Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Some City Councilman Broke the Election Laws, and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

This story is all over the place. I'm not sure, in the grand scheme of things, just how important it really is. But it involves clear political misconduct and taxpayer-financed campaigning by city employees, so we can only be talking about Pittsburgh city government. And since the constant missteps of Pittsburgh's city government can only be foiled by the harsh spotlight of public attention, they must be discussed here. I say this, even though both newspapers have covered the story at least twice in the last 24 hours (Post Gazette yesterday and today; Tribune-Review yesterday and today), and the story is plastered just about everywhere you look across the burghosphere (Burgh Report #1, #2, and #3; 2 Political Junkies; The Ideas Bucket; rebuttal over at Pittsburgh Hoagie). Quite a bit has already been written, and I am many hours behind this story at this point. But I have noticed a few things that I haven't seen mentioned anywhere else.

The basic story, which you can get by clicking on just about any of those links, is that the city's famed "Redd Up" crew, staffed by city employees from the Department of Public Works, was caught campaigning on city time. They weren't knocking on doors or handing out literature, but were instead wearing dayglo-green T-shirts supporting the reelection of their former co-worker, Jeff Koch, to his District 3 City Council seat. The workers, who included Mr. Koch's campaign treasurer, Ray Sansone, were photographed at the scene of the crime wearing their illegal attire. It must have been something of a tense situation. The photographer, who is not coincidentally a staffer from the campaign of Mr. Koch's political rival, Bruce Kraus, was confronted by Kevin Quigley (the overall manager of the Redd-up Campaign), who threatened to have him arrested for "harassing city workers while on the job".

The aftermath is probably even more interesting than the incident itself. Pittsburgh's interim mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, reacted with astonishing alacrity. Four of the employees have been suspended without pay for five days, and Mr. Ravenstahl claims that he will refer the matter to the City Ethics Board. For his part, Mr. Koch denied any involvement in or knowledge about the t-shirts or the wearing of them by these city employees. He also claimed that the photographs and distribution of the story were politically motivated, which he seems to believe is an even greater sin than the illegal conduct of the Redd Up crew (and, quite possibly, of his own campaign).

Mr. Koch may not have known about this specific incident. But the design of the t-shirts themselves suggests that they were specifically made to be worn by Public Works employees. According to the Tribue-Review, Mr. Koch's campaign made the shirts about about three weeks ago. They are bright dayglo-green, the same shade of safety green that anyone who works on or near a busy street would wear to enhance their visibility. The color is so obnoxious that one wonders who else, apart from an on-duty Public Works employee, would ever voluntarily choose to wear it. As a matter of fact, Maria over at 2 Political Junkies tells us that the campaign shirts are exactly the same color as the usual city-issued uniform shirts worn by some Public Works employees. It's very hard for me to believe that the Koch campaign would hand these shirts out to Public Works employees without the full knowledge of just when and wear they would be worn. And I suppose it's just a happy coincidence that these workers were assigned to a job in District 3 on the very same day that decided to wear -- as a group -- these same t-shirts.

Interim Mayor Ravenstahl, meanwhile, is almost hilariously hypocritical with his response to this incident. While it's fair to commend him for taking prompt and bold action, that five-day suspension without pay is likely to come back and bite us taxpayers in the ass. For one thing, it's not at all clear that all four of the suspended employees were wearing these shirts by choice. Ray Sansone (the Koch campaign treasurer), who was wearing one of the shirts yesterday, almost certainly volunteered to be a walking advertisement. But he may also have ordered, pressured, or reassured the other three workers that there was nothing wrong with wearing these t-shirts on city time. They may have been innocent dupes who are now going to lose five days pay because of it.

Speaking of that five-day suspension, it's also important to realize that these four t-shirted workers are now being punished just as harshly as Pittsburgh Police Sergeant Mark A. Eggleton, who was so prominently featured in the secondary employment story earlier this year. For those of you who may not remember, Sgt. Eggleton used grossly excessive force while working off-duty (but in city uniform) at the Original Hot Dog shop in Oakland. When the incident was investigated by they city, he committed perjury under oath. A federal lawsuit filed by the victim in this case ultimately cost city taxpayers $200,000. And for all of that, his punishment was nothing more than a simple five-day suspension from duty. I bet he thanks his lucky stars that he wasn't wearing a Koch campaign t-shirt at the time, or he might have been suspended for six days instead of five.

Interim Mayor Ravenstahl is further wrapped up in this tangled web by the participation of Kevin Quigley, who heads the Redd Up crew and who threatened to have the photographer arrested for gathering evidence of the crime while it was taking place. As the Tribune-Review stories report, Mr. Quickly is also a close friend of and former council aide to Mr. Ravenstahl, along with being a Democratic committee member from Brighton Heights. It's more or less impossible to believe that he had no idea that these t-shirt were being worn by on-duty city employees. And as someone who has such lofty connections into the mayor's office, his quiet consent (if not vocal participation) to the wearing of these shirts almost certainly lent an air of appropriateness to the whole situation. This makes it all the more likely that at least a few of the suspended employees had no idea that they were doing anything wrong when they pulled on these t-shirts yesterday morning.

Finally, a bit must be said about Mr. Ravenstahl's plans to refer these workers' conduct to the city's Ethics Review Board. As I have noted before, the interim mayor seems now to be a big fan of the Ethics Board, at least when it's not his conduct that they are looking into. Assuming that the Mr. Ravenstahl is actually able -- after two earlier failed attempts -- to get the Ethics Board's members in the same room this week, it would seem that he only wants them to examine the actions of these four workers and City Councilmember Twanda Carlisle. He certainly doesn't seem too keen to have them discuss matters such as his use of city mailings to advance his own political campaign. And he probably won't even ask them to examine the actions of his personal friend Kevin Quigley, who unjustifiably threatened a citizen with arrest yesterday.

It seems that the Ethics Board is in danger of becoming the interim mayor's personal enforcement committee. At least, that's what they will turn into if Luke Ravenstahl has anything to say about it. Mr. Ravenstahl apparently envisions using them to provide political cover and, on occasion, to mete out his own personal retributions. He may find, however, that these independent board members -- some of whom have been jerked around by his administration, and asked to attend two earlier meetings which never even got started -- may have their own agenda to pursue. Let's hope so. It's about the only thing we have to look forward to.

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