Thursday, January 27, 2011

News on Dreaming Ant ... and county executive dreams of greatness

Posted By on Thu, Jan 27, 2011 at 6:12 PM

In case you missed it, our very own Chris Young has a piece wrapping up the Dreaming Ant raid we reported here last week. This piece -- in the current print edition -- focuses on some of the legal concerns arising from the case.  Also, I'll take this opportunity to satisfy some requests we've had for the full copy of the search warrant used in the case, and the affidavit filed to secure it. 

While we're on the subject of policing, it's worth noting this story, from the Post-Gazette's Sadie Gurman. 

The city's Office of Municipal Investigations has sustained a woman's complaint that a Pittsburgh police officer engaged in unbecoming conduct toward her during her May arrest at the Municipal Courts Building Downtown.

In the incident, Officer Anthony Scarpine charged Christine Condarcure, of North Apollo, with intimidating a witness and simple assault after he wrote in a sworn affidavit that she "threw an elbow/forearm" into the chest of a witness who was testifying in a case against her son, Taylor Condarcure, as he left a courtroom.

...

OMI questioned whether Officer Scarpine actually witnessed the incident.

"The office reviewed video surveillance of the incident and determined that while you made contact with a prosecution witness, you did not throw an elbow into the witness' chest/stomach area as alleged in the investigative report and affidavit of probable cause," OMI Manager Kathleen Kraus wrote in a letter to Ms. Condarcure, dated Jan. 10. "Moreover, Officer Scarpine alleged that he observed the incident between you and the prosecution witness. This office determined that Officer Scarpine never observed this incident."

If the name "Anthony Scarpine" sounds familiar to you, it may be because of THIS story, also from Sadie Gurman. Scarpine was one of the officers accused of making a wrongful arrest on the North Side last year, alleging a drug deal that video evidence suggests never took place.

A judge later tossed out the case against Scarpine, saying he was relying on information provided by another officer. But prosecutors said they might refile charges against him -- and that they were reviewing his role in other cases. And now, it seems, Scarpine is involved in a second case where video evidence apparently doesn't confirm police accounts.

Huh.  

On a totally unrelated matter, Rich Fitzgerald will be kicking off his campaign for county executive tomorrow morning -- and he intends to hit the ground running.

The Fitzgerald camp is predicting that when his campaign officially gets underway, it will have somewhere between $750,000 and $1 million in its account. And I've heard from multiple sources that Fitzgerald, who is currently the president of county council, will come out of the gate touting the support from dozens of Democratic committee ward chairs, including those representing most of the city. Democratic officeholders will be in his ranks as well, including Congressman Mike Doyle. 

Fitzgerald's rival, county controller Mark Patrick Flaherty, has boasted of having roughly $500,000 in its account. And of course, he's got that magical Flaherty name. But by all accounts I'm hearing, Fitzgerald has attracted much more support from other officials, as well as traditional Democratic backers in labor and elsewhere. 

Fitzgerald tells me he's not expecting any other Democrats to enter the fray. "The next county executive will be either me or Mark Patrick Flaherty," he says.

Of course Republicans might have something to say about that, and a moment later Fitzgerald added that he "doesn't take any challenger lightly." Local Tea Partier leader Patty Weaver is rumored to be considering a run, and Fitzgerald says he takes her seriously. But "If my opponent is [county councilor] Matt Drozd," he said, "I might have a chance." This was, I think, a bit of wry understatement.

Somebody alert Bruce Kraus! Eljay's Used Books to move this spring

Posted By on Thu, Jan 27, 2011 at 1:29 PM

OK, this really isn't a political post -- I'll have some more of that stuff before the day is out. But if you're a sucker for bookstores, as I am, it's just as important.

Eljay's Used Books is moving from its East Carson Street location to ... Dormont, which owner Frank Oreto calls the place "where hipsters go to have kids." And he should know: He and his family have lived in Dormont for more than 6 years. 

Oreto hopes to open in the new location -- at 3229 W. Liberty Ave. -- by March 1. (And not to wax too mercenary here, but apparently he's offering a 20 percent sale to help him reduce inventory before the move.)

