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August Wilson Center deposition in limbo as judge urged to quash subpoenas

Natasha Lindstrom
| Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

The Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority, the state Attorney General's Office and three foundations urged a judge to quash subpoenas from a court-appointed receiver in the legal fight over the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

“It baffles me that everybody whom we're trying to take discovery from is seeking to have the deposition stopped,” said Michael Shiner, attorney for Judith K. Fitzgerald, a former bankruptcy judge tasked with resolving the center's $10 million debt. “Why are they doing that, unless there's something they don't want to get out?”

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O'Toole set an Aug. 29 deadline for parties involved in the Wilson Center case to complete discovery related to a trial over terms of the deed set to begin on Sept. 29.

O'Toole has 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 on Oct. 6.

The URA, attorney general and foundations object to the sale to 980, arguing it would violate deed restrictions and destroy the cultural 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.”

The authority asked the judge to bar the deposition of Kevin Acklin, URA chairman and Mayor Bill Peduto's chief of staff, because “he lacks personal knowledge” leading up to the receivership and his discussions are protected through deliberative process and attorney-client privileges.

The URA, Pittsburgh Foundation and Dollar Bank declined to comment. Acklin and the Attorney General's Office could not be reached.

The Attorney General's Office argued it should not be forced to testify before Dollar Bank or the receiver because the commonwealth is not involved in actions related to 20 topics listed in its deposition notice, ranging from URA redevelopment plans predating 2007 to the foundations' back-up bid to purchase the property.

“Dollar Bank's deposition notice and discovery goes beyond even a ‘fishing expedition' and ventures well into harassment,” Senior Deputy Attorney General Sandra Mackey Renwand wrote in a motion filed on Friday. “It reflects a waste and diversion of charitable assets since Dollar Bank seeks to be paid from the proceeds of the sale of the center's charitable assets.”

The Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation — not official parties in the case — argue the subpoenas seek “irrelevant information.” Foundation attorney Carolyn Duronio wrote in a motion on Wednesday that compiling 10 years of documents by Aug. 22 is “unreasonable and overly burdensome,” and could result in the charities having to divulge “confidential and proprietary information and/or trade secrets.”

Duronio said the receiver's “eleventh-hour attempt” for discovery appears aimed at thwarting the foundations from pursuing a $7.2 million backup bid to buy the center.

The parties will try to persuade O'Toole to reject the subpoenas at a hearing set for 9:30 a.m. Monday in the Frick Building, Downtown.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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