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URA boss accepted gifts from billboard company

| Wednesday, April 9, 2008, 12:00 p.m.

Pittsburgh's top development official said Tuesday he and his wife accepted a surround-sound speaker system, cigars, neckties and other gifts from an advertising executive who brokered a deal with the city to erect an electronic billboard Downtown.

Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Pat Ford and his wife, mayoral press secretary Alecia Sirk, said they saw nothing wrong with accepting the gifts in December 2006 from Jim Vlasach, real estate manager for Lamar Advertising.

"I've been in public service long enough now to know what's appropriate and what's inappropriate behavior," Ford said. "And I also am professional enough and mature enough to know when to separate business with a friendship."

Ford called Vlasach his best friend.

Ford said he oversaw the Planning Department last year when he advised Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczyko to allow Lamar to erect a 1,200-square-foot electronic billboard on the side of the Grant Street Transportation Center, Downtown, without holding a public hearing.

In exchange, Ford said Lamar agreed to remove six nearby vinyl billboards.

Opponents of the deal -- including Councilman Patrick Dowd, who has sued to reverse it -- have said the light-emitting diode, or LED, billboard should have been vetted publicly because the city code requires a public hearing for projects worth more than $50,000. The billboard's cost is between $6 million and $7 million.

Vlasach did not return a call seeking comment.

Ford approached the Tribune-Review with the information. He said he was worried that local bloggers who discovered an entry on Sirk's old blog about the surround-sound system would distort the facts and use the information in an attempt to discredit him.

"My job is my life. I have friends who I work with on a regular basis," Ford said. "My friends are my friends, and I do business with my friends. I've always been of the opinion that I can separate business and pleasure because I'm operating in a fishbowl, people can see what I'm doing."

Ford and Sirk said they did not report the gifts on financial disclosure forms and don't intend to return them.

According to city code, any city employee who is "responsible for taking or recommending official action" must file a financial disclosure form covering the previous year by May 1 of each year.

Asked if he thought the surround-sound system warranted public disclosure, Ford said, "No, I don't, because it's a nominal gift. The gifts that I get from (Vlasach) are of a nominal value. And I think the threshold, without looking at it, is, I don't know, 200, 250 bucks. He is a friend, and we do exchange gifts."

Pittsburgh's ethics code prohibits city employees from accepting "anything of value" from a business or person that does business with the city, but it does make an exception for an "occasional nonpecuniary gift of nominal value."

The Pennsylvania Ethics Act states public officials who accept gifts worth at least $250 must report the amount of the gift, the name and address of its source and the circumstances surrounding the giving of the gift.

Electronics retailer Best Buy lists 91 surround-sound systems on its Web site that range in price from $150 to $4,000.

Eighty of them cost more than $250.

Ford said Vlasach gave the surround-sound system to Sirk, who serves as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's press secretary and previously worked as a mid-level URA administrator.

Sirk was uncertain if she was required to report gifts.

Sirk said she and her husband use the sound system while watching movies.

Accepting the gift and not disclosing it publicly is probably illegal, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a government reform nonprofit in Harrisburg.

"It certainly has trouble passing the smell test," Kauffman said. "It looks like it could have been a pay-to-play situation."

Kauffman said the cost of giving Ford and Sirk a surround-sound system is insignificant compared to the millions of dollars that Lamar Advertising could make on the billboard over its lifetime.

"It demonstrates why there is a need for even tighter ethics standards in gift-giving with public officials," Kauffman said.

Sirk defended her husband.

"Pat is an ethical man, no matter what people in this town want to say about that," she said. "I think a huge piece of that is the fact that he's willing to say to your face that it happened, but that it's not going to keep (him) from being a good public steward."

Sirk said she revealed Vlasach's gift of the surround-sound system in an entry she made Dec. 30, 2006, to her now-defunct blog "LoveofChair."

Sirk and Ford said they created the blog to inform relatives and friends about their lives. Sirk refers to her husband throughout the blog as "Our Hero" and to Vlasach as "jv."

A portion of the blog entry stated: "Our Hero and his best buddy got together to share a stogie during the holiday break. they have such a blast together, it's fun to even watch. and the best part was that i got a christmas gift! jv brought me surround sound for my dvd player! it is like knock you over one of the best things evah (sic)."

"If there was anything wrong with it, I wouldn't put it on my blog," said Sirk, who wrote the entry nine months before Ravenstahl hired her as press secretary. She said Ravenstahl would have no comment.

Additional Information:

Billboard brouhaha

Lamar Advertising filed a civil lawsuit Tuesday against five Pittsburgh City Council members that seeks to stop council from blocking its plans to erect electronic billboards, including a 1,200-square-foot billboard recently built Downtown.

The lawsuit says council President Doug Shields and council members Bill Peduto, Bruce Kraus, the Rev. Ricky Burgess and Patrick Dowd ignored Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act and improperly met 'clandestinely and secretly, to discuss the initiation of litigation to challenge the issues of permits for the billboards.'

As a private citizen, Dowd has filed a lawsuit appealing the issuance of a building permit to Lamar for the electronic sign Downtown. The other four have appealed the permit as council members.

Council members said Lamar's lawsuit has no merit. Peduto characterized it as an intimidation tactic.

On April 1, council approved a six-month moratorium on approving or erecting billboards in Pittsburgh. Lamar wants a judge to order City Council to halt any further legislative action against advertising billboards.

A judge in the civil division of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court will consider the injunction request from Lamar on Friday, according to the lawsuit.

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