Allegheny County council members accuse DA candidate Middleman of ethics violation
A bipartisan pair of Allegheny County Council members on Thursday accused district attorney candidate Lisa Middleman of orchestrating a “political stunt” that violated county ethics code “on the taxpayer dime.”
Council members Sam DeMarco III, a Republican from North Fayette, and Denise Ranalli-Russell, a Democrat from Pittsburgh’s Brighton Heights neighborhood, filed an ethics complaint over a campaign event held by Middleman at the rotunda inside the county courthouse earlier this week. Middleman is an Allegheny County public defender. She is running in the Nov. 5 election as an independent candidate against longtime incumbent District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
During a news conference at the county courthouse Thursday afternoon, the two council members cited county ethics code that prohibits political activities at county facilities during working hours. Middleman’s campaign rally happened around noon Monday in the courthouse’s rotunda.
“We find it unacceptable,” DeMarco said. And as campaign season heads into its last month here … we want to send a message that Allegheny County facilities — buildings such as the courthouse — are for the express purpose of conducting the people’s business.”
“She (Middleman) needs to abide by what everybody else does,” Ranalli-Russell said.
In a statement, Middleman’s campaign dismissed DeMarco and Ranalli-Russell’s announcement as a “transparently false political attack.”
They “held a press conference to announce that Lisa Middleman held a press conference,” the campaign said.
Middleman’s event was done during her lunch hour “in a public space on her own time,” the campaign said.
DeMarco and Ranalli-Russell cited Section 103.04 of the Allegheny County Ethics Code, which states that employees must engage in any campaign activities “as private citizens, away from county workplaces, out of uniform and during non-working hours.”
“Ms. Middleman is running to be the highest law enforcement officer of the county, yet doesn’t seem to understand or doesn’t want to play by the rules that all of us as officials and as employees in Allegheny County are bound by,” DeMarco said.
“We want to send a signal to all candidates, elected officials that this is not to be tolerated here in the county buildings,” DeMarco said. “And we want to hold them accountable whether you’re Republican or Democrat or independent, whether you’re an elected official or just a candidate.”
DeMarco and Ranalli-Russell said that Middleman did not apply for a permit or notify officials that hundreds of people had said via social media that they planned to attend. They displayed printouts of screenshots showing the Middleman campaign advertising the event via Facebook and Twitter.
Middleman’s campaign event also was “misrepresented as an emergency rally and press conference, leading folks to believe it was a protest,” DeMarco said.
“So when these people all descended upon the courthouse, the sheriff was forced to mobilize resources so that they could protect the facility as well as officials,” DeMarco said. The courthouse’s rotunda is a short distance from the office of the county manager and district attorney.
Had Middleman moved the event into the outdoor courtyard at the center of the courthouse, DeMarco said, there would not be a reason to file an ethics complaint “because it would not have disrupted county business.”
“Traditionally when I’ve seen them (political events at the courthouse) happen in the past, I’ve seen them being held in the courtyard,” DeMarco said.
Middleman’s campaign argued that no additional sheriff’s resources were spent because of Monday’s event. At one point, the crowd moved to a slightly different section of the rotunda to the approval of a law enforcement officer at the courthouse, campaign spokesman Darwin Leuba said.
When asked about choosing to hold Thursday’s news conference about the ethics complaint at the courthouse, DeMarco said that the small gathering of reporters for the purpose of conveying a message to the public did not constitute a political event. DeMarco also said that as Allegheny County GOP chair, he has no plans to endorse Zappala.
Middleman held Monday’s event — which included representatives of her campaign as she spoke against a backdrop of campaign signage — to respond to the release of four teenagers from the Allegheny County Jail in late September, according to a press release issued by the campaign the day before.
The teenagers had been held for 15 months before Zappala’s office dropped the charges.
Ethics complaints are handled by the Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Commission, whose members are appointed by Allegheny County Council.
The commission will review the complaint and make a recommendation on whether any action should be taken, with possible consequences ranging from a warning to suspension.