URA chief lambastes mayor upon resigning

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Pittsburgh's "development czar" gave up that throne yesterday, but Pat Ford didn't go down easy, firing rhetorical bullets at the administration he served.

Mr. Ford resigned as executive director of Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority but his resignation letter, addressed to URA board Chairman Yarone Zober, called Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's "a failed administration" that forced him "to serve as a scapegoat for the inappropriate affairs and activities of others."

The letter alleged a "culture of deception and corruption," without providing specifics. Mr. Ford's attorney, Lawrence Fisher, suggested a tie between contracts and campaign contributions.

That drew no response from a mayor's office that seemed blindsided by the letter.

Mr. Ford has been on paid leave since April pending a state Ethics Commission review of his activities. His letter said his resignation would be effective at the end of the year, when his contract expires, but the URA board is expected to meet privately Sept. 11 to discuss that issue.

Council President Doug Shields, a mayoral critic, said the letter represents "a major player in this administration, an intimate of the mayor ... making allegations of corruption."

"An investigatory agency, perhaps the Attorney General or U.S. Attorney, should be looking into this."

Mr. Ford, 45, of Lincoln Place, was zoning administrator under Mayor Tom Murphy, left for a stint in Pompano Beach, Fla., and returned in 2006 to be planning director under the late Mayor Bob O'Connor. Mr. Ravenstahl made him architect of a development revamp, and then named him the $117,875-a-year URA head in October.

In February, Mr. Ford confirmed involvement in granting a no-bid lease and over-the-counter permit to Lamar Advertising for an electronic billboard Downtown. In April, revelations that he and his wife got Christmas gifts from a Lamar executive landed him on paid leave, and he and the URA asked for a state Ethics Commission review.

Mr. Ford also was forced to resign earlier this year from the Housing Authority and quit the Parking Authority. He also has claimed irregularities at the Housing Authority.

Mr. Fisher cited time lines in the state Ethics Act as evidence that no investigation is being launched, and asked three weeks ago that Mr. Ford be allowed to return to work. Mr. Ravenstahl said he wanted a letter directly from the Ethics Commission.

"What a gutless mayor we have," said Mr. Fisher. "He has sat back in a spineless way and said, 'We're going to wait for this, and wait for that.' "

The resignation "is a very good turn of events for the city of Pittsburgh," said city Councilman Patrick Dowd, a critic of Mr. Ford. He "has been a sort of cavalier and Ford-centric individual and hasn't really been thinking about the good of the city."

The resignation letter paints a different picture.

Mr. Ford wrote that he waited for a vision from Mr. Ravenstahl, who ascended from city council president to mayor when Mr. O'Connor died. "But that vision never materialized, and as I have always said, 'Where there is no vision, people perish.' I have no desire to perish along with Luke Ravenstahl's Pittsburgh."

Mr. Fisher would not detail the "corruption" suggested in the letter, other than to say that "the way contracts are supposed to be awarded to the lowest responsible bidder, and the way contributions have been made to the mayor, I think it's self-evident."

One URA contract under scrutiny is a $525,000 contract awarded by the authority's board to McTish, Kunkel & Associates in March, despite the fact that the firm was not initially the lowest bidder. As a construction management contract, it does not need to go to the lowest bidder, and URA spokeswoman Megan Stearman said in a statement that after "understanding the actual requirements, [McTish, Kunkel] submitted a bid lower than the other responsive bidder."

Matthew McTish, president of the firm, had given Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign a $10,000 contribution in December 2006.

City Controller Michael Lamb said he will meet with URA officials Wednesday to discuss that contract and authority bidding procedures. "Any time we see a situation where contracts are being awarded to anyone other than the lowest responsible bidder, there ought to be a reason," he said.

Councilman William Peduto, who aborted a challenge to Mr. Ravenstahl in last year's Democratic primary, issued a statement that the contracting issue "goes much further than Pat Ford. Pittsburgh is no longer a city that is open for business; Pittsburgh is a city for sale."

Mr. Shields said a council investigation of Mr. Ford's allegations seemed unlikely. He said he'd consult with colleagues before deciding whether to write to investigators, as he did in 2004, when he sent a letter from firefighters union President Joe King to U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, spawning a probe of Mayor Murphy's role in a firefighters contract that brought no indictments.

Ms. Buchanan had no comment yesterday.

Two people have said that federal investigators asked them about deals with which Mr. Ford was involved, including the award of questionable billboard permits to Liberty Pacific Media, a West Coast firm whose executives later gave $27,000 to the mayor's campaign.

Mr. Ford has taken information on what he said is waste and mismanagement at the Pittsburgh Housing Authority to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., whose office is reviewing it. Mr. Ford chaired the authority board until early April.

Mr. Zappala's spokesman said the resignation letter, by itself, won't prompt any wider probe.

Mr. Ford wrote in his resignation letter that he and his wife "are being persecuted with no support from the administration I served." His wife is Alecia Sirk, who resigned from the position of mayoral press secretary at the time of the gift revelations.

Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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