Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Taxpayer-Financed Campaigning and the State Ethics Commission

Once again, as he has done on a number of previous occasions, Pittsburgh's interim mayor, Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl, is using our tax dollars for his own political campaiging. As discussed over in the Post-Gazette's Early Returns blog, city mailboxes are again being carpet-bombed with another round of 311 telephone response line advertisements, all prominently featuring the interim mayor's name and a simply enormous photograph of his smiling face. Meanwhile, as described over at 2 Political Junkies, the Ravenstahl campaign recently unveiled its website, which prominently features the now ubiquitous hands-on-hips image of Master Ravenstahl which appears on the garbage collection schedule sent to every last household in the city, as well on a number of billboards around town.

It's disgusting. It's an in-your-face use of public funds to advance a private political campaign. It goes far beyond the normal benefits of incumbency. But what's a little guy (or gal) like you or me going to do about it? Our city has no means for a regular citizen to address issues such as this one. Our Ethics Board hasn't met for years, and the Ravenstahl administration is seemingly doing everything in its power to ensure that it won't form a quorum prior to the May 15th Democratic primary.

But, as citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, perhaps we have other ways of dealing with this unethical behavior. Even though there is no local Ethics Board for us to work with, we do have the option of filing complaints with the State Ethics Commission. The necessary information can be found on their website, and the form required to file a complaint can be downloaded right here. In fact, should you feel so angry as to file a complaint yourself, allow me to help you fill in the form. You can just copy the text right out of The People's Republic and paste it directly into the PDF complaint form from the state.

1. Person you are complaining about:

Luke Ravenstahl

City-County Building
Fifth Floor
414 Grant Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Position or Title::
Mayor, City of Pittsburgh

Work Phone Number: (no spaces allowed)

Home Phone Number:
I think we can leave this one blank

2. Explain in detail why you believe he may have violated the Ethics Act. Note that the PDF form from the state accepts only a limited number of characters, and that my own explanation won't fit on the form all in one go. You will need to paste the first paragraph onto the form separately, and then paste the rest onto a separate piece of paper to be sent to the Ethics Commission. Note also that the links I've included below won't transfer onto the paper form, but that's fine. The links are more for your use than theirs. And feel free to edit and alter the text as you see fit to reflect your own style and degree of outrage:

As a candidate for election as the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Mr. Ravenstahl has repeatedly used taxpayer-funded materials to advance his political campaign. In late October 2006, the City of Pittsburgh launched a new 311 telephone system. Simply by dialing 311, city residents could report problems with and request information about city-provided services. As part of the campaign to advertise this service to its residents, the City of Pittsburgh began mailing large postcards to most, if not all households within the city limits. Each of these postcards contained a large color picture of Mayor Ravenstahl, and referred to this new telephone number as "Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's Response Line". A copy of this postcard also appeared in every copy of the city's refuse collection schedule, which was sent to city households in January and February of 2007.

While this advertising campaign may have constituted a sensible use of city funds when the 311 telephone number was first introduced, it's continuation raises serious ethical concerns. The 311 service has now been active for nearly five full months, and most city residents have already been informed about it in several previous mailings. The city's Democratic primary election, on the other hand, is just two months away. Yet in just the past few days, even more of these 311 announcement mailings have arrived in the mailboxes of city residents. The continued use of these postcards, published and mailed at taxpayer expense, increasingly appears to be more motivated by the desire to influence voters than to inform city residents.

In addition these postcards, this past week brought another example of Mr. Ravenstahl's use of publicly-funded materials in his mayoral campaign. At the moment, Mayor Ravenstahl's campaign website prominently features a large color photograph of him standing with his hands on his hips. This exact same image, however, has been used on countless billboards, city-funded mailings, and on a section of the city's official website. It seems likely that this photograph was taken at taxpayer expense, and it has also appeared on taxpayer-funded mailings, such as a December 2006 mailing about garbage collection and the refuse collection calendar described above.

The use of this photograph, and of numerous other images on the Ravenstahl campaign website, poses significant ethical questions. At least some of these images appear to be official photographs which have been paid for by the public, and thus should not be used for political campaigns. Other images have been used on official city government documents or on the City of Pittsburgh's website, and are thus also inappropriate for use in the mayor's campaign. These actions seem more than worthy of investigation by the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission.
3. Attach or make references to any documents, materials, minutes, etc. which support your allegations. I have a PDF copy of the garbage collection schedule from the city website, along with JPEG images of the Ravenstahl campaign website. It would be nice to have some scanned images of the 311 Response Line postcard. If anyone has one, please email it to me. If you want copies of the files I have, shoot me an email and I'll send them along to you.

