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Allegheny County executive, 2nd councilman included in ethics probe over Deer Lakes Park drilling vote

| Saturday, July 12, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Allegheny County Council members said State Ethics Commission investigators told them that an inquiry into Councilman Nick Futules' vote to allow natural gas drilling under Deer Lakes Park has expanded to include fellow Councilman Ed Kress and county Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

The investigators asked if Kress traded his vote in favor of the drilling plan to obtain funding for his district and inquired if Fitzgerald offered jobs and other concessions to members in exchange for their votes, council members told the Tribune-Review on Friday.

Fitzgerald and Kress said they did nothing wrong.

“I don't even know why they are looking into this,” Fitzgerald said. “Maybe it's a law that they have to, but if they even came here and spent money, it's ridiculous.”

The state ethics act prohibits public officials from soliciting or accepting “anything of monetary value, including a gift, loan, political contribution, reward, or promise of future employment” in exchange for a vote.

Kress called the investigation absurd.

“I asked for a job fair for the kids, and I made sure the money went to the park,” Kress said. “If they want to talk about a side deal, I got no personal financial gain from this.”

Robert Caruso, executive director of the ethics commission, would not confirm or deny that an investigation was taking place.

Opponents of a proposal to allow Range Resources and Huntley & Huntley to drill under the park straddling West Deer and Frazer in April filed an ethics complaint against Futules, D-Oakmont, asserting his gas lease with Huntley & Huntley presented a conflict of interest. Futules, who chairs the Parks Committee and held several hearings on drilling, said there was no conflict because he did not benefit financially from the Deer Lakes Park deal.

Council voted 9-5 on May 7 to permit drilling under the park. Ethics investigators began interviewing members of council at the end of June, council members said.

As part of the deal, job fairs to help high school students plan for careers in natural gas drilling will be held at high schools around the park and Fitzgerald promised to spend $2 million on improvements in the park. Allegheny County will receive $4.7 million in up-front bonus payments, a $3 million donation to a parks improvement fund and 18 percent in royalties from production.

Futules said the investigators asked him if Fitzgerald promised Kress anything in exchange for his vote.

“I think it's going to come to a dead end pretty quick,” Futules said. “There is no conflict of interest, and no one made any promises for monetary gain.”

Councilwoman Sue Means, R-Bethel Park, said she met twice with ethics investigators. They asked her if she thought Fitzgerald traded anything to get votes. Means declined to go into further details about her discussions.

Councilwomen Jan Rea, R-McCandless, and Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, said they met with investigators but declined to give details. Means, Heidelbaugh and Rea were among the five members who voted against the drilling deal. Democrats Barbara Daly Danko of Regent Square and Bill Robinson of the Hill District voted against it as well. Danko has not met with investigators. Robinson could not be reached.

Other Democrats on council, including President John DeFazio of Shaler, Jim Ellenbogen of Banksville and John Palmiere of Baldwin Township, said investigators did not interview them.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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