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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Will another shoe be dropping on Acklin charges?

Posted By on Thu, Oct 22, 2009 at 2:24 PM

Kevin Acklin held a press conference this afternoon, following up on the bombshell his campaign dropped yesterday: a series of e-mails suggesting a very cozy relationship between Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and political insider John Verbanac.

In his prepared remarks, Acklin said little that was new. He reiterated that "This administration is focused on personal and corporate favoritism, and it's hurting our neighborhoods as a result." And he called on Ravenstahl to "give us full disclosure" about the extent of his interactions with Verbanac. 

But in a Q&A with reporters, Acklin suggested that more was yet to come. The material he had already disclosed, he said, had led other insiders to turn over further material: "We are looking at documents that we have right now," Acklin said. And he predicted that his campaign would be turning those over in "a couple days," possibly early next week. 

Acklin was asked (by me) whether any of this information would concern Ed Grattan, the other name he dropped during the Saturday debate on KDKA. He intimated that it very well might: None of the material realeased so far has touched on Grattan.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, Acklin has cited two cases of influence peddling -- the deliberations about who should get the city's casino license, and taxpayer financing for developing the old Hazelwood LTV site. And in neither case did Verbanac get what he wanted. In both situations, Verbanac was tied to the developer Forest City, who teamed up on a losing casino bid with Harrah's, and who ended up missing out on state dollars for Hazelwood. 

But Acklin maintained that "the fact that [Verbanac] and his business partners didn't get [their way] means the Mayor is either incompetent or ineffective. It doesn't mean he's not corrupt." 

Ouch! 

Even so, these things are never easy to prove. For example, Acklin noted that "As a city councilman, Mr. Ravensathl supported the Isle of Capri" -- the casino developer favored by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who wanted to create a joint casino/area complex in the Hill District. "After he became mayor, he urged the Penguins ... to support a Plan B, in which they would receieve payments from another casino licensee." 

Of course, such a Plan B would have made it easier for state gaming officials to approve Harrah's. Isle of Capri's ace in the hole was the threat that the Penguins would leave town if they didn't get their way. 

Ravenstahl's shift was indeed eyebrow-raising, and prompted some observers to contend "the fix was in." But of course Ravenstahl's supporters argued at the time that Ravenstahl -- who'd only just become mayor -- had a new role to play, with new responsibilities. Having a Plan B was simply prudent.

Acklin and I had a bit of back-and-forth on this, and afterwards one of his staffers pointed out that Acklin's position was similar to one I myself had taken a few years ago.  "You were second-guessing yourself," I was told. 

Which is true. But I second-guess myself all the time. And anyway, the larger point is that suspicions are one thing, proof is another. And while Verbanac may be pernicious, he ain't stupid. Trying to get the Pens to sign on to Plan B was arguably a pretty cagey political move. Consider this e-mail Verbanac sent late in 2006:

How does not one plan to build a new arena and fund it but two -- Plan A and Plan B -- result in uncertainty with the team's future [as the Penguins were claiming]? ...

Answer: Because [Isle of Capri] is the one plan that makes the most money for Ron Burkle. Ron Burkle is willing to play Russian Roullete [sic] with the franchises's future to make the most money. It's a gun to the head of Pittsburgh strategy ...

I actually think that's true. Even if Verbananc did have ulterior motives for pointing it out. 

I don't mean to diminish the important of this stuff. What Acklin is turning over may well prove to be the Rosetta Stone of this administration. (Though so far, his e-mails are dated no more recently than early 2008.) Some of it is funny -- the parts about trying to handle the Post-Gazette's Rich Lord are great reading. And some of it is just plain sad.

In a June 2007 e-mail, for example, Verbanac damns the Murphy administration, urging Acklin to "Call the past performance on the carpet ... Let's restore people's faith in government. Let's lead. Let's fix the City." The next e-mail in Acklin's packet is an apparent Verbanac communique urging the administration to spare a "less than exemplary performer" at the URA because of the employee's family connections.

Perhaps Verbanac had in mind a different meaning of "fix the City"?

Some have cast doubt about whether this will have a real impact on the election: Acklin himself allowed that it probably would have a political downside for him. He also acknowledged that he had no evidence of any money actually changing hands between Verbanac and the city.

So where does this any of this go? It isn't clear yet. But one thing is certain: It isn't over. 

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