Now I know what you're thinking, and you're wrong: This is not a case of a South Side merchant disgusted with the increasingly chaotic Carson Street bar scene."

"I happen to like South Side bar culture," Oreto tells me. "I like that you can get some Proust, a shot of Jack Daniels, and a tattoo all within a few blocks. Sure, people throw up occasionally, but who doesn't? I have kids."

Even so, Oreto acknowledges that the perception of drunken activity and crime has hurt walk-up business. The South Side "isn't what they show on TV -- it's not that same guy shoving somebody else into a wall over and over again. But you see enough of that, and people get scared about whether they'll be safe."

But the move was probably inevitable. While Oreto owns his shop's current building, at 1309 E. Carson, he says, "I've never been able to afford being in this space. I skimp on the rent, because I believe in giving myself a break, but the bookstore really does need to stand on its own feet." That was brought home last year, when he got an offer to buy the building; the deal fell through, but Oreto says he decided two or three months ago to move out anyway.

After all, he says, this way he can walk from home to work every day.

Oreto says he's already lined up a tenant for his Carson Street storefront: a tattoo shop moving in from elsewhere in the neighborhood. His Dormont store will be somewhat larger than the current location, which he points out "has pillars up in strange places." 

The new location faces a parking lot near the Dormont Junction T stop, and is near Franco's Trattoria restaurant. Obviously, it lacks some of the synergy of the current store, which is just a few doors down from City Books, perhaps the city's quintessential used bookshop. In Dormont, Oreto's nearest competitor will be a small bookstore on Potomac Avenue that goes heavy on beach reading. 

Will the Eljay's product mix change in the new location? "Things will be somewhat market-drive," Oreto says. "If everyone comes in looking for Nora Roberts, I'll probably have some more Nora Roberts there. Right now, because there are so many students nearby, everyone wants writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut. And every two or three years, they bring it all back."

Sometimes those customers come back, he says, "and get all teary-eyed about the store. I'll miss that."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

New developments on FOP hoax investigation

Posted By on Sun, Jan 23, 2011 at 11:31 AM

Our diligent reporter Chris Young has the latest on the police investigation of the FOP press release hoax.

On Wednesday, police executed a search warrant on video-rental store Dreaming Ant, seizing a hard drive and wireless router the store shares with the Crazy Mocha coffee shop. Young has acquired the affidavit -- a sworn statement made by police detective James Glick -- needed to secure the warrant. And according to that statement, police were led to the Bloomfield business after receiving their own copy of the e-mailed press release, forwarded to them by WTAE reporter Ashlie Hardway.

That faked press release "states [that] the FOP has changed their stance on the support of the officers," Glick's affidavit says. "The letter contained various names and referred to specific events that occurred involving FOP members." But it "misrepresented the position and or actions of the organization."

Based on this catalogue of horrors, police began to investigate the origins of the e-mail.

As the Post-Gazette's Sadie Gurman also notes today, the police traced it back to an IP address belonging to a wireless network operated by Dreaming Ant and Crazy Mocha. 

In theory, anyone could have logged into that network -- even if they hadn't been inside, drinking a latte at the time. But what police are looking for, apparently, is records of the "MAC address" used by the computer at the time the e-mail was sent. 

For those of you who ordinarily read the print edition of newspapers, "MAC address" refers to the media access control address, which identifies the network card on a computer logged into a network. Apparently, the police are hoping that this number will fingerprint the machine, in hopes of chasing down its owner.

It remains to be seen whether this internet sleuthing will work. I'm no internet ninja -- I mean, I write for a print newspaper -- but even I can find an online how-to guide for changing your MAC address. Presumably, somebody willing to create an entire fake press release -- complete with a trumped-up Latin slogan and a profane acrostic -- could spend a few minutes setting up a fake MAC address as well. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Weekend updates: More on press-release hoax, council candidates, and a bit of self-aggrandizement

Posted By on Fri, Jan 21, 2011 at 7:26 PM

OK, just a few things in no particular order here.

