Ethics bogey: The mayor needs a lesson on expensive freebies
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We don't get why the mayor doesn't get it. At a session before the Ethics Hearing Board, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl was forthcoming about his two-day participation in a charity golf outing in which his $9,000 fee was paid by the Pittsburgh Penguins and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Although no formal complaint was filed against the mayor, the ethics board acquitted itself well in inviting him to answer questions about his play at the Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational at Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier. The annual event supports cancer research, and Mr. Ravenstahl made points at the hearing about a mayor's need to be supportive of local charities and visible in the community. No problem there.
Where the mayor failed to grasp the issue's import was in claiming that he received nothing of value from the hockey franchise and UPMC, the city's largest employer.
Excuse us, not only did he play golf at an exclusive club with UPMC and Penguins executives, but the mayor's foursomes also included Penguins star Sidney Crosby and former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann. The event was so memorable that the mayor didn't mind showing reporters, in his office after the hearing, two photos of his golfing groups. Yet he downplayed the whole event before the ethics panel.
"The only thing of value I received was knowing I played a small part in seeing the work of the foundation will continue," the mayor told the board. "This was not a gift to me. I received nothing from UPMC."
It's true that no one gave Luke Ravenstahl a check for $9,000, but his two-day golf treat reminds us of the boy whose grandparents take him to Kennywood Park for the day. They pay the little shiner's $19 admission, only to hear the boy say later, "My grandparents gave me nothing of value. All I received was knowing I played a small part in the continued vitality of a cherished local institution."
While the mayor may not have violated the city ethics code (it exempts charities from its limits on free event admissions for city officials), his failure to see how his actions could create an appearance of impropriety should be a big worry for all Pittsburghers. His lack of an apology betrays a certain immaturity.
The ambiguities of this case and the potential -- which seems obvious to everyone but the mayor -- for contractors to buy influence at a high-priced charity event cry out for an amendment to the ethics code.
While the mayor notes his administration gave a health insurance contract this year to Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield over a competing bid from UPMC, that's a lame rationalization for his lush time on the links. The truth is UPMC, which wants to put its name atop the USX Tower, and the Penguins franchise, which is getting a new arena, always have plenty of business with the city. A mayor of strong ethical fiber would keep that in mind.
We're not sure Mr. Ravenstahl, after his $9,000 outing, can convince residents that he's kept a healthy, impartial distance from his golf buddies. Pittsburgh surely deserves better.
First Published August 22, 2007 9:06 pm