Here's where things get a bit difficult, but if you as outraged as I am, it shouldn't be all that much trouble for you to go through. You will need to fill in your name, address, and telephone numbers. Then you will need to print everything out, take it all to a notary, and sign your complaint form in their presence. Then you will need to mail it to:

State Ethics Commission
309 Finance Building
P.O. Box 11470
Harrisburg, PA 17108-1470

Yes, the notary thing is a bit of a pain in the ass. But if that's the price we have to pay for demanding quality governance, so be it. It's worth it to me. I hope that it's worth it to you, too.


Anonymous said...

You have to do this. Awesome.

aeran said...

does the idea of having to go to a notary to file an ethics complaint strike anyone else as completely absurd?

John said...

This is completely lame. The Mayor's name and image are representative of the City government, and research shows that images of elected officials can led credence and cachet when advertising governmental programs. This is similar to why you see the Governor's name on State materials (such as programs LIHEAP), all over the State website, and on those nice little interstate signs when you enter the State.

You are really reaching.

ndp said...

Here's a website to locate a notary if you don't know one: PA notaries

And yes, notaries are old skool. PA evidentally has "e-notaries" but they're hard to find online - go figure!

Richmond K. Turner said...

I honestly don't feel that it's reaching at all. If Master Ravenstahl wants to put up a road sign with his name on it, welcoming people to the city, that's cool with me. I've never bitched all that much about the regular Luke-a-pollooza that is the city's website, even though it does seem grossly excessive. Those things are truly the natural advantage of incumbency. So is, for that matter, the fact that an incumbent can get his picture in the paper every single day without breaking a sweat.

It crosses the line, however, when it is done for political purposes, and when public funds are spent on the incumbent's political campaign.

If you don't believe me, try this thought experiment. Let's imagine that Bill Peduto went to council and asked to have his picture affixed to a mailing extolling something that he had been instrumental in creating, such as the wi-fi internet access in some parts of the city.

Even if the election was not right around the corner, he would be crucified -- and rightfully so -- by the other memebers of council for even suggesting such a thing. And given that the election is just two months away, the accusations of impropriety would be all the easier to believe.

To take an image that has been used directly on offical city correspondence and use it as the centerpiece of the mayor's campaign website is clearly wrong. If you don't see that, then I'm sure that there is absolutely nothing I could possibly say that would convince you. You've already made up your mind, and the facts are obviously irrelevant to you.

Anonymous said...

If this doesnt show Dowd's true character nothing will. It is obvious that he has his people out to remove Tom Fallon from the ballot. While it is his right, it doesnt sound too progressive to me, it sounds like old guard politics. Hopefully Mr. Liscowsky will provide some irony on this one.

Ballot Challenges

County Council #13 Vernon Boozer by Matt Arena
County Council #13 Brenda Frazier by Matt Arena

City Council #9 Rachel Cooper by 12th and 13th Ward Committee people

City Council #7 Tom Fallon by Michelle Bielen et al
City Council #7 Patrick Dowd by Anthon Liscowsky

School Board #8 Bonnie Young-Laing has withdrawn from the race because she does not live in the district.

Agent said...

Anonymous: What does Patrick Dowd's challenge have to do with Luke using the taxpayer's funds to further his own agenda?

Secondly, I appreciate the People's Republic of Pittsburgh for taking the time to find a way that citizens can take action on this item.

You rock, People's Republic of Pittsburgh.


-Agent Ska-

Anonymous said...

A sign here, a sign there, a relatively cheap website entry is one thing - spending tens of thousands of dollars to advertise in this unrelenting manner on the eve of an important election really is unprecedented in these parts - and to those who will claim that it isn't (it is), "everybody's doing it" doesn't cut it, especially given the City's financial condition. John: What Luke is doing IS completely lame.

Matt H said...

Can you really fault Mayor Ravenstahl for people not showing up to the Ethics board meeting? Should he drive out and pick them up?

Matt H said...

