A $1.6 million contract touted as a means to improve the landscape of Pittsburgh public housing and fertilize the futures of its residents is apparently also providing opportunity for a former agency employee who quit after publicity of his cocaine conviction.
In June, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh board voted to hire Pittsburgh Property Maintenance to handle its landscaping, replacing the long-standing practice of having permanent authority maintenance staff and seasonal hires mow, trim, mulch and remove debris. The kicker: The firm would hire around 10 housing authority residents and train them in landscaping.
"It's going to be a little bit more expensive," authority board chairman Ricky Burgess said at the time, "than it would be to just hire professionals to just cut it."
But it's worth it, he said, because it advances the prospects of the residents. "We're actually creating a training entity, a training opportunity," Mr. Burgess said on the day of the board vote.
It's unclear, though, whether the firm hired to run the program for as long as three years has any track record in training.
Pittsburgh Property Maintenance was formally created just nine days before it first bid on the job. The majority partner, according to the proposal submitted to the Housing Authority, is Phillip Alan Scott, who told the authority that his managerial experience stemmed from past work for Giant Eagle.
Mr. Scott's stepson and sometime business associate, Gabriel S. Fontana, is a former Housing Authority employee who left that agency 10 years ago, after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a story detailing his past federal convictions for cocaine dealing. Documents the authority showed to the Post-Gazette on Friday indicated that Fontana, and not Mr. Scott, signed up to receive updates from the authority during the bidding process that led to the contract.
Mr. Scott declined to discuss Pittsburgh Property Maintenance on Friday.
Housing Authority procurement director Kim Detrick said the bidding process was fair and open.
"Our contract is with Pittsburgh Property Maintenance, not with Gabe Fontana," Mr. Detrick said. "Gabe Fontana is on nothing that is in this contract."
Laborers Local 373, which represents around 34 authority employees who do maintenance work and used to cut the grass, has filed a grievance regarding the contract, which is going to arbitration.
"I believe it is the work of the laborers at the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh to cut the grass," said William Brooks, business manager for Local 373 and also the president of the Pittsburgh Regional Building and Construction Trades Council. "I believe that our laborers should be doing the work, not an outside guy."
A. Fulton Meachem Jr., who was the Housing Authority's executive director at the time Pittsburgh Property Maintenance was hired, did not respond to requests for comment. He left the authority in August and now heads the low-income housing agency in Charlotte, N.C.
The idea of having a firm hire, train and supervise residents who would landscape their communities sprang from "the whole push for self-sufficiency for public housing residents," said authority community affairs officer Michelle Jackson.
It has proved a hard row to mow.
The authority requested proposals for the landscaping contract on March 7, 2012, and held a pre-bid meeting on March 23. Sign-in sheets indicate that 11 firms attended the meeting, and no one from Pittsburgh Property Maintenance signed in.
Computer records that Mr. Detrick showed, though, indicate that Fontana, representing Pittsburgh Property Maintenance, was one of numerous prospective bidders who signed up to get online access to bidding materials.
"He is listed as pulling down the [bidding] document," Mr. Detrick said.
Pittsburgh Property Maintenance was incorporated March 26 by Louis F. Caputo, an attorney who has repeatedly been associated with Fontana.
The proposal submitted to the authority by Pittsburgh Property Maintenance lists a phone number that is now disconnected. The address provided was that of The McQuillan Group, an accounting firm. A receptionist there said Pittsburgh Property Management used that address only briefly, and she confirmed that Fontana was the contact person for the landscaping business.
Despite the number of firms that attended the pre-bid meeting, only Pittsburgh Property Maintenance placed a bid by the April 4 deadline. Federal rules required a rebid.
The authority scheduled a second bidding deadline, May 7, which drew three proposals. One was disqualified as late, and another was deemed unresponsive because it didn't include participation by minority- or women-owned businesses, among other reasons. The sole survivor, Pittsburgh Property Maintenance, was awarded the contract.
The firm took over landscaping in late summer. It was paid $77,835 last year -- just a fraction of the roughly $500,000 it is slated to get for a full lawn care season.
Ms. Jackson said the company paid its resident employees $12.50 an hour. She did not know how much of the money paid to Pittsburgh Property Maintenance went to residents.
Hit the ground running
Fontana left the Housing Authority in 2003, shortly after the Post-Gazette published a story about his 1998 guilty plea to cocaine distribution and money laundering. Initially sentenced to eight years in prison, his sentence was later reduced to around three years.
The Post-Gazette also detailed Fontana's role in a job-selling scheme at Alcosan. The sewer agency hired him as a result of the scheme, which spurred the federal conviction of former Pittsburgh City Councilman Joseph Cusick.
Hired at the authority in 2001 to work on its modernization and development efforts, he earned around $42,000 a year. Following publication of the story, the authority declined to say whether Fontana quit or was fired.
Federal rules bar housing authorities -- which are largely funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- from giving contracts to former employees during the first year after they leave. The rules don't bar authorities from contracting with firms run by felons.
Mr. Detrick said that if the authority has a problem with the lawn care, it will call Mr. Scott, not Mr. Fontana.
Ms. Jackson said Pittsburgh Property Maintenance is prepared to "hit the ground running" as the grass grows, and is now building a team of resident trainee/workers.
"I would hope that the training program would assist some of the public housing residents in gaining a skill set that could get them not just a seasonal job, but a career."
The South Side establishment S Bar was sold in December 2011 and is no longer associated with Phillip Alan Scott or Gabriel S. Fontana. An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that the two continue to be involved with S Bar.
Rich Lord: email@example.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.