Mayor says his perks are within city's ethics limits
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When billionaire Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle offered Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl a private jet flight to New York, the mayor saw a networking opportunity rather than an ethical question.
Similarly, when someone offers the mayor tickets to a sporting event, he recalls the city's limits on such gratuities -- but does not keep a tally to ensure that he's complying with them.
And in regards to the use of his image on city mailings and media during campaign season, he takes the view that if it's legal, it's OK.
"If there's any violation, which I don't believe that there is, then I need to be made aware of it," he said.
Mr. Ravenstahl's take on the limits governing his office became an issue in the May 15 Democratic primary yesterday, as he answered questions about a March 13 trip to New York City.
The trip came hours after he joined Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Gov. Ed Rendell in unveiling a $290 million plan for a new arena which the Penguins will use.
Before that news conference, the mayor said, he was told "that Mr. Burkle wanted to get to know me better, and offered for me to go and spend the night with him in New York." He then went with Mr. Burkle and Mr. Onorato to the evening's Penguins game, sitting in the team's luxury box.
"It was after two months of negotiations with the Penguins, we had had enough talk about numbers and the financing of the arena deal, and it was an opportunity for he and I to get to know each other better," the mayor said. "He being one of the more influential national Democrats in this country, it was an opportunity that I thought was a good one."
They rode Mr. Burkle's jet to New York, ate out, "and basically that was it for the evening," he said. He said he stayed in a Queens apartment rented by a friend of Kevin Kinross, an aide to Mr. Rendell.
The city's code of conduct says an elected official "shall not solicit or accept from an interested party ... anything of value" with exceptions, including "complimentary travel for official purposes," meals and event tickets of limited value.
The city's charter says an elected official can't "solicit or receive any compensation, gratuity or other thing for any act done in the course of public work. This section shall be broadly construed and strictly enforced."
Mr. Ravenstahl said the trip was neither a gift, nor official business. Does the trip give the appearance of being payback for a good arena deal?
"I understand the timing of it, with the Penguins deal, could be reason for some to ask that question, but in no way did the two correlate," the mayor said. "It just happened that we were in the same place and the offer was made and I accepted it."
Though he talked about campaign fund raising, he said he did not ask for or get a contribution from Mr. Burkle, and would not take contributions from people associated with the team.
Ethics watchdogs said accepting the billionaire's hospitality wasn't a good move.
"Here's a company that was recently seeking millions of dollars in benefits from taxpayers," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania. "You don't want them treating public officials to travel or entertainment."
City tax dollars aren't going into the arena deal -- it's state-backed -- but the mayor appoints some members to the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority board, which is negotiating the lease.
Mr. Ravenstahl's decision to watch the game in the team's box wasn't the first time accepting a ticket led to controversy. On Oct. 31, 2005, as a city councilman, he attended a Steelers' game with the University of Pittsburgh's ticket, argued with a police officer and was handcuffed.
Mr. Ravenstahl said he was aware of city conduct code rules that allow elected officials to accept sporting or cultural event tickets totaling only $250 a year, including no more than $100 from any one entity.
"So accepting a ticket from the University of Pittsburgh that night in my opinion in no way violated any ethics code in the city of Pittsburgh," he said.
"I don't necessarily keep track, but I don't believe that I've ever exceeded that amount with any corporation or any entity."
Concerns about accepting game tickets are "perfectly legitimate," Mr. Kauffman said, especially since the officials often negotiate with teams, financial institutions and other entities that have season tickets.
Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law school professor, said the limit may be outdated, since $100 is "less than the price of one ticket" to some games.
"I've gone to sports events, cultural events, always within town," said city Councilman William Peduto, who is challenging the mayor in the primary. He said he has never been offered a plane trip, and wouldn't accept one. "That would exceed any limit that's under the ethics code."
The mayor has taken a minimalist approach to reporting financial information required annually under the charter. Where the city's Disclosure of Interest form asks for "all your creditors and debts ... in excess of $1,000" he has consistently indicated "none." He and his wife, Erin, have an $87,000 mortgage and a $10,600 line of credit.
The past two mayors and most council members have listed mortgage lenders or amounts. Mr. Ravenstahl presented disclosure instructions that exclude mortgages and home equity loans and said he viewed that as binding on city forms.
"There are ways for elected officials to get opinions about these things," said Mr. Ledewitz. The State Ethics Commission, for instance, provides advisory opinions upon request.
Ultimately, though, the voters usually decide what's ethical and what isn't, he said.
First Published March 21, 2007 12:00 am