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Wife of suspended city official asks for money

| Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008, 12:00 p.m.

The wife of Pittsburgh's suspended development chief is soliciting contributions to his legal defense fund with an e-mail to a "variety of friends who have inquired about helping," his lawyer said Friday.

Former city spokeswoman Alecia Sirk sent the Aug. 21 letter on behalf of her husband, Pat Ford, who has been on paid leave since April from his job as executive director of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, said Ford's attorney Lawrence H. Fisher.

"I sent out the e-mail personally to friends. The intent was never for the media to obtain a copy," Sirk said in a separate e-mail yesterday.

"I support Pat completely and I was doing what any wife would do (to) support her husband. Mr. Fisher is correct in saying that this issue has dragged on much longer than Pat or I expected and given the fact that I am still transitioning, the legal bills are certainly a burden."

Ford could not be reached for comment.

In the solicitation letter, Sirk said Ford "is committed to restoring his good name, his career and the cooperative and productive relationships that he enjoyed with Pittsburgh's development community." She said supporters can "make a confidential donation to the fund."

Pennsylvania ethics laws, however, require that Ford disclose any gifts valued at more than $250, and Fisher said Ford will disclose any contributions above that amount on a state filing due in May. Fisher said he did not see Sirk's letter before she sent it, but said she intended to mean that she would not keep track of who contributes to the defense fund.

"Pat Ford understands his obligation with respect to reporting and the state Ethics Commission," Fisher said. "He has always adhered to his obligation in that regard. He has never strayed."

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl suspended Ford with pay on April 10 after Ford told the Tribune-Review he and Sirk had accepted gifts -- including a surround-sound system -- from Lamar Advertising executive Jim Vlasach. Sirk resigned her post under pressure from Ravenstahl the same day Ford was suspended.

Vlasach got special approval from Ford that allowed Lamar to build an electronic billboard Downtown without going through normally required public hearings.

Fisher said earlier this month that the 60-day deadline for the Ethics Commission to begin a full investigation into Ford has passed. The attorney claimed that means the preliminary inquiry has closed without finding evidence of wrongdoing.

Ravenstahl has said he wants confirmation from the commission that Ford has been cleared. Commission members are scheduled to meet in September. A commission spokeswoman declined to comment yesterday on Ford's case.

"The mayor looks forward to resolving the matter expeditiously following receipt of a letter from the state Ethics Commission, stating whether or not they're moving forward with the investigation," said Ravenstahl's spokeswoman Joanna Doven.

Fisher said he has received "numerous contributions" for the defense fund since June. He declined to say how much money has been raised or how much Ford owes in legal bills.

Throughout his suspension, Ford, 45, of Lincoln Place has continued to draw a yearly salary of $117,875.

The Trib also received a blank form letter, dated Aug. 14., that has been sent to Ford's supporters so that they could sign it and urge Ravenstahl to reinstate Ford as URA director. The letter calls Ford a "positive force" in the city, and says the Ethics Commission has "cleared any question of wrong doing."

Fisher said he believes that "private citizens have been flooding the mayor's office with the letter." Doven said she did not know immediately whether the office has received the letter and, if so, how many copies.

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