First, a quick update on the FOP hoax story we've been following

Fans of movie-rental spot Dreaming Ant will be happy to hear that it is back in business; police have returned the computer they seized Wednesday evening in an investiaation of a forged press release. In a post online, owner Dean Brandt credits police detective James Glick for "understanding that we have a small business to run." Brandt also thanked the media for helping to "expedit[e] the reopening of our store" -- even though he added that he "was, and still am, instructed to keep my mouth shut for legal reasons."

Also, just for those of you who are fans of this hoax -- and I know you're out there ... a sharp-eyed reader has pointed out that the faked press release also contains another secret message, in addition to the one we've previously noted

If you look at the very first letter of each line of the release, it spells out the following message: 

"Fuck da pigs in pgh." 

Moving on to slightly less contentious ground, there's yet another candidate to challenge city councilor Patrick Dowd in District 7: Lawrenceville resident David J. Calfo.

Calfo is a master carpenter, and he's not afraid to let you know about it. In a release sent out this afternoon by his campign, Calfo is quoted saying, "Things [in Pittsburgh] aren't built right. That's the biggest problem facing the city. Whether it's sidewalks, roads, bridges, or pensions -- it's all the same. You've got to build a strong foundation."

Oh, and Calfo's an artist too. And perhaps most intriguingly, his press guy is apparently ... former mayoral candidate Franco "Dok" Harris, son of the Steelers great.

Ordinarily, I'd be tempted to say that the entrant of a second challenger in this race -- the first was Tony Ceoffe Jr. -- would help the incumbent. Something tells me that's not the case here. But in any case, it's shaping up to be a pretty lively spring for Dowd. 

Finally, a minor plug here. On Monday night, I'll be hosting an event I've been fortunate enough to be involved with for a couple years now. The folks at cityLIVE! are hosting their third installment of "10 People/3 Minutes" -- a chance for 10 bright locals to share their ideas for the city's future. In the past, proposals have ranged from the practical to the fanciful to the sort-of disturbing. This year's roster should be a good one, with names ranging from Renaissance woman Vanessa German to design guru Dutch MacDonald, from filmmaker Chris Ivey to I Made It! market founder Nina Barbuto.

Each gets three minutes to share their vision for the city's future. I'm basically there to take drink orders and provide momentary substance-free breaks. In other words, pretty much the same thing I do here at the paper. 

Anyway, it's Monday, Jan. 2, 6:30 p.m. at the New Hazlett Theater. Check the link above to RSVP. It'd be great to see you there -- a lot of times, I don't have anyone to drink with. 

Primary season update -- an election that may go out like a Lamb

Posted By on Fri, Jan 21, 2011 at 11:34 AM

One disadvantage of being a weekly, obviously, is that a ton of shit happens the day your paper hits the stands, and you don't get another crack at it in print for another seven days. And because we wait a day to post our print edition online -- don't ask -- sometimes our stories are already outdated by the time they hit the web. 

So it was with our  story on the emerging storylines in this year's Pittsburgh city council races.

Since that issue went to press, district 7 councilor Patrick Dowd has made his reelection bid official. As we first reported Wednesday, he'll be facing Tony Ceoffe Jr., and will likely have his hands full. Meanwhile, Cory O'Connor -- who was unwilling to officially declare his candidacy in city council district 5 when we spoke to him -- has since formally challenged Doug Shields for the seat.

While we're on the subject of campaigns, we've also learned, courtesy of the Post-Gazette, that city controller Michael Lamb plans to run for his post again, rather than chase the Allegheny County Executive post.

Which I think is interesting for reasons that have nothing to do with either of those posts. Here's what I think it means: In 2013, Lamb is gonna be running for mayor.

This is mostly just idle speculation. But a Lamb candidacy may be the best hope progressives have of gaining that office.

It's true that Lamb ran for mayor back in 2005, and finished third -- just behind Bill Peduto, and well behind foregone-conclusion candidate Bob O'Connor. Ordinarily, that would make Peduto the obvious champion. But I think Peduto's abortive run against Ravenstahl in 2007 cost him, and their are geographical considerations as well. 

As Tom Murphy was fond of saying, to win citywide, you need to win two of the city's three geographic areas: south of the rivers, north of the rivers, and between the rivers/East End. Peduto is an East Ender, Lamb from the South Hills. And my hunch here is that it's easier for a South Hills guy to appeal to an East End progressive than it is for an East End progressive to appeal to a South Hills voter. 

