Political consultant at center of dispute over picking casino
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John Verbanac is the ultimate political insider. Now he's at the center of the political storm involving a license to built the city's lone slots casino.
The Cranberry resident has been an aide to two U.S. senators, a top political consultant and co-publisher of a Harrisburg newsletter called The Insider. He was an informal adviser to Bob O'Connor in last year's successful mayoral campaign.
He's now a consultant to Forest City Enterprises and Harrah's Entertainment in their effort to win the license to run a casino, which they would build at Station Square. He's fine-tuning the message in what he called "a pretty nasty war" of public relations.
That gig has him decrying talk that politics may influence the slots selection process, even as his involvement feeds that impression in competitors' eyes. Their complaints were heightened by the Monday release of a report by the city favorable to Forest City's plan.
Harrah's and Forest City are "two companies that are unparalleled" in terms of their track records in gambling and development, respectively, he said yesterday. "Somehow, a focus of this discussion in Pittsburgh has been driven, that if Harrah's and Forest City get this license, it is because they know somebody."
Mr. Verbanac's association with the mayor concerns David Morehouse. He's the politically tied consultant to the Penguins in their partnership with Isle of Capri Casinos Inc., which wants the casino license for a Hill District site that would include an arena. "If he has a role with a gaming company, and a role with the city, that seems to be a conflict of interest," he said.
"I have no official role with Bob O'Connor, and never did," Mr. Verbanac said.
The Republican cut his teeth as a member of Sen. John Heinz's staff. After Mr. Heinz's death, he became executive assistant to then-Rep. Rick Santorum, and directed that Penn Hills Republican's landmark 1994 Senate win.
After a stint at Ketchum Public Relations, he joined political marketing firm Brabender Cox.
A 2000 effort to split that firm into two businesses devolved into acrimony. John Brabender and James Cox and their business sued Mr. Verbanac in 2002, alleging that he failed to uphold his end of the bargain. Mr. Verbanac was dismissed from that lawsuit in 2004.
In 2002 he joined Harrisburg newspaper veteran Al Neri in launching a consulting firm and The Insider, a biweekly guide to the capital's back room deals. They split amicably last year.
Mr. Verbanac said he met Mr. O'Connor in his role as a consultant to the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission. "I liked what Bob had to say," he said. "I thought Bob had, in his heart and mind, Pittsburgh first."
Mr. O'Connor made his third bid for mayor last year. Mr. Verbanac "was an adviser on the campaign," said the mayor. "He never was paid by the campaign."
"If Bob ever asked me for my advice on something, I offered it to him," Mr. Verbanac said.
Another insider on that campaign, who asked not to be named, said Mr. O'Connor leaned on Mr. Verbanac's guidance. When Mr. O'Connor won, Mr. Verbanac helped with the transition. A former city department head said Mr. Verbanac participated in interviews with officials who wanted to stay on.
"Bob continues to be a friend of mine," Mr. Verbanac said. "I talk with Bob occasionally."
At age 40, he considers himself an investor first and a consultant second.
But in March, he appeared as a representative for Forest City and Harrah's in forums in Mount Washington and the Hill District, and before the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. "They were our first three [community presentations], so I was really working on developing" the pitch, he said.
Mr. O'Connor has so far remained neutral in the competition for the casino license, which is awarded by the state Gaming Control Board. On Monday, though, city Planning Director Pat Ford issued a 135-page report rating Forest City's proposal far better than Isle of Capri's or rival Don Barden's bid to build a casino on the North Shore.
The report, which the city is submitting to the Gaming Control Board, drove Forest City's competitors to accuse the administration of bias.
It was "nothing more than opinion," said Mr. Morehouse.
The Planning Department "did a professional, commendable, complete job with that report, and it was unbiased as a report can be," said mayoral spokesman Dick Skrinjar. He said Mr. Verbanac had no role in it.
Mr. Barden called the report "biased" and a "charade." His Detroit-based firm refused to comply with a broad request by the city for information after Mr. Ford wouldn't guarantee the confidentiality of any response.
"We had heard on the street that it was a foregone conclusion," Mr. Barden said of the report. "It was rigged to gain support for Harrah's."
That kind of talk upsets Mr. Verbanac. Ever since October, when then-Mayor Tom Murphy said "the fix is in" and that politics favored Forest City -- a claim he later retracted -- speculation regarding the purity of the licensing process has abounded.
It has been fueled in part by five-figure contributions by Forest City executives and their co-investors in the campaign funds of Gov. Ed Rendell, Mr. O'Connor, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, and legislative leaders.
"Much has been made of issues that have nothing to do with the quality of the [proposed operator Harrah's], with the quality of the developer [Forest City]," he said. "You have two companies that are unparalleled" in their fields.
"The decision is quite clear, to whom this license should be awarded," he said. "If you're not that applicant, you have to try to shift the discussion to something else."
Correction/Clarification: (Published May 31, 2006) John Verbanac was dismissed in 2004 from a lawsuit filed against him in 2002 by former partners John Brabender and James Cox and one of their businesses. His dismissal was not noted in this article as originally published on May 27, 2006 about controversy over the license to build the city's slots casino.
First Published May 27, 2006 12:00 am