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Two sue city water authority over firing

| Thursday, May 17, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority board fired former Executive Director John Hanna for testifying about the authority to a federal grand jury and for refusing to pay for a defective sewer project at PNC Park, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Hanna and Michael Stallard, the authority's former engineering director, filed lawsuits under the state's Whistle Blower Law, seeking monetary damages and lost wages.

The lawsuits come after a contractor for the authority pleaded guilty in federal court to a charge arising from an overbilling scheme.

Sharon Antonucci of Hampton Township, the owner of LMD Inc., pleaded guilty in April to one count of mail fraud for overbilling the authority for catch-basin cleaning work. In return, prosecutors dropped 12 other counts of mail fraud.

Hanna's lawsuit said he wanted to hire two key administrators to oversee authority contracts and employees, but was repeatedly rebuffed by board chairman Joseph Preston.

George Jacoby, the authority's attorney, said yesterday he had not seen the lawsuits and would not comment. Preston could not be reached for comment last night.

The authority board fired Hanna, Stallard and two other top administrators in December. At the time, the board stated it wanted to go to a private management firm.

Hanna's lawsuit stated he was under intense pressure by the board to pay the Sports & Exhibition Authority for the PNC Park sewer project.

'Hanna was pressured to do a lot of things that in his mind were improper,' said attorney J. Kerrington Lewis, whose law firm is representing Hanna and Stallard.

Hanna's lawsuit also states that the board refused his request to hire 'competent' supervisors to oversee employees and contracts.

Stallard, the former engineering director, claimed he was pressured to approve work that was not completed properly and was fired after protesting the payments, Lewis said.

Lewis said Hanna and Stallard are ' the scapegoats for what we're alleging is wrongdoing by the board members.'

Hanna was 'ultimately fired because of his open and continuing objections to pay for a defective sewer project at PNC Park,' the lawsuit said.

The sewer work on Federal Street was done under a contract awarded by the Sports & Exhibition Authority, which owns the two new North Side stadiums. The lawsuit does not name the contractor nor does it detail how the work was faulty.

In the lawsuit, Hanna claims Preston would not allow him to hire a director of operations and a facilities support manager to supervise authority contracts.

Twice in July 1999, Hanna told Mayor Tom Murphy that Preston's refusal to fill the positions jeopardized authority operations, the lawsuit said. Hanna also told Murphy that Preston denied his request to require competitive bidding of contract renewals, the lawsuit said.

Hanna met with Murphy in February 2000 and said Preston was interfering with authority management by continuing to refuse to fill the key positions. It was 'endangering the very operation of the PWSA,' the lawsuit said.

Craig Kwiecinski, a Murphy spokesman, said he had not seen the lawsuits and declined comment.

'Board Chairman Joseph Preston made it clear to (Hanna) that he may be the executive director, but Preston did the hiring at PWSA,' the lawsuit said.

Hanna, who became executive director in March 1999, was forced to manage by himself more than 230 employees, to award and monitor multimillion-dollar contracts, to authorize financial payments and to handle other authority operations, according to the lawsuit.

When Hanna would deny payment for work involving projects by the Sports & Exhibition Authority and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, the city's redevelopment arm, members of those two boards pressured him.

Other than the PNC Park project, the lawsuit did not specify other projects for which Hanna denied payment.

Steve Leeper, the executive director of the Sports & Exhibition Authority who sits on the water and sewer authority board, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Mulugetta Birru, the executive director of the URA, also could not be reached.

Jim Ritchie can be reached at jritchie@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7933.

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