Take a look at ward-by-ward results from 2005. Peduto crunshed Lamb in East End areas like Ward 14. But in the critical 19th ward -- which includes Beechview and environs -- Lamb not only beat Peduto but O'Connor as well. The same is true in Ward 16, Ward 17, and Ward 32. In other south-of-the-river wards, he finished second, often very close to O'Connor. 

UPDATE/CORRECTION: Let's try that analysis again, this time actually using the correct ward results, as opposed to those I cited above. O'Connor actually won wards 16, 17 and 32. Peduto placed second in the first two districts, besting Lamb by a few score votes in each. In other south-of-the-rivers areas -- namely wards 20, 28, 29, 30, 31, and 32 -- Lamb was the second-place winner. Overall, the pattern holds true: Lamb did better south of the rivers. But my numbers were off, and I apologize for the error.

And in the half-dozen years since that election, let's recall, Lamb won his current citywide post. He beat his next-nearest challenger -- city councilor Doug Shields, another East Ender -- by a convincing two-to-one margin

Plus, I don't know if you noticed, but Lamb was playing a very active role in deliberations during last year's Great Pension Debate. (He worked closely with Patrick Dowd, especially, in trying to propose alternatives to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's failed parking-lease plan.) In my 15-plus years as a reporter here, I don't recall a city controller being so closely involved in crafting legislation. Although in fairness, much of that decade-and-a-half was spent with Tom Flaherty holding the controller's office ... and his style tending more toward bomb-throwing.

In any case, there's no question, as we reported earlier, that these council races are critical for Luke Ravenstahl's political future. But he might want to pay attention to the guy running for controller too. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

City police speak on hoax investigation

Posted By on Thu, Jan 20, 2011 at 3:06 PM

Intrepid reporter Chris Young has been trying to get to the bottom of last night's police seizure of computer equipment at Dreaming Ant in Bloomfield. Here's what he's learned so far:

Pittsburgh police detective James Glick confirms that officers seized a computer and wireless router  from Dreaming Ant last night at around 5:30 p.m. They did so after they tracing back a fake FOP release to the Dreaming Ant IP address. 

Contrary to an assertion made to City Paper earlier today, Glick says that police took nothing from Crazy Mocha, the coffee shop that shares space on Liberty Avenue with Dreaming Ant. And he stressed that Dreaming Ant owner Dean Brandt "has been cooperative. We don't believe he's a suspect."

The department's Computer Crimes Unit is analyzing the computer and router data, and Glick says that once the work is done, the equipment will be returned to the video store as soon as possible.

Glick says multiple charges will likely be filed, including trademark counterfeiting and identity theft. (The release, as we first noted last week, includes a distorted version of the FOP logo. And it also names two FOP officials, though it doesn't ascribe any quotes or other information directly to them.) Other charges are being looked into, Glick says, though he could not provide specifics. 

But First Amendment concerns seem almost certain to arise in the matter. For one thing, generally speaking, trademark counterfeiting and identity theft involve the attempt to cheat people out of money. It is hard to see how that could have been the intention of the fake FOP release.

Mike Healey, a local attorney who often works on civil-rights matters, is not involved in the case (at least not yet). But when City Paper spoke to him earlier today, he professed surprise at the investigation. He couldn't see how the FOP stunt was any different from what The Onion does on a daily basis: The satirical online publication often puts words into the mouths of public figures. And yet, Healy notes, "They have never been charged with a crime." 

Police, investigating press release hoax, raid Bloomfield Avenue business (UPDATED)

Posted By on Thu, Jan 20, 2011 at 11:17 AM

Last night, Pittsburgh police raided the Bloomfield Dreaming Ant/Crazy Mocha -- apparently gathering information about the dissemination of a hoax press release involving the Jordan Miles case.

Word of the raid has been circulating online. And an employee of Crazy Mocha, Shannon Lyons, confirms that police seized computer equipment from the coffee shop and video rental store, which share space on Liberty Avenue. 

"They took [Dreaming Ant's] computer and they took our wireless router," Lyons told our reporter Chris Young. She says staff has been told the seizure had to do with the Miles case.

