Mayor Luke Ravenstahl had a discussion last week with the city's ethics panel. Not a hearing, not a trial, but a conversation about his acceptance of a $9,000 golf outing from UPMC and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Many political watchers were salivating over the thoughts of Ravenstahl appearing before the ethics panel that he brought back into existence, but the board's chair, Sister Patrice Hughes made it clear the proceedings were simply a discussion.
The meeting was fairly anti-climactic -- Ravenstahl said he did nothing wrong and while the panel agreed, they said the city's code needs to set some limits on charitable functions.
"Would the public think that you might be beholden in some direct or indirect way to those who invite you to such an expensive and exclusive event?" asked Hughes in an opening statement. Ravenstahl was asked that question by several members and in several different ways but didn't answer it, opting instead to reiterate that he did nothing wrong and received no benefit.
While many Pittsburghers would regard a chance to play a round of golf with hockey great Sid Crosby as a perk, Ravenstahl said he got nothing of value from UPMC's sponsorship.
"This was not a gift to me, I received nothing from UPMC," Ravenstahl said. The $9,000 "was a fee paid to the Lemieux Foundation." Ravenstahl said he was "proud" to have attended the event: "The only thing of value I received was knowing that I played a small part in seeing the work of the foundation continue." Part of the mayor's fee was also paid for by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are building a new stadium in the Lower Hill District.
Hughes was quick to point out after the meeting that the charitable exemption certainly applied to the mayor's golf outing. It may be the unlimited exemption, however, that has "given the perception of exclusivity."
According to the city code: "A public official, City employee or agent of the City shall not solicit or accept from an interested party, nor shall any interested party offer or give anything of value to a public official, City employee or agent of the city ..." Exceptions to the rules include: "Admissions to charitable, civic, political or other public events;" and "Admissions to cultural or athletic events not to exceed $250 per calendar year ... and $100 per calendar year from any single person, agent or other interested party."
Hughes said the disparity between allowing an official to accept nothing to allowing uncapped gift from charities is a disparity that needs to be changed. Board members said they are currently working up a list of limits that would be attached to charitable events. Ravenstahl, not surprisingly, was against any such limits.
"The people want to see the mayor at these events," adding that he intended on attending similar events in the future because the city code allowed him to.
Ethics board member Rabbi Daniel Schiff asked the mayor his criteria for attending charitable events. Ravenstahl replied that he usually attends an event if it fits into his schedule.
For example, Ravenstahl told