Pittsburgh City Council hesitant to pay legal fees for ethics board
Pittsburgh City Council on Wednesday balked at paying $45,000 in legal fees for the city’s Ethics Hearing Board to, among other things, enforce a campaign finance disclosure ordinance that at least one council member disagrees with.
Five members, including Councilwoman Darlene Harris of Spring Hill, abstained on a vote authorizing a $15,000 contract for the Downtown law firm of Rothman Gordon and a $30,000 contract with DeForest, Koscelnik, Yokitis and Berardinelli, also in Downtown.
Voting in favor were council President Bruce Kraus and Councilmen R. Daniel Lavelle and Ricky Burgess. Councilman Corey O’Connor was absent. The contracts are expected to pass during a final vote scheduled for Tuesday.
“I felt we needed more time as a council to discuss,” said Councilwoman Erika Strassburger, who abstained. “I just felt that other council members needed more time to learn more about the bill and felt it should have been held for a week.”
Harris has refused to comply with the ordinance requiring candidates for city elected positions to file financial disclosure reports with the ethics board by the first business day in each of the three months prior to an election. She contends the ordinance is illegal and preempted by a Pennsylvania law that requires candidates to file financial disclosure statements with their respective county election offices. Harris said she always files with Allegheny County.
The ethics board filed a complaint against her this year after she missed deadlines for file finance reports in months leading to the May Democratic primary election, which she lost to Bobby Wilson of Spring Hill. Harris, who faces a fine if found guilty of violating the ordinance, is awaiting the results of a hearing held by the board in March.
Jim Burn, Harris attorney, said his client abstained on the vote after questioning the legitimacy of an executive session members held to discuss the legal fees. Harris declined comment and referred questions to Burn.
“The councilwoman was expressing justifiable and legitimate concerns regarding the use of an executive session as the session related to payment of outside legal council for services,” Burn said. “It is irrelevant to the councilwoman as to which department the services were being retained.”
Council President Bruce Kraus, who schedules executive sessions, did not return a phone message seeking comment on why the closed meeting was held.
In 2017, the board fined Harris $1,000 after she refused to file finance reports during her unsuccessful campaign for mayor. The board never collected the money, according Burn.
Burn repeated his contention that the ordinance is unconstitutional.
“They made no steps to collect the fine because they know that in order to collect any fines assessed they will have to take my client and I across the street to the (Allegheny County) Court of Common Pleas,” he said. “That is where this illegal ordinance shall meet its demise.”
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or via Twitter .