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Pa. Senate OKs reform bill for troubled Pittsburgh watchdog agency

| Tuesday, June 28, 2016, 6:33 p.m.
Investigators put three loads of boxes of evidence into a Allegheny County District Attorney's Office vehicle Wednesday, April 20, 2016, after agents from that office executed a search warrant at the ICA headquarters at 1 Market Street, Downtown.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Investigators put three loads of boxes of evidence into a Allegheny County District Attorney's Office vehicle Wednesday, April 20, 2016, after agents from that office executed a search warrant at the ICA headquarters at 1 Market Street, Downtown.
Henry Sciortino of West Chester is the outgoing director of the Pittsburgh Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Henry Sciortino of West Chester is the outgoing director of the Pittsburgh Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority.

The state Senate unanimously enacted sweeping reforms Tuesday designed to hold the troubled Pittsburgh Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority more accountable to taxpayers.

Senate Bill 1221, which was prompted by a Tribune-Review investigation in April that found lost or destroyed financial records and other problems at the authority that helps oversee the City of Pittsburgh's finances, would require:

• Records retention and contract awards consistent with most other state agencies, including keeping financial information for a minimum of four years and payroll, tax and audit records for seven years.

• Tighter ethical standards for its board members and employees.

• Increased auditing of the agency's books.

• A publicly accessible website that includes complete financial records, budgets and contracts.

• Establishment of a formal process for determining the use and distribution of state casino gaming revenue for Pittsburgh.

“Both parties who represent the city recognized that this was an important issue to be addressed,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who spearheaded the bill along with Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline.

“When you look at the transparency, openness, records retention policies, Internet access to review what's going on, setting responsibilities with respect to how resources are given out — those are important matters that we believe are a big part of this legislation.”

The bill now moves to the House, where Speaker Mike Turzai told the Tribune-Review he plans to rush the bipartisan and “well-drafted” legislation to Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature.

“I absolutely support the bill,” said Turzai, R-Marshall.

Led by detectives from Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office, a public corruption probe of the ICA was launched on the second day of the Trib's two-part investigative series on ICA and continues. Search warrants executed at ICA's Downtown headquarters resulted in the removal of a couple dozen boxes of records.

On April 15, the ICA board unanimously voted to end the employment contract of executive director Henry Sciortino, the agency's only full-time employee since it was founded in 2004 when Pittsburgh teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

Working alongside a similar state body organized under Act 47 authority, the ICA approves the city's annual budgets. Unlike the Act 47 overseers, however, ICA can coerce city officials by withholding $10 million in annual Rivers Casino gaming revenue earmarked by statute for Pittsburgh's coffers.

That carrot-stick treatment has sparked conflict with municipal officials in the past.

A longtime critic of the ICA, Fontana originally called for the agency's oversight to end this year, but the legislation that emerged from the Senate won't sunset ICA until mid-2019.

Fontana said that an ICA board reorganization in March triggered a raft of internal reforms similar to the Senate bill, which led lawmakers to grant the agency more time to hammer out an agreement with city officials. When ICA disappears, gambling revenue will flow directly into Pittsburgh's pension funds “and shall not replace the minimum obligation that the assisted city is required to contribute to its pension funds,” according to the legislation.

Mayor Bill Peduto's administration is trying to reach a settlement with ICA that will release a total of $19 million in undistributed slot revenue, but there is no deadline for when negotiations will end.

Costa said shuttering ICA now would make it look as though Harrisburg were “sweeping under the carpet” the problems revealed by the Trib that are the focus of ongoing government investigations.

Carl Prine is a Tribune-Review investigative reporter. Reach him at cprine@tribweb.com or 412-320-7826.

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