Ravenstahl admits jetting to New York on Burkle's 'Ron Air'

Jeremy Boren
| Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hopped a private jet to New York City to have dinner and drinks at a posh Manhattan hotel hours after announcing a $290 million deal to build a new Uptown arena for the Penguins.

After last Tuesday's announcement, Ravenstahl attended the Penguins game against the Buffalo Sabres at Mellon Arena with team co-owner Ron Burkle, who invited him onto his private jet and treated the mayor to a meal at the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan.

Burkle owns a Boeing 757, which his friend -- former President Bill Clinton -- refers to as "Ron Air."

Ravenstahl initially told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Monday morning that he did not travel to New York, but he changed his story in the afternoon after the Trib confronted him with more details about the overnight trip.

Ravenstahl initially was asked whether he had traveled to New York "on anything related to the Penguins." He said he denied it because he didn't consider the trip to be Penguins-related business.

Because of the trip, Ravenstahl missed a meeting Wednesday morning with Hill District community leaders in the office of Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato to discuss how to develop homes and businesses around the site of the Penguins new arena.

The Rev. Johnnie Monroe, of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, was there.

"We would have preferred the mayor himself, but I think Mr. (Yarone) Zober was there," Monroe said, referring to Ravenstahl's chief of staff. "We were all right with that. We were hoping that at the next meeting he's going to be present himself along with a representative from the (city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority) and the Penguins.

"We were promised that when the next meeting is held, that all of the participants will be in the room," Monroe said.

Ravenstahl said he missed the meeting because of the trip to Manhattan.

"Unfortunately, I wasn't in town at the time," he said. "Yarone was there. He handled everything on our side."

Ravenstahl said he went to New York because he wanted campaign advice from Burkle, a billionaire supermarket mogul and prominent Democratic fundraiser.

"It was a good opportunity for he and I to build a good relationship," said Ravenstahl, who called Burkle "one of the more well-documented Democratic backers in the country."

"We discussed (campaign) philosophy," Ravenstahl said. "Obviously, he has a close relationship with President Clinton. We talked about presidential politics and we also talked about the mayor's race, candidly, and did talk about some fundraising but (I) never specifically asked for a contribution."

Local Democrats have endorsed Ravenstahl, 27, of Summer Hill, who is running in the May 15 primary against City Councilman Bill Peduto, 42, of Point Breeze.

Ravenstahl and Burkle were accompanied on the jet by the mayor's friend, Kevin Kinross, deputy director of Gov. Ed Rendell's Western Pennsylvania office, and National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy, Bill Daly.

The men arrived in New York City about midnight. Ravenstahl and Kinross had dinner and drinks with Burkle and some of his friends. Burkle picked up the tab, Ravenstahl said.

When asked about the evening, Ravenstahl said he did not know where he ate.

Ravenstahl and Kinross went to the home of a friend of Kinross to stay for the night.

The mayor said he did not remember what part of town he spent the night.

Kinross, speaking through Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo, said he and Ravenstahl ate and drank at the Gramercy Park Hotel and stayed in Queens.

Ravenstahl and Kinross booked their flight home Wednesday, arriving in Pittsburgh at midday.

This wasn't the first Ravenstahl denial to turn into an admission during his 6 12 months in office.

On Jan. 18, after denying it for months, he acknowledged that police handcuffed and detained him before a 2005 Steelers game at Heinz Field. He never was charged.

Ravenstahl said he would report last week's free plane ride and dinner on his campaign finance forms and is considering whether to reimburse Burkle for the cost of the flight.

Burkle could not be reached for comment.

"Quite honestly, it's not common for me to speak with the media about my campaign activity because it is something that, you know, is strategic and it's not something that I necessarily wanted to share," Ravenstahl said.

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