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Ethics panel wants Ravenstahl to answer for golf game

| Saturday, July 14, 2007, 12:00 p.m.

Members of Pittsburgh's Ethics Hearing Board said they are convinced Mayor Luke Ravenstahl created the appearance of a conflict and suggested he might have broken the rules by attending a charity golf outing as a guest of UPMC.

"It's not only a public perception problem, but it may well be a real problem," board member Rabbi Danny Schiff said Friday during the group's monthly meeting in City Council chambers.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center paid $27,000 for Ravenstahl and two UPMC executives to attend the Mario Lemieux Celebrity Tournament June 27 and 28 at Laurel Valley Golf Club, a prestigious, private 18-hole course in Ligonier.

Board members agreed to send Ravenstahl a letter asking him to provide details about the event, either in writing or in person. Two of the five board members, the Rev. John Welch and Penny Zacharias, did not attend.

No one has filed a formal complaint about the mayor attending the event, but ethics board chair Sister Patrice Hughes raised the issue for discussion.

"We want to suspend judgment until all the facts are known," Hughes said.

Ravenstahl played in the golf tournament and did not attend a City Council public hearing to listen to women's groups angered by the promotions of three police officers with accusations of domestic violence or disturbances in their pasts. More than 100 women attended the hearing, and some criticized Ravenstahl for not being there.

The mayor has said he doesn't attend council hearings and maintains he did nothing wrong by playing in the tournament. He was on vacation yesterday and unavailable for comment.

The ethics board can issue a letter of admonition, recommend impeachment or impose a fine of up to $1,000 per violation, among other actions. City lawyer Kate DeSimone said the board might be limited in meting out punishment without a formal complaint.

George Specter, the acting city solicitor, said he believes the mayor's attendance at the golf event did not violate any ethics code. The rules make an exemption for charity events, he said.

"This is not money that went to the mayor," Specter said. "This is money that went entirely to charity."

The tournament supports cancer research.

The event's exclusivity adds to the board's concerns because members of the general public did not have the same level of access to the mayor or the golf event, said Kathy Buechel, the board's vice chair.

"We want the public to have access to public officials in different domains," she said. "What we don't want is the potential appearance of impropriety."

The mayor becomes "somewhat beholden" to UPMC when he agrees to play golf at an event where the company has paid for him to attend, Schiff said.

"The money did not go to him but the benefit most certainly did," Schiff said. "He has received something from them that makes him somewhat more disposed to them."

Schiff said the board should look into Ravenstahl's March trip to New York City aboard a private plane owned by billionaire Ron Burkle, co-owner of the Penguins. Ravenstahl took the trip hours after government and team officials reached a deal on financing an Uptown hockey arena for the team.

After other board members said Ravenstahl used campaign money to reimburse Burkle for the cost of the trip, Schiff said he would prefer public officials not put themselves in the position of having to reimburse anyone to resolve an ethics concern.

Separately, board members agreed it was wrong for city employees to get involved in politics by wearing campaign T-shirts while working on city time, DeSimone said. Ravenstahl suspended four members of a city Public Works "redd up" crew for five days without pay in May for wearing T-shirts advertising city Councilman Jeff Koch's re-election bid while working.

Board members met privately over an unrelated ethics complaint.

The ethics panel was created by former Mayor Sophie Masloff in 1991 but did not hold its first meeting until this year. The late Mayor Bob O'Connor and members of City Council appointed members to the board this past summer.

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