Ex-URA chief mum on $425,000 contract
(The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 1--Pittsburgh's former development chief has refused to cooperate with an audit that could shed light on how a politically connected firm won a $425,000 city contract.
The city controller's audit seeks to explain why the Urban Redevelopment Authority awarded the contract to engineering firm McTish, Kunkel & Associates even though it was the highest of three bidders vying to perform road and utility line work at Pittsburgh Technology Center in South Oakland.
A second facet of the inquiry scrutinizes nearly $700,000 in loans and mortgages the URA gave to former Pittsburgh developer Bernardo Katz to develop city properties on Broadway Avenue in Beechview. Katz moved to Brazil and banks have foreclosed on several properties he owned.
Former URA Executive Director Pat Ford can answer key questions about both cases, Controller Michael Lamb said Wednesday.
But Lamb said Ford refused to help because his "separation agreement" with the URA prohibits him from making "disparaging or negative comments" about the city or the authority.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl suspended Ford in April after the Tribune-Review reported that Ford and his wife, former mayoral spokeswoman Alecia Sirk, accepted a surround-sound system and other gifts from a Lamar Advertising executive who was doing business with the city. Sirk resigned.
Ford resigned Aug. 27, after the state Ethics Commission found no evidence he violated the state Ethics Act. Ford's resignation letter accused Ravenstahl of running a "failed administration" and, without providing details, said Ford was a scapegoat for the "inappropriate affairs and activities of others." The URA board settled with him in September, to avoid an expensive court battle over terms of his contract.
"I don't have subpoena power, so I can't force him to talk to me," said Lamb, who plans to release the audit this month, with or without Ford's help.
"If he decides not to talk, we'll do the report and probably make a recommendation to the auditor general to pursue this further," Lamb said.
State Auditor General Jack Wagner has subpoena power.
Lamb believes Ford has first-hand knowledge about why the URA selected McTish, Kunkel & Associates. The URA allowed the firm to lower its bid of $525,000 to $425,000, but did not give the two other bidders the same opportunity.
Matthew McTish, president of the company, donated $10,000 to Ravenstahl's campaign in December 2006, but Ravenstahl said there was no quid pro quo.
Ford might know why the URA did not follow normal procedure when it backed Katz with extensive loans and mortgages under former URA Executive Director Jerry Dettore.
Ford's settlement pays his health care benefits and $117,875 salary through June -- six months longer than Ford requested in his fiery August resignation letter to URA Chairman Yarone Zober, Ravenstahl's chief of staff.
The settlement, worth about $101,000, makes exceptions that might allow Ford to talk with Lamb. One allows Ford to comply with "any bona fide request for information by a government agency."
In September, Ford's attorney Lawrence Fisher of Downtown firm Cohen and Willwerth PC said the agreement doesn't inhibit Ford from cooperating with authorities.
In an interview, Fisher said he has concerns with written questions Lamb submitted to Ford in October. He declined to share the questions but said some "may not be germane" to the audit investigation.
Fisher said Lamb might be legally bound by Ford's settlement because Lamb is a city official and the city was party to the settlement. He said Ford would cooperate with Wagner's office, if asked to do so.
Lamb this week told Fisher that city and URA officials cleared Ford to cooperate with Lamb's audits, but Fisher said he hasn't seen that agreement. He plans to talk to Lamb again Jan. 12.
Lamb wants to give Ford one more chance to talk. "I don't want to create an adversarial situation," he said.
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