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Judge limits evidence in legal battle over debt-burdened August Wilson Center

| Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, 1:03 p.m.

The court-appointed receiver for the debt-ridden August Wilson Center for African American Culture will have a bit less evidence in its legal arsenal going into trial in late September.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O'Toole ruled on Monday that receiver Judith K. Fitzgerald cannot use subpoenas to collect testimony and documents from three parties: Kevin Acklin, Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority chairman and Mayor Bill Peduto's chief of staff; the state Attorney General's Office; and a coalition of Pittsburgh-area foundations.

O'Toole set an Aug. 29 deadline for parties in the case to complete discovery related to a trial over terms of the deed, set to begin on Sept. 29.

“We will still have all that we need to prove the case,” Michael Shiner, attorney for Fitzgerald, said outside the courtroom.

The parties the judge protected from subpoenas had argued they did not have pertinent or relevant knowledge to share, and that some requests were overly burdensome and amounted to harassment.

“I don't believe it's harassment,” O'Toole said of the request to have Acklin deposed. Yet the judge told the receiver's attorneys to delay seeking testimony from Acklin until after they conduct scheduled depositions with three other URA representatives this week.

O'Toole granted protective orders for the Attorney General's Office and the foundations, enabling those groups to disregard subpoenas from the receiver and Dollar Bank.

The August Wilson Center has more than $10 million in debt.

O'Toole tentatively approved sale of the Downtown building for $9.5 million to New York-based 980 Liberty Partners, which wants to build a 10-story hotel atop the structure and provide space and revenue streams so the cultural center can resume programs. If that deal does not close, Dollar Bank — to which the center owes more than $8 million — may proceed with a sheriff's sale set for Oct. 6.

The URA, attorney general and foundations contend the sale to 980 Liberty Partners would violate deed restrictions and destroy the center and its mission. They want the center, built with at least $17.4 million in taxpayer money and $20 million from foundations, preserved as a “public asset.”

On Monday, O'Toole said it was premature to respond to a request that the receiver return a $500,000 restricted endowment to The Heinz Endowments. The judge indicated the future of that money, unspent in a BNY Mellon account, will be revisited when a deal closes on the property.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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