Ex-pol finds new hope after losing drug habit

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The self-confessed, crack-smoking mayor of Toronto got me to thinking of the Pittsburgh city councilman who admitted to a similar familiarity with the pipe back in the mid-'90s. I gave him a call.

If anyone could give advice to Mayor Rob Ford, who had just made himself a continental punch line, it would be this man from the city's South Hills. I left a message on his office voice mail saying as much, but adding that talking about this was entirely up to him.

He called back not long thereafter. We hadn't spoken in at least 15 years, but he was more open than I'd ever known him to be. He joked that he'd given us so much to write about, this newspaper probably had to lay off reporters after he was defeated for council re-election in 1997.

He'd talk about this only if I didn't use his name. I told him almost everyone was going to know who he was regardless, or could find out easily enough in this small town that plays a big city on TV. He agreed, but he wanted to do what he could to protect his employer and family from embarrassment. He has two adult children and another in elementary school.

I had no desire to louse him up. Now nearly 51, he's not the person he was in his early 30s. That hard-drinking, drug-using man, "I don't particularly care for that guy," he said. "I'm a better person than that guy. If you want to talk about my life today, it's great -- healthy kids and a good job. That guy, he never did me any good. He sold you guys a helluva lot of papers but he never did me no good.''

In a January 1997 column, written shortly after he'd told some Grant Street colleagues that he was a crack addict, I argued that he should resign or be impeached. The lawmaker had broken the law regularly.

Nobody listened but his constituents. With different ideas about what it means to be a crack councilman, they tossed him in that May's primary. Less than three years later, he admitted to selling jobs and extorting bribes as a board member of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority to fuel his cocaine habit. He pled guilty to tax evasion.

"What you do to me today will be nothing compared to what I've done to myself,'' he told the federal judge, between sobs, at his sentencing hearing in July 2000.

He got off with five months in a halfway house and five more of home detention, a light sentence after the federal prosecutor recommended clemency for his help in the conviction of former state Rep. Frank Gigliotti on extortion charges of his own.

Our man managed to keep his job, with the same employer he has now, through that sentence. Give credit to U.S. District Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr. for wisdom in his mercy. The convict has redeemed himself.

Looking at Mayor Ford's situation now, he says, "The poor soul's lost, but it ain't for me to judge. Bigger and better people can do that.''

He understands Mr. Ford's desire to stay mayor. He also loved public service, and he felt that was the one aspect of his life he had gotten right. Doing things for his district and his city, "I didn't want to quit on that. That was the good part of me.''

But he let his friends and constituents down. He was in and out of rehab at least three times in his four-year council term and didn't rise from rock bottom until he turned his life over to a couple of men who micromanaged him back to health.

"Very rarely don't I wake up in the morning and think about them and thank them. They always say I did it. All I did was surrender.''

He recalled a time, working a construction inspection job, when he lifted a manhole and found men sleeping in the freshly constructed sewer, taking warmth from the heat being given off by the curing concrete.

Drug addicts aren't dumb, he said, just lost, and homelessness is a fate he narrowly missed. Everyone needs to find his own path back.

He wouldn't tell Mr. Ford to resign. He'd say, "Go away and take care of what you need to take care of and life gets better. Not every day, but most days."

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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