URA will pay Ford through June
By the time Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority stops paying Pat Ford, the former executive director will have banked 20 months of pay for 6 months of work, under the terms of a settlement agreement the agency approved yesterday in an effort to head off a lawsuit and stop weeks of rancor.
The URA -- which has been paying Mr. Ford since he went on leave in April pending a state Ethics Commission review, will continue paying him $9,822 a month through the end of June -- a total of some $93,000 -- and cover his health insurance.
In return, the agency and the city get a guarantee that Mr. Ford won't sue, nor publicly speak ill of, his former employers.
"While none of us are thrilled to spend additional funds for salary to somebody who is not going to be working on a day-to-day basis, in consideration of putting this behind us, and not incurring additional costs, it seems to be the most prudent course of conduct we could follow," said URA General Counsel Don Kortlandt.
City Controller Michael Lamb called it "a horrible decision on the part of the URA.
"We shouldn't be paying people to shut up about what's going on in these organizations. We should be encouraging them to talk about what's going on in these organizations."
After approving the settlement, the URA board made Rob Stephany the new executive director.
The settlement appears to end a bitter public standoff between Mr. Ford and the URA. That stemmed from their joint decision to ask the Ethics Commission to look at his receipt of gifts from a friend who worked for Lamar Advertising, which seeks billboard permits from the city. Mr. Ford's attorney said the review ended in early August, but the URA held out for an all-clear letter from the commission that hasn't arrived.
Mr. Ford's August resignation letter, with its allegation of a "culture of deception and corruption," and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's counter that it was "outrageous and very malicious," raised the specter of a war of words that could have morphed into court filings.
Mr. Ford's contract ran through the end of the year, and his resignation letter demanded pay only through that time. Without saying why -- citing a "confidentiality and non-disparagement" agreement -- Mr. Kortlandt said payment through December wouldn't seal the deal.
Mr. Ravenstahl said in a statement that he supported the settlement because it avoids "protracted and costly litigation."
"Mr. Ford will no longer reiterate the allegations in his letter of resignation unless and until he is compelled to do so by a subpoena," said Lawrence Fisher, Mr. Ford's attorney. "Nothing about this settlement inhibits my client from continuing to actively cooperate with authorities on matters of mutual interest."
Mr. Ford took concerns with Housing Authority management to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. Two people have said that federal investigators asked them about city development matters.
State Sen. Jim Ferlo, who is on the URA board, said the agreement reflected the fact that the agency's role is to rebuild the city, and not "to spend precious and very limited public dollars on baseless lawsuits and misdirected energies."
Some members of City Council, which has no role in overseeing the URA, asked if the settlement was a "gag order," in the words of Councilman Bruce Kraus.
Mr. Ford "owes a full and honest explanation [of corruption allegations] to the taxpayers who will be footing the bill," he said.
"Is this a settlement in order to buy silence, or is this the cost of doing business?" asked Council President Doug Shields. "My real concern is that we'll never get to the truth."
Mr. Ford's wife, Alecia Sirk, will get $2,500 from the city, where she started as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's spokeswoman a year ago and from which she resigned in April. That's being paid "to resolve the whole thing," said city Solicitor George Specter, who called it "nickels and dimes" compared to the cost of defending a lawsuit.
"Ms. Sirk was seeking from the city only a letter of recommendation," said Mr. Fisher. He said she "had never even fathomed" a going-away check, but would not detail the discussions that led to that payment.
The couple has moved out of state, he said, and Mr. Ford is setting up a consulting business.
Mr. Stephany called the URA "a stunning, stunning, stunning organization," and exuded optimism. "I think this city is one of the most exciting little cities in the nation and it's a really exciting time for this city."
Before being hired as the URA's deputy director 14 months ago, and then becoming its acting head in April, the 42-year-old Lawrenceville resident spent much of his career as the commercial development specialist at East Liberty Development Inc. He will be paid $117,875, the same as Mr. Ford.
"To see the transformation that happened in East Liberty is wonderful, and a lot of it has to do with Rob," said Councilwoman Tonya Payne, a URA board member.
Mr. Stephany will probably be under scrutiny. Mr. Lamb said the settlement, and recent contracting issues, make it likely he'll fully audit the URA "as soon as we possibly can."
First Published September 12, 2008 12:00 am