Dreaming Ant owner Dean Brandt could not be reached for comment -- his voicemail box is full -- but Lyons says he was "really disappointed" with the police action, which has forced the temporary closure of his business ("due to unusual circumstances," according to his web site).  

The hoaxed press release suggested that the Fraternal Order of Police Local #1, which represents city officers, had reversed its position on the police involved in last year's beating of CAPA student Jordan Miles. The press release was quickly revealed as a forgery, but when news of the stunt came to light last week, the FOP angrily called for an investigation and to press charges against whoever was responsible. 

Bram Reichbaum, the Pittsburgh Comet blogger who was briefly gulled by the hoax, recently twittered that police were pursuing the matter, and that he was "more than excited to help."

Pittsburgh police spokesperson Diane Richard initially had little to say about any investigation. "I didn't even know about [the raid,]" she said when reached by City Paper this morning. "I didn't know where the [press release] investigation had gone."

(UPDATE: Detective James Glick, who is leading the city's investigation of the press release, has confirmed that last night's raid was connected to the press-release hoax.)

Stay tuned here for more information as events develop.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fitzgerald takes up tax reassessments

Posted By on Tue, Jan 18, 2011 at 4:30 PM

Allegheny County President Rich Fitzgerald plans to introduce legislation tonight that will urge state government -- including Tom Corbett and a Republican-controlled legislature -- to halt Allegheny County's reassessment process. 

In a statement sent out around noon today, Fitzgerald said that the reassessment "singles out the residents and businesses of Allegheny County, and will have a profound chilling effect on ... economic developiment and business growth." Pennsylvania, he adds, "is the only state in the country that does not have a statewide system of organizing and conducting property reassessments, and that lack of a statewide structure is now resulting in one count being targeted for disparate treatment."

Fitzgerald adds that Harrisburg "should waste no time in creating a comprehensive and uniform stateiwde solution, rather than having a separate solution for each county imposed upon it by court action."

Yeah, Republicans! You can be the ones to risk pissing off voters in every single county! Fight those activist judges!

In fact, as Fitzgerald's statement notes, this issue could have been addressed in the last legislative session by House Bill 1661. That bill would have imposed a moratorium on court-ordered reassessments while the state studied a reassessment procedure that would have affected all counties equally. (Outgoing county exec Dan Onorato was fond of noting that reassessments would put Allegheny County at a disadvantage compared to neighboring counties where assessments were even further out of date.) Not surprisingly, the bill was heavily backed by Allegheny County legislators, and passed the House almost unanimously. It died anyway, though, bottled up in a Senate committee.  

Fitzgerald, it goes without saying, has long been considered a likely candidate for the Allegheny County Executive post. (Mark Patrick Flaherty, the county controller, will formally kick off his campaign tomorrow.) Some incorrigible cynics have even suggested there might be political motives at work here. I'm shocked, shocked to hear such speculation. 

But you gotta love the timing here. Gov. Tom Corbett was sworn in today, having run a campaign predicated on a "no new taxes" pledged. And here's his home county, pleading for his help in averting a revaluation that will amount to a tax increase for many of his erstwhile neighbors. Among them are plenty of suburbanites living in Republican strongholds where Corbett did well. Not a bad start if you're weighing a run for countywide office.

Friday, January 14, 2011

WDUQ sold, for much less than its owner sought

Posted By on Fri, Jan 14, 2011 at 8:05 PM

Well, it could have been a worse. A lot worse. Duquesne University could have sold WDUQ-FM -- which it put on the block last year -- to a bunch of religious nuts, as some people feared.

Instead, the school announced today that the station will be sold -- for $6 million -- to a joint venture consisting of another local public station, WYEP, and a spin-off from a Colorado-based non-profit, Public Radio Capital. Parties to the sale held a press conference this afternoon, and here's what we know:

At least some of WDUQ's jazz format seems likely to survive, for better or worse. And the station's would-be owners -- they hope to acquire the station within the next six months, pending FCC approval -- are signalling that they will preserve, and even ramp up, the station's commitment to local journalism.

