Ethics code for city officials still evolving
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When the city's ethics code was written in 1990, Mario Lemieux was skating toward bringing Pittsburgh its first NHL championship rather than using a golf course to raise millions of dollars for medical research.
No one at the time took into consideration the kinds of questions that this summer have surrounded Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, the Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational and the resurrected city Ethics Hearing Board. By all accounts, no one locally before 2007 ever wondered about the appropriateness of private corporations subsidizing a public official's involvement in a $9,000-a-head golf outing.
"We intended from the beginning for the ethics code to be an organic document, and for it to be amended as specific cases emerge. Hopefully, that's what will happen here," said Dan Cohen, a former member of City Council who was new to it when sponsoring the original ethics code legislation.
The five-member Ethics Hearing Board made clear to Mr. Ravenstahl last week that it hoped to persuade City Council to change the code to address occasions of large-scale, third-party gifts, such as sponsorship of his golf play by UPMC and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Those corporations paid $27,000 to the Mario Lemieux Foundation to cover golf threesomes playing with sports celebrities at the June 27-28 fund-raising event at Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier. Each of them invited the mayor as a golf guest on one of the days, and UPMC also covered one day of participation by Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.
All kinds of questions can arise from such high-end outings: How much does a public official benefit by participating? Is his participation helpful to the charity? Does it matter who invited and paid for him? How much does the dollar value of the sponsorship matter?
In questioning the mayor about his participation, the ethics board members -- who stressed it was a discussion, not an investigation -- made clear they believe such third-party sponsorships can give a bad appearance. Both UPMC and the Penguins have had high-profile dealings with the city this year.
The mayor acknowledged business discussions took place on the golf course, but denied there was anything wrong with that and emphasized the charitable nature of the outing, which raised an estimated $350,000 for the foundation's support of research. While the city's public officials are limited in what they can accept as gifts, Mr. Ravenstahl has cited an exemption in the code that allows someone else to cover the cost of admission to charitable events.
The ethics officials said they would explore rules used by other governments for participation in such events and make recommendations to Mr. Ravenstahl and City Council concerning them.
"What concerned the board was the public might perceive that you somehow received either a gift worth considerable value, or which might appear on some level to compromise impartiality of decisions you might make about contracts or other matters" involving those who sponsor him at such events, the board's chairwoman, Sister Patrice Hughes, told the mayor during their public discussion Tuesday.
Depending on where else the ethics board looks, it might find a wide range of guidelines for such matters.
There are no national standards for municipal ethics rules, noted LeeAnn Pelham, executive director of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commissions. Though Los Angeles is known for tough standards, she said, the sponsorship of the mayor's charitable participation by a third party would fall into a "gray area" with no clear answer on acceptance or prohibition.
Still, she said, "It clearly has been the trend over the last several years for more local ethics agencies to be springing up across the country to administer and enforce ethics laws ... and a number of the issues and questions the agencies have been dealing with seem to be in the area of gifts."
J. Shane Creamer Jr., executive director of the Philadelphia Board of Ethics, said there is a wide ban on gifts that can be received by municipal officials there. An exemption exists for the mayor to attend charitable events connected to his duties, but Mr. Creamer said he could not state whether that would enable the Philadelphia mayor to be sponsored at a golf outing similarly to Mr. Ravenstahl.
"It's a matter of interpretation -- there's no specific rule about third-party benefits," he said. "All these matters are really very fact sensitive and require thorough analysis in order to determine whether rules were violated."
Pennsylvania's ethics code also applies to all municipal officials, but it is worded rather generally and the state commission has had no case with the same issues as the mayor's golf outing to establish any precedent, said John Contino, the commission's executive director.
"The rule on direct gifts is no public official may accept a gift if it's intended to influence decision-making," he said.
Mr. Ravenstahl has received far more attention for his participation in the outing than Mr. Onorato, but similar questions could be asked of the county executive's role. The county's ethics commission is not proactive in raising such issues, and focuses instead on reacting to any complaints, said David Oberdick, the commission's chairman.
Since there is no prohibition on his receipt of such sponsorships, said Mr. Onorato, he sees no problems with UPMC's subsidy of his golf outing so long as he meets requirements to list gifts he receives in an annual disclosure report.
"If you do that, you at least put it into the court of public opinion and show there was no secrecy to it," Mr. Onorato said.
Like the mayor, the county executive said that part of his job is to help various community causes by showing up at charitable events, though he allows there could be more guidelines for that.
"Everyone's trying to find a balance. ... I'm not hearing anybody say, 'Don't do any of it,'" Mr. Onorato stressed.
It's clear that many nonprofit groups value the presence of key politicians at the events by their willingness to provide complimentary tickets.
"At certain events, it's very helpful, making it more prestigious ... to have higher-level officials attend," said Shelly Tolo, an events planner hired for fund-raisers by many nonprofit groups. "You just know if you're inviting an official, they're not going to be paying for their ticket."
Former Mayor Sophie Masloff said she'd attend multiple charitable events a day without paying the same as other attendees, because the organizers sought her presence.
"I thought I was helping the cause," she said. "I may have been naive, because I don't even know the cost. Most of the time, though, I couldn't even stay for dinner. How many dinners can you eat in one night?"
While few nonprofit events command the pricey admission of the Lemieux Invitational, Ms. Tolo noted a ticket of thousands of dollars has become increasingly common for golf outings, compared to other types of fund-raisers.
Bill Peduto, a city councilman and political rival of Mr. Ravenstahl's, said he thinks the dollar value of the Lemieux event and the business that UPMC and the Penguins have been conducting with the city crossed an ethical boundary for the mayor.
He said he would be pushing when City Council reconvenes to "strengthen the language of the ethics code so there is no wiggle room."
He said he also wants the ethics board to have funding to hire its own legal counsel, when necessary, so it is not always relying on the same city Law Department staff who might also be advising the mayor.
Sister Hughes agreed that the need for independent counsel is a priority the board also wants to take up.
Meanwhile, officials of the Mario Lemieux Foundation had no inkling when planning the event they might be drawn into any controversy. Now, discussions for next year could involve whether to put officials like the mayor and county executive in the same "comp" category as the 30 or so celebrity athletes like Dan Marino and Sidney Crosby, said foundation President Tom Grealish. The comps can diminish the foundation's proceeds.
While the Lemieux event has always focused on athletes as the draws, Mr. Grealish said, "Luke being at the Mario Lemieux charity event made it a better event. We enjoyed having him here, and people want to be around public officials."
First Published August 26, 2007 11:46 pm