Former Ravenstahl friend testifies before grand jury

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Federal investigators brought before a grand jury Tuesday an acquaintance of Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and a former Stadium Authority board chairwoman with whom the mayor has clashed.

Neither the acquaintance, Ashley Barna, nor the deposed board member, Debbie Lestitian, discussed their testimony afterward. Prosecutors maintained their customary silence about the proceedings and representatives of the mayor's administration would only say that their cooperation with the probe continues.

The two women's appearances suggest that an investigation that moved from Bureau of Police dealings to the mayor's security detail has broadened -- with no clear end in sight.

"I'm a citizen and I'm hopeful that everything works itself out in the end so that citizens can start to regain confidence in their government," said state Rep. Jake Wheatley, who was a Stadium Authority board member when Ms. Lestitian was chairwoman. "I don't recall anything happening on that board that I was a part of that could have become the subject of a grand jury."

Ms. Lestitian, 47, of Brookline is an attorney, accountant and assistant treasurer at Carnegie Mellon University. She was appointed to the Stadium Authority by Mayor Bob O'Connor in February 2006, and removed by Mr. Ravenstahl in June 2009.

Ms. Lestitian's attorney, former federal prosecutor Tina Miller, handed out a written statement as the two left the grand jury suite at the U.S. Courthouse. They were in the grand jury suite for less than an hour.

"I was subpoenaed to testify as a witness before the grand jury as the former chair of the city of Pittsburgh Stadium Authority," according to Ms. Lestitian's statement. "I am cooperating with the grand jury's investigation and testified truthfully. Out of respect for the grand jury process, I will not be making any further comment at this time."

Ms. Lestitian's first public clash with Mr. Ravenstahl's administration came in June 2008, when she joined city Councilman Bill Peduto -- who was ousted from the authority board months earlier -- in arguing that a pact with the Steelers and Pirates to develop the area between their stadiums had expired. The teams' chosen developer, Columbus-based Continental Real Estate Cos., was trying to move forward with a hotel and amphitheater, while labor and community groups were questioning the plans.

Continental argued that the authority had to sell, for $1.3 million, the parcels on which the hotel and stage would sit. A consent order involving the Steelers, Pirates and Rivers Casino, which addressed North Shore traffic issues, contemplated a price in that range. Mr. Peduto and others said the land was worth several times that amount.

Ms. Lestitian argued that the contemplated price might not reflect the fair market value of the parcels and said the development deal should be rebid.

In August 2008, the authority board voted, 3-1, with Ms. Lestitian in the minority, to approve two separate land sales, totaling $2.69 million, for the hotel and amphitheater parcels. Authority officials said the sale prices were based on an appraisal.

"We all had some concerns that the Steelers weren't [coming through] with their commitment," Mr. Wheatley said. "No one ever contacted me from the administration, one way or the other, asking me to vote one way or the other" on the land transfers.

"I guess [Ms. Lestitian] was never happy with how the things went down on the Stadium Authority," he said, adding that he has not been contacted by federal agents.

In June 2009, Ms. Lestitian publicly questioned the continued delays in completing the North Shore development and described the proposed structures as "ugly." Days later, Mr. Ravenstahl's administration informed her that she was being replaced, by another attorney and accountant, Michael Danovitz, who is now the authority board chairman.

This year, Ms. Lestitian has served as treasurer for People For Peduto, the campaign organization for Mr. Peduto, who won the Democratic primary for mayor.

An executive at Continental said the company has not had any contact with federal law enforcement.

Stadium Authority executive director Mary Conturo said neither she nor the agency has received any subpoena or information request from federal agents. Spokesmen for the Steelers and Pirates could not be reached.

The first witness to come before the grand jury Tuesday, Ms. Barna, 28, of Reserve, entered at 9:13 a.m. and spent less than an hour before the closed-door panel.

In an April interview, Ms. Barna, the former charter sales manager for the Gateway Clipper Fleet, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that she knew Mr. Ravenstahl socially. She said, however, that she had no personal knowledge of the federal investigation into city dealings and, at that point, had not had any contact with federal authorities.

Multiple attempts to seek comment from Ms. Barna after her appearance were unsuccessful.

City solicitor Dan Regan would say only that the administration has "cooperated and will continue to do so." He declined to characterize any relationship between the mayor and Ms. Barna.

Mayoral spokeswoman Marissa Doyle did not respond to requests for comment. Attorney Charles Porter Jr., who represents Mr. Ravenstahl personally, could not be reached.

In March, a federal grand jury indicted former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper on four counts of conspiracy related to the diversion of some $30,000 in public money for his private uses and four counts of willful failure to file income taxes.

In May, a different grand jury heard testimony from two police sergeants who have served as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's security detail, and from the mayor's senior secretary. In June, another former mayoral security detail member, Fred Crawford Jr., testified before the grand jury. His attorney said that he spoke mostly about the use of police overtime to facilitate the mayor's nightlife.

Federal agents have looked at city dealings with parking businessman Robert Gigliotti, reviewed documents related to the mayor's home remodeling project and asked for an interview with the mayor's ex-wife, who declined.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. Mark Belko contributed. First Published July 30, 2013 11:15 AM


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