Why is this Patrick Dowd stuff showing up in the comments of every blog?

Anonymous said...


Are you comparing a city councilman (who is one of nine) to the mayor of the city? Didn't luke create (not "been instrumental in creating") the 311 response line??? John is right, you are reaching!

Jason Phillips said...

An aspect of this that is not being examined it the Copyright Laws that surround photographs. Yes, each and every picture that is taken is considered to have a copyright

Who is it that owns the image? Is it the City? Is it Luke personally? Is it the Photographer?

I'm guessing that unless a hefty amount was paid the rights to the picture in question belong to the photographer (intellectual property). But, the question should also go back to who commissioned the photograph in the first place.

Anonymous said...

1. Luke didn't create the 311 line - it's been well-documented that Bob O'Connor resurrected the "Mayor's Service Center" and planned to roll it out in August - Zober took over as acting mayor and it never got off the ground until Ravenstahl became acting mayor -
2. Matt: Yes, you can fault the mayor for not only failing to light a fire under the ethics commission (send a simple letter in between campaign stops) AND for failing to look into the removal of board members who fail to do their duty - if Luke isn't up to doing this hard/real work, maybe Peduto should do it...

EdHeath said...

I wonder if the State ethics board is the proper mechanism for this issue/complaint. Is the comparison maybe with the sorts of activities that sent Jeff Habay to jail? In any event, you might look at the Commonwealth's Department of State. They oversee campaign finance, and this might well be related. Unfortunately, I think the government in general is more likely to nod approvingly at the Mayor's clever use of taxpayer funds to advance his campaign by using the same *images* in city mailings as in his campaign. Its probably not close enough to explicitly using city funds for campaigning, but that is the argument you would want to advance. I think the best you could hope for is that Luke would have to change his campaign website, although maybe he would go to jail, just like Representative Habay, Shaler.

I have been guilty of bringing up Dr Dowd as a non sequitor, in comments. But you will always see my name on my comments, and I suspect no one pays attention to what I say anyway ...

Anonymous said...

A city employee took those photos on city time with city equipment.

You can not appropriate those images for campaign use.

For instance they had been doing the same thing for Mayor O'Connor before he passed:


The website says that most were taken by city employees.

Charlie said...

This is what you want him written up for? Come on... this problem is too easy to solve. Luke says, "Oops! Gee whiz, I didn't even think about copyright! Is it okay if I use this other image instead, one my wife took last week? I'll have the site updated ASAP!"

Remember this?

However watered-down this new cost recovery fee structure may have been, the key point is that the secondary employment system was largely set up and ready to go at the time that Luke Ravenstahl became the interim mayor of Pittsburgh. It had been approved by two different previous mayors and two different police chiefs. It had been ruled sound by both a Federal judge and an independent labor arbitrator. It had been voted on and approved by City Council. And these reductions in the city's cost recovery fee meant that there was no longer any valid reason for private employers to complain about the plan; they were getting a far better deal than they would have received from any other police department in the Pittsburgh area. There was simply no reason why this secondary employment program should not go forward. No reason, that is, apart from Luke Ravenstahl himself.


On 21 November 2006, just two and a half weeks after receiving this letter from the FOP president, Interim Mayor Luke Ravenstahl ended the cost recovery program in its entirety. He didn't just go along with the FOP request to reduce the cost recovery fee; instead, he completely eliminated it. The city would now receive no revenue whatsoever from its secondary employment program.


...The decision was made during a single meeting, held that very day, where only a very one-sided view of the cost recovery plan was presented. There were no members of the city's law department present. There was nobody there from the Special Events Office. And despite the fact that this decision would eliminate at least $300,000 in new revenue – and possibly much more money than that – there was no discussion whatsoever with the Act 47 or Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA) boards, which were overseeing all of the city's budgetary decisions in the wake of its 2003 bankruptcy.

That stealth meeting with the FOP strikes me as far more significant and worthy of ethical examination than recycling a photo.

Mark Rauterkus said...

Victory looks like this! Well done.

Skip said...

Ravenstahl Site Drops Photos

Perhaps our State Ethics Commission complaints can document this.

Skip said...

Trib reporting "Ravenstahl Site Drops Photos"

When Ol'Skip figures out the new html fishin' equipment you'll start to see links to articles n'at.