Wednesday, May 9, 2007

More Koch Fumbles

The Post-Gazette's Rich Lord is reporting on an ever-lengthening list of ethical problems inside the re-election campaign for Pittsburgh City Councilmember Jeff Koch. At this stage, it might actually be more efficient to ask for a list of the election laws that Mr. Koch isn't suspected of breaking so far. The latest accusations include campaign phone calls being made by city employees from Mr. Koch's city council office, and the acceptance of illegal campaign donations from corporate sponsors. The person in responsible for accepting those donations, of course, would be campaign treasurer Ray Sansone. Mr. Sansone also happens to be one the city workers photographed yesterday wearing a Koch campaign t-shirt while on duty with the city's Redd Up crew. I don't know about you, but after a while all of these tangled relationships begin to make my brain hurt.

Just to add one more thing into this already-confusing mess, Mr. Sansone is also a steward in the Teamsters union. So it's hardly surprising that the union is striking back at the city for attempting to punish the four workers involved in yesterday's incident.

"Last time I checked in this country, we still had the First Amendment, freedom of speech," said Teamsters Local 249 Vice President Joe Rossi. The Redd Up Crew, he added, had long been allowed to diverge from the city's public works uniform policy, and members of that group often wore shirts emblazoned with the name of the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, who created the special unit of the Department of Public Works.

Mr. Rossi said he had spoken with Mr. Sansone, and that the steward "asked those guys if they wanted to wear those shirts" but in no way ordered them to do so. "Ray doesn't have the authority to order anybody.

"The city's past practice is that we've been allowed to do this," Mr. Rossi said of the wearing of political shirts and buttons. "If the city wants to [suspend the workers], that's fine, if they think they need to do that to keep up public perception. . . . If the city wants to suspend these guys, it'll probably cost them $15,000 in arbitration and then [the workers will] end up getting five-day paid vacations."
If I had to bet, I'd say the the union has a decent chance of winning this one. They need only point to Interim Mayor Ravenstahl's own prolific use of city property and funds to support his own election campaign, combine it with the city's past practice of allowing these kinds of mistakes to go unchallenged, and tie it all up with a nice 1st amendment ribbon. They just might pull it off.

Of course, their argument is still pure bullshit. City employees should never, ever be permitted to do anything campaign-related while they are at work. It undermines the whole notion of the civil service system, and will inevitably lead to some other employee suing the city, claiming that they were discriminated against because they refused to support one candidate over another. But labor arbitration rulings have done far stranger things than go along with a bullshit argument like this one.


Bram Reichbaum said...

"Of course, their argument is still pure bullshit. City employees should never, ever be permitted to do anything campaign-related while they are at work."

I'm not so sure that won't be readily apparent to the judge.

Having those arguments made in court / in an ethics hearing could be an irritating distraction for Mayor Ravenstahl, but on television the lawyers always like to say:

"Objection: Irrelevant!"

And it seems to work ok.

Skip said...

Boy, I just popped over after posting a similar rant and seems like we're on the same train of thought. The argument seems to me to be 'everybody's doing it'. And what a bold threat to the mayor from Rossi!

Good work on the Burns piece. There needs to be a counter op-ed to his crap. And he is obviously out of tune with the discourse in the burgosphere, reflective of the critical thinking public, because I haven't come across anyone who doesn't think he's a buffoon.

Oscar said...

I don't think the union could win on those arguments. Those t-shirts are explicitly pushing the reader/voter to vote in a specific manner, i.e. re-electing Koch. That makes it a clear campaign activity. The billboards and mailers and whatever else don't do that. Are they taking advantage of incumbency? Absolutely. Are they campaigning? Not in a strict legal sense.

The "Hey, look at me, look at this really great thing I just did!" press event/public bill signing/what-have-you is a tried and true tactic of the reigning political office holder, and won't be overtuned anytime soon. Using city employees to promote a specific candidate for a specific office while on city time is patently illegal - I don't see how you get around it.

Also, when Rossi mentions the O'Connor shirts, were the shirts explicitly calling for people to vote for O'Connor next time out? Or were they, like Ravenstahl's billboards, telling the passers-by who is to credit for the program? Given the time frame of the Redd Up program relative to the election cycle, I would be surprised if it was the former instead of the latter - perpetual national campaign season be damned.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Rossi's 1st Amendment defense is absurd, although, there is likely an issue of whether the punishment fits the crime.

As for the mayor's conduct, I disagree that it can so easily be dismissed just because "election language" isn't expressly used on his signs and mailings. I think the legal analysis would require study of the totality of the circumstances, i.e. there's a huge difference between Bob O'Connor's advertisement of the Redd Up campaign as it was first announced and during a non-election period and Luke's completely unnecessary and purely re-advertisement of the campaign months after it was introduced AND, perhaps most critical, in the throes of an election season. It's not quacking, but it looks like a duck, walks like a duck...

Anonymous said...

"It's not quacking, but it looks like a duck, walks like a duck..."

It's Boduck !!!

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