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Former Stadium Authority official testifies to federal grand jury

| Tuesday, July 30, 2013, 10:21 a.m.
Debbie Lestitian
Debbie Lestitian
Ashley Barna
Ashley Barna

Witnesses with personal and professional ties to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl testified on Tuesday before a federal grand jury that, until now, appeared to focus its inquiry on Pittsburgh police officials and other city employees.

Debbie Lestitian, former chair of the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority and a vocal Ravenstahl critic, spent less than an hour in the grand jury room of the federal courthouse, Downtown.

Lestitian, accompanied by attorney Tina Miller, declined to comment. In a written statement, she said she was subpoenaed to testify “as the former chair of the City of Pittsburgh Stadium Authority” and was cooperating.

Another witness, Ashley Barna of Reserve, met with the grand jury. She declined to comment.

Barna, 28, told the Tribune-Review in March that she knows Ravenstahl, 33, socially and often saw him at Steelers games.

Ravenstahl's office did not respond to calls seeking comment. His attorney, Charles Porter, said the mayor has not been informed that he is a target of the grand jury investigation.

Since May, the grand jury has interviewed Ravenstahl's secretary, his current and former police bodyguards, and other police officials in an investigation that began with scrutiny of a bid-rigging scheme for a police contract and led to an indictment against former police Chief Nate Harper.

Harper plans to plead guilty to diverting about $70,000 from a secret police fund, his attorneys have said.

Neither Lestitian nor Barna appear to have ties to Pittsburgh police. Lestitian is assistant treasurer at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland. Barna, former sales manager for the Gateway Clipper Fleet, works in event sales at the Wyndham Grand Hotel, Downtown.

Lestitian chaired the Stadium Authority from 2006 to 2009. The unpaid board owns a parking garage and lots between PNC Park and Heinz Field.

Since the demolition of Three Rivers Stadium in 2001, the authority sold some parking lot parcels, leading to development of hotels, restaurants and office buildings.

Ravenstahl removed Lestitian, 47, of Brookline from the authority because she objected in August 2008 to the sale of two prime North Shore parcels to the Steelers and Continental Real Estate Cos. for a price critics said was one-tenth of their value.

“No one at the Steelers has been contacted about any federal investigation,” said Burt Lauten, a Steelers spokesman.

Lestitian argued the Steelers and Continental, the team's Columbus, Ohio-based development partner, lost their exclusive right to buy a 3.82-acre site, dubbed “Lot 6,” for $1.38 million and a 3.5-acre parcel for $1.32 million because Continental did not meet strict deadlines to develop specified in a 2003 “option agreement.”

Lot 6 became home to Stage AE, a 5,500-seat concert venue. A 178-room Hyatt Place Hotel opened on the second parcel.

Ravenstahl, at the time, said he disagreed with Lestitian and wanted North Shore development to proceed. His office claimed Lestitian's term on the board had expired.

This isn't the first time federal investigators have scrutinized the land deal. The Tribune-Review reported in September 2010 that the U.S. Attorney's Office opened an inquiry.

State Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, and former Mayor Sophie Masloff of Squirrel Hill — former Stadium Authority board members — said investigators haven't contacted them.

Another member of the authority at the time, lobbyist Robert Ewanco, did not return a telephone call.

Lestitian was the second authority member ousted by Ravenstahl. In January 2008, he removed Councilman Bill Peduto of Point Breeze. Lestitian is treasurer of Peduto's 2013 campaign for mayor as the Democratic Party's nominee.

Jeremy Boren is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7935 or jboren@tribweb.com.

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