Grand jury probe reaches higher in Pittsburgh mayor's office
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's chief of staff testified before a federal grand jury on Tuesday but refused to discuss why investigators wanted to question the city's highest-ranking political appointee.
Yarone Zober, who also serves as chairman of Pittsburgh's influential Urban Redevelopment Authority, declined comment as he left the grand jury room where he testified for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. The federal panel heard also from Ashlee Olivo, who sources said had dated the mayor. They were the latest in a string of Ravenstahl associates to appear before the grand jury.
“It appears the government is intent upon examining the entirety of the mayor's personal life,” said Ravenstahl's attorney, Charles Porter.
Porter said that prosecutors haven't told the mayor he is the target of an investigation and that nothing has changed since Ravenstahl, 33, was interviewed by the FBI. Ravenstahl in March announced he would not seek re-election.
Of Zober's grand jury appearance, Porter said, “I imagine Yarone will tell the truth.”
University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said the only thing the public can deduce from Zober's appearance is that “the case is still very much alive. That's really it. Grand jury proceedings are secret, as you know, so only Zober could tell us what he was asked.”
University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said, “It's not a good sign for the mayor, certainly.”
Ravenstahl retained Zober, 38, from the administration of Mayor Bob O'Connor. O'Connor died in 2006.
Zober's lawyer, Doug Sughrue, released a statement that said prosecutors summoned Zober as a fact witness and that he “testified truthfully and to the best of his ability.” Sughrue declined further comment.
Olivo testified for about 45 minutes. She declined to comment. Her attorney, David Cercone, said she too was called as a fact witness.
“She is not being investigated for any wrongdoing and is not a target,” Cercone said. “She is cooperating fully with authorities.”
Olivo, an account executive at KDKA-TV, was named one of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation's 50 Finest in 2013 and has worked as a dance coach for Peters Township School District.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Robert Cessar and Lee Karl, who are heading up the investigation, declined comment as they left.
Ravenstahl remained in his fifth-floor offices on Tuesday afternoon in the City-County Building, Downtown. He could be seen several times through the glass doors leading to the mayor's wing of the building. He was often accompanied by Pittsburgh police Sgt. Dominick Sciulli, his bodyguard who testified before the grand jury in May.
Ravenstahl did not respond to a request for comment.
“The administration will continue to cooperate as it has done throughout this process,” Ravenstahl spokeswoman Marissa Doyle said in an email.
Since May, the grand jury has interviewed several people with personal and professional ties to Ravenstahl, including his top secretary, his current and former police bodyguards, other police officials, the former chair of the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority and Ashley Barna, 28, who told the Tribune-Review in March that she knows Ravenstahl socially. Barna of Reserve was named one of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation's 50 Finest in 2010.
Pittsburgh City Council President Darlene Harris was surprised to hear of Zober's appearance.
“There have been so many different rumors that you don't know what to believe,” she said.
Solicitor Dan Regan declined to say whether the grand jury subpoenaed any other city officials or records. He said he has not been subpoenaed.
Investigators previously obtained copies of valet parking permits the city issued to Robert Gigliotti, a Ravenstahl political supporter.
Gigliotti owns William Penn Parking Inc. The company has city licenses to operate six parking lots in the city with a combined total of more than 1,100 parking spots. The URA owns two lots — one on Third Avenue near Ross Street, Downtown, and another on Smallman Street in the Strip District.
Gigliotti is a friend of ousted city police Chief Nate Harper; and his wife, Linda, is a city police officer.
In a related development, U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon on Tuesday scheduled an Oct. 18 hearing at which Harper plans to plead guilty to conspiracy and tax charges.
Robert Leight, one of Harper's attorneys, said Harper doesn't have a plea agreement with prosecutors but talks will continue until the hearing date.
A federal grand jury indicted Harper in March on charges he diverted more than $70,000 from the police department's special events office into a private account and spent $31,986 of the money on personal expenses. He faces four counts of failing to file tax returns.
Based on the charges, the amount of money and his lack of a criminal record, Harper likely will face a recommended sentence of one year and three months to one year and nine months in prison, Leight said.
The FBI has interviewed Harper several times about police department and city finances, a probe that began with a bid-rigging investigation in which a former city employee and Robinson businessman pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.
Staff writers Bobby Kerlik and Bob Bauder contributed to this report. Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.