If the sale goes through, WDUQ will lose its call letters, and the station will be relocated to the South Side, where it will share space with WYEP in that station's Community Broadcast Center. NPR programming will remain, assured WYEP board chair Marco Cardamone at the press conference. What's more, he said, "We are committed to honoring the tradition of jazz."

But the buyers said it was "way too soon" to get into specifics. So it remains unclear whether the new station will be as committed to jazz as WDUQ is.

My guess is that the new station won't be. As we've reported before, there's always been some tension between WDUQ's role as a purveyor of mainstream jazz, and its role as a purveyor of local journalism. Local foundations, which early on expressed a great deal of concern about the WDUQ sale, have also gone on record as being especially concerned about the plight of journalism in Pittsburgh.

And tell me if you hear the sound of priorities shifting in this statement, from WYEP General Manager Lee Feraro: 

"While local journalism, reflecting the diversity of voices and issues in our community, is a high priority for EPM, we look forward to working with the community of jazz lovers in Pittsburgh as well."

Cardamone was even more explicit, touting "the amazing opportunity to transform local journalism, offer reliable news and information, spark civic conversation and shed light on important issues." But I dunno. I'm not a huge fan of the jazz format. (Backers of WDUQ programming note that it has a larger audience than WYEP and classical WQED-FM. But so what? 'DVE kicks everyone's ass. I still wouldn't call it a public service.) But if it were easy for public broadcasters to do local journalism, we'd still be watching On Q.

And when you consider Pittsburgh already has two daily papers -- each held by independent owners willing to sacrifice profit margins that corporate owners would insist in -- I'm not sure that the problem with journalism here is insufficient supply. It may be a lack of demand.

But that's a topic for another day. For now I'll just note a minor irony in today's transaction -- which is that while Duquesne is cashing in, the sale it proves the univesrity has been wrong all this time, and everyone else has been right. 

That $6 million Duquesne earned? It's roughly half of what the school expected. When the station was first put on the block, some estimates put the value of WDUQ at as much as $12 million. Others estimated a sum close to half of that -- and they turned out to be exactly right. But as the public-broadcasting trade journal Current reported

Duquesne University is standing firm behind an asking price of $10 million, an amount that far exceeds the value of commercial and noncommercial properties in Pittsburgh ...

"We do not believe it’s worth anywhere near that," Langner said.

"Langer" is Erik Langer, of Public Radio Capital. If that name sounds familiar, it should: That's the non-profit that is helping launch the current effort to buy the station. At the time, though, PRC was advising another bidder -- Pittsburgh Public Media, a group of WDUQ staffers and volunteers interested in buying the station. 

The PPM bid failed. But today, Langner's colleagues closed the deal with another buyer -- at a price in the range they'd been seeking all along. 

In this afternoon's press conference, Duquesne University President Charles Dougherty was asked about why the station had come down so far from its initial asking price. Dougherty acknowledged it was "a market issue." Like any would-be seller, he said, "We started on the high side." In the end, though, "It turned out after a year of conversation, the $6 million number is [a] reasonable price."

Actually, it turns out you didn't even need the year of conversation. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The seat ain't cold -- it ain't even empty -- but Flaherty hopes to fill it

Posted By on Thu, Jan 13, 2011 at 4:43 PM

Even as county excecutive Dan Onorato is holding a press conference to discuss his future plans, county controller Mark Patrick Flaherty is announcing his plans to seek Onorato's job. Moments ago, Flaherty released the following statement:

"Dan Onorato has served the people of Allegheny County with distinction over the past 30 years. First, as a member of Pittsburgh City Council, then as Allegheny County Controller and finally as Allegheny County’s Chief Executive, Dan has been a dedicated public servant. He now prepares to move to the next stage of his career and whether it be in the public or private sector, I wish Dan and his family well."

Flaherty's statement added that he plans to run for county exec himself, and will "formally announce" his candidacy on the morning of Wednesday, January 19. (This statement, then, would be the formal announcement of his plans to formally announce his campaign.)

Not insignificantly, Flaherty also boasted of having $450,000 on hand to finance his campaign. He's already spent $300,000, the statement spends -- much of which no doubt went to those highly useful ads about the importance of weights and measures.

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