Pittsburgh's ethics board has little clout

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In 2009, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl signed into law a raft of legislation meant to strengthen campaign finance laws and the city ethics code that was lauded as a reform that would usher in a new era of government transparency.

The ethics code "was one component of unraveling undue influence in political decision making," said Councilman Bill Peduto, who championed the bills and authored parts of them.

But since then, some of the critical elements in the revamped ethics code have been underutilized. The ethics hearing board, which existed before the 2009 changes, has been whittled down from a full board of five members to just two because the mayor has failed to fill vacancies or to approve the nominees selected by council. Although many city employees are required to receive an hour of ethics training annually designed by the board, there has been just one -- delivered in 2010.

One of the most critical changes in the legislation -- requiring city employees to disclose on a city website gifts they receive that are worth more than $100 -- has resulted in one such disclosure in nearly four years. While the employee fulfilled his duty to report that he received $544 worth of Penguins tickets, the ethics hearing board did not review its propriety, as the law requires when gift value exceeds $500.

It's possible that only one employee has received a gift worth more than $100, but Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak said it's more likely that employees don't know about the database or the requirement. In the code, gifts are broadly defined and include tickets to sporting or cultural events and travel and hospitality that is not business-related.

"I don't think it's well-communicated to new employees," Ms. Rudiak said. She said the Penguins offered her playoff tickets within her first year in office, but she turned them down.

Mr. Peduto, Ms. Rudiak and Councilman Corey O'Connor said they were unaware of the database. Like all new employees, Ms. Rudiak said she recalled receiving ethics training as part of a crash course during orientation, but she doesn't recall learning about the database. Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who doesn't accept gifts as a matter of personal policy, said she was aware of the database but thought the reporting threshold was $250.

Mr. Peduto, the Democratic nominee for mayor, said he hasn't received any ethics training in recent years.

"I didn't even know there was a form that [computer and information systems] was issuing for [gift disclosure]," he said.

Federal investigators, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Sunday, recently asked the Steelers for records reflecting the mayor's payment for tickets.

Spokeswoman Marissa Doyle said the mayor complies with the Pennsylvania ethics code and the city ethics code, which means that since the creation of the gift disclosure website, he has received no gift worth more than $100.

Ms. Rudiak doubts she is in violation because, like Ms. Kail-Smith, she adheres to a strict personal policy of not accepting gifts or free tickets. She pays for her own tickets to events and fundraisers. The one thing that might skirt the $100 threshold is crystal glassware etched with the Steelers logo that the Steelers send to every council member around Christmas. The glasses remain in their boxes in her office, she said.

The Rev. John Welch served on the ethics hearing board for more than a half-dozen years, a nominee of Councilwoman Tonya Payne after the board was revived by Mayor Bob O'Connor. Rev. Welch served until August 2012, when his term expired and he declined a request to stay on the board.

During that time, the board reviewed Mr. Ravenstahl controversial golf outing that he attended on the dime of UPMC. At the time, the board ruled the ethics code was too vague to determine the propriety of the golf trip.

During her tenure, former board member Kathy Beuchel worked to draft the legislation to overhaul the ethics code, with the input of other board members.

In 2009, when Time magazine invited Mr. Ravenstahl to be on a panel to choose its person of the year, the board reviewed the propriety of allowing the company to pay his way. A subcommittee of the board ultimately approved it, according to Ms. Doyle.

But other than that, Rev. Welch said, the board has done little.

"I probably could have knitted quite a few afghans over my time at being at the ethics hearing board," he said. At the outset of Bob O'Connor's service on the board, people seemed excited that the then-mayor had resurrected it. But then, "it just kind of faded and no one really paid us any mind," Rev. Welch said.

He said the majority of ethical questions -- raised by complaints or by public employees seeking advisory opinions -- were taken care of by the city's Law Department.

"I don't feel that in hindsight that we really had the full weight or the power to enforce anything," he said.

According to Ann Miller Smith, one of two members who remain on the board, the board worked hard to get the city to update a PowerPoint presentation in 2012 to fulfill its obligation of providing annual ethics training. But the training was never administered, according to Ms. Doyle.

The board is supposed to consist of five members -- three of whom are nominated by council and appointed by the mayor. The two others are appointed by the mayor and approved by council.

But as members have resigned or their terms have come to a close, the administration has delayed in notifying council of their vacancies and the mayor has failed to appoint members when nominations were sent over. Council, too, at one point took 10 months to deliver a set of nominees to the mayor.

Last year, the term for a council nominee, Rev. Welch, and a mayoral appointee, Shanicka Kennedy, came to a close in August. Another mayoral appointee, Patrick Connelly, resigned in early 2013 to run for judge.

The mayor has not made any appointments to fill the three vacancies, even though council has since sent over a list of nominees.

That leaves two members on the board -- Ms. Smith and Rich Talarico -- both of whom agreed to serve beyond the expiration of their terms this August.

Ms. Smith said she was disheartened that the board has shrunk to just two members. The board now lacks a quorum and can't make any official decisions. It last met in the spring, she said.

"You're not going to get a whole lot done with two people on the board," she said. "We don't have enough membership to make a decision."

Even when the five board seats were filled, Rev. Welch said, he was concerned people viewed the board and the city's Law Department as one and the same, since every ethics complaint was resolved in the Law Department. That made it difficult for the board to appear independent. He believes the board should have the funds to hire its own attorney.

"I think if you're going to be serious of having an ethics hearing board ... you have to put a structure in place to allow them [to] function independently," he said.

Ms. Kail-Smith agreed.

"I think it should be independent from the Law Department," she said.

She also said that although Mr. Ravenstahl will leave office in three months, he should not allow membership on the ethics hearing board to lapse.

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.


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