Exiting URA chief blasts mayor, corruption

Jeremy Boren
| Thursday, Aug. 28, 2008

Pittsburgh's suspended development chief resigned Wednesday and used his exit to criticize Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration for fostering a "culture of deception and corruption."

Pat Ford, leaving his post as executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, said he lost faith in Ravenstahl's administration, which he said forced him "to serve as a scapegoat for the inappropriate affairs and activities of others" and sullied his reputation as a city planner.

"It is clear to me that as long as I continue to fight to have my name restored by this administration, I will only be further tarnished by this culture of deception and corruption," Ford said in his two-page letter to Yarone Zober, the URA's chairman and city chief of staff.

Ravenstahl said he was shocked and saddened by Ford's vitriolic resignation letter.

"The slanderous allegations that are being made by Mr. Ford, in an attempt to clear his name, I think are unfortunate," Ravenstahl told KQV Radio in a phone interview from the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Ford, 45, of Lincoln Place has been suspended with pay since April after he told the Tribune-Review that he and his wife, former mayoral press secretary Alecia Sirk, accepted gifts from a Lamar Advertising executive who received special approval from Ford to build a controversial electronic billboard Downtown.

Lawrence Fisher, Ford's attorney, argued that the state Ethics Commission has since closed its inquiry without finding evidence that the state Ethics Act was violated.

Ford has denied any wrongdoing. He said he expects to be "compensated for the remainder of 2008" according to the terms of his contract, which pays him $117,875 a year. The contract expires Dec. 31.

"For five months now they have had the opportunity to defend him, to stand up for him," Fisher said. "Instead they have stood idly by."

Ravenstahl said he simply wanted proof of the Ethics Commission's findings before deciding whether to reinstate Ford. That proof has not arrived. The mayor told KQV he "highly objects" to Ford's allegations.

The URA's board of directors likely will meet privately to discuss Ford's resignation before making any decisions at the authority's next public meeting scheduled for Sept. 11, according to a statement from the authority.

Rob Stephany, meanwhile, will remain acting executive director.

Asked to back up Ford's accusations against Ravenstahl's administration, Fisher pointed to a March decision by the URA's board to award a $525,000 contract to engineering firm McTish, Kunkel & Associates, even though two other firms submitted lower bids to manage construction at the Pittsburgh Technology Center in South Oakland.

The company's president, Matthew McTish, donated $10,000 to Ravenstahl's 2006 mayoral campaign. Zober has said there was no quid pro quo. Ravenstahl appoints URA board members.

URA officials said Friday that McTish lowered the price of the work so it is not the highest of the three bids.

"How many times can a man have dirt kicked in his face before he realizes that he is in with a bunch of dirt-kickers?" Fisher said.

Councilman Bill Peduto has asked City Controller Michael Lamb to investigate how the contract was awarded. Peduto said Ford's departure and his allegations against Ravenstahl are disturbing.

"This goes much further than Pat Ford," said Peduto, a frequent critic of Ravenstahl. "Pittsburgh is no longer a city that is open for business; Pittsburgh is a city for sale."

Others voiced support for Ford and said he has improved the way Pittsburgh handles development.

"His contributions were good because he had a developer's outlook on things," said developer Ralph A. Falbo, whose portfolio includes the 18-story 151 First Side condominium that held its grand opening Downtown in October.

"He tried to expedite things, get things accomplished and cut through the red tape -- certainly, this city needs that."

Joe Serrao, a principal of architecture and planning firm Tasso, Katselas Associates, Inc., wrote a letter urging Ravenstahl to reinstate Ford.

"Pat has done good things for us and some of our clients," Serrao said last week. Serrao, a member of the city's Art Commission and Contextual Design Advisory Panel, said he received no response to his letter.

Jerry Shuster, a University of Pittsburgh political communications professor, said Ford was "neutralized" as a player in city development when he was suspended in April. He doesn't expect Ford's departure to taint the city's image in the eyes of potential investors.

"I don't know what (Ford) expected Ravenstahl to do because Ravenstahl can't act until he gets formal notice from the Ethics Commission," Shuster said.

As for Ford's future in Pittsburgh, Shuster said, "He's certainly managed to burn some bridges."

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