to the end of the Pennsylvania Society, an annual powwow of Pennsylvania powerbrokers in the Big Apple.
The involvement of city staff is normal, said Lazar Palnick, general counsel for Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign.
"The personal and confidential secretary for the governmental official always makes the travel arrangements," Mr. Palnick said. "The White House does the same thing. ... Governors do that, mayors do that, county executives do that."
It's standard, he said, "that an elected public official has their administrative staff book their travel so they have control over their schedule."
Amie Downs, a spokeswoman for county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said that the county executive "has folks on the political side who do things for his political calendar," and then communicate the plans to the governmental staff so Mr. Fitzgerald isn't overbooked.
On Nov. 19 at 12:07 p.m., W Hotels Worldwide sent to Ms. Demme's city email account a reservation confirmation for Dec. 6 through Dec. 9, at $511.20 per night. The campaign eventually paid the hotel $1,770.
Mr. Palnick agreed with Mr. Costa that sometimes a political function also includes governmental business. "We've overpaid for things if there was any question about whether it was political or governmental," he said of the mayor's campaign.
This week City Controller Michael Lamb questioned a December expenditure on the mayor's city credit card. Immediately prior to his trip the the Pennsylvania Society, the mayor traveled to University of Illinois in Chicago to speak at a forum and brought along government affairs manager Paul McKrell. The two had a flight booked to Chicago and then a second flight from Chicago to New York City.
While Mr. Ravenstahl covered his expenses with campaign funds, Mr. McKrell's Chicago hotel room and flights were covered by the mayor's credit card. At the instruction of the finance department, Mr. McKrell reimbursed the entire amount of the flights -- $626.60 -- with a personal check. He was reimbursed for half the amount by the mayor's campaign and is seeking the other half of the reimbursement from the city because the flight to Chicago is considered city business.
But deputy controller Doug Anderson said that the mayor's office should never put campaign-related expenses on the city credit card, even if they will be reimbursed.
Mr. McKrell said a secretary in the office booked the flights and he had no idea how the expenses were covered.
Prior to Mr. Ravenstahl's September trip with Mr. McKrell to the convention in Charlotte, Ms. Demme received, and then forwarded to the campaign, the emailed flight confirmation that indicated a total bill of $764. The campaign paid the bill.
"When there are things that the campaign pays for, there has to be a means to tell the campaign to pay for it," said Mr. Palnick. "The campaign would issue a check."
In November 2010, that seemed to occur when city Chief of Staff Yarone Zober received confirmation from Orbitz for airline tickets for Mr. Zober and Mr. Ravenstahl to and from Philadelphia. Mr. Zober forwarded it to the mayor and both of their secretaries. The campaign paid for the tickets.
Ten days later, though, confirmation of Mr. Ravenstahl's round-trip flight to New York for the 2010 Pennsylvania Society went directly to Ms. Demme. So did a November 2011 confirmation of Mr. Ravenstahl's reservation at The Benjamin New York, for a stay corresponding with the Pennsylvania Society gathering, for which the campaign paid $2,275.
State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, said that in the House, "people scheduling [for representatives] are allowed to handle non-governmental things because it's impossible sometimes to otherwise coordinate."
He said he typically arranges travel on his own. "I think I booked my own hotel reservations for [2013's] PA Society a month ago," he said. "I did it myself."
Mr. Costa said that for years his campaign has maintained, year-round, an office and a part-time staffer. "On travel that's specifically related to political activity, that is done by the campaign office," he said. "My senate staff does absolutely no political work."
The use of state staff to arrange campaign travel was an issue, though not one of the biggest issues, in the February trial of state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who was found guilty along with sister Janine Orie on charges related to the use of state resources for politics, as was former state Sen. Jane Orie, another sister for whom Janine worked, in March 2012.
In 2011, after Orie was charged, the Senate passed a resolution -- co-sponsored by Mr. Costa -- outlining its rules for ethical conduct. "No campaign activity may be conducted by a Senate employee on Senate work time," the resolution said. The definition of campaign activity did not include arranging travel. Nor was that listed among the exceptions to the rule, which included "de minimus" campaign activities and responses to campaign requests for information about the senator's schedule.
The Orie cases should serve as a warning that officials need to keep a sharp separation between political and governmental matters, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of the watchdog group Pennsylvania Common Cause.
The email confirmations of the mayor's flights and hotels "should've been sent to the campaign treasurer," Mr. Kauffman said. "All of those billings should've never entered city hall.
"If he wants to do campaign business, he needs to walk out of that building, and talk to his treasurer," Mr. Kauffman said, "in a campaign-related building."