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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

In mayor's race, intriguing footprints on the money trail

Posted By on Wed, May 15, 2013 at 11:25 AM

With one week to go before the May 21 mayoral primary, the money trail is becoming increasingly convoluted — as reflected by financial activity involving the campaigns of the race's two frontrunners.

For starters, a contractor whose work on Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's home has become the subject of stories in the Post-Gazette appears to be a financial supporter of Jack Wagner.

According to a P-G story last week, William J. Rogers runs a firm, R&B Contracting and Excavation, that has done more than $2 million in work for the city since 2010 ... while operating another firm, Allstate Development, that has carried out renovation work at Ravenstahl's Fineview home. The Post-Gazette raised questions about the propriety of such an arrangement, though Ravenstahl's attorney has denied that there was anything improper about it.

Rogers, meanwhile, appears to be backing Wagner — whose close ties to other Ravenstahl loyalists have already raised eyebrows.

Wagner campaign-finance records show three contributions totaling $5,000 between April 17 and April 22 made by a William J. Rogers, all with the same home address. None of those contributions identify Rogers by his ties to either Allstate or R&B. But two $500 contributions identify Rogers' employer as Ace Energy Services, a firm that "specializ[es] in primary and secondary oilfield containment throughout the Marcellus and Utica [natural-gas drilling] regions," and that uses the same West Mifflin business address as one provided on the website of R&B Contracting and Excavation. Another $4,000 contribution used the same home address, but listed Rogers' business address as a Downtown law firm. This appears to be a clerical error on the Wagner campaign's part; the firm employs a lawyer with a similar name, but that lawyer told City Paper he has not made any contributions to Wagner.

Rogers has not returned a phone call left with a receptionist at R&B, who said that was the best number to reach him.

Finance records suggest that the Wagner campaign received the contributions before the Post-Gazette published its story. JJ Abbot, a Wagner spokesman, said Wagner has received contributions from a variety of sources, and while Abbott said he was unsure about the circumstances behind Rogers' contributions, "There's no relationship" between Rogers and Wagner.

Wagner's chief rival, City Councilor Bill Peduto, expressed little surprise about the contributions. "You'll find that there are numerous big money people with ties to the mayor who are supporting the Wagner campaign," he says. Rogers "is just one of them."

Meanwhile, some intriguing contribution patterns are arising on Peduto's side of the ledger as well.

A new political committee, African Americans for Good Government, filed a campaign-finance report with the county last week. The report identifies the committee's treasurer as LaShon Jackson, who is also a field organizer for Peduto's campaign. And it seems to have been funded entirely by $20,000 in money donated from WUF PAC, a political committee affiliated with the Laborers District Council, a union group. The earliest of those contributions dates to April 3; I could not find any record of the committee on either the state or county websites prior to that.

The Laborers have endorsed Peduto, and contributed mightily to his campaign: WUF PAC and the Western Pennsylvania Laborers Political Action Fund have contributed at least $100,000 to Peduto directly so far this year.

African Americans for Good Government reports spending just under $12,000 as of May 10. Most of the money paid individuals for "phone banking" and door-knocking work.

Peduto confirmed that the organization was canvassing on his behalf, but said its long-term goal was to help a political ally, state Rep. Ed Gainey, "become a leader in the city and the region." (LaShon Jackson is, in fact, also listed as the treasurer for Gainey's own election committee.)

"There really isn't an African-American PAC" representing the interests of black voters, Peduto says. The committee's goal, he says, is to support progressive candidates like Gainey, who represents the city's eastern neighborhoods — and who beat former Rep. Joseph Preston in 2012 with help from Peduto loyalists.

"I expect that next year, they'll be back campaigning for Ed," says Peduto.

Neither Gainey nor Leeretta Payne, who Peduto's campaign identified as the new committee's chair, has yet responded to requests for comment. When they do, I'll update this post with their perspectives on the group's mission.

But in the meantime, it's fair to say that the Laborers' influence in this election is even larger than Peduto's campaign-finance reports document. And in a race where Peduto's camp has denounced attack ads financed by interests friendly to Wagner, is it hypocritical for Peduto to receive backing from an outside group financed by his backers?

Peduto doesn't see it that way. With campaign-finance limits waived in the mayoral race, such shenanigans would be unnecessary, he says. "If the idea was to get Ed's people on board — they're already on board. I could have gotten my contributors to set up a separate committee to pay for attack ads, but we haven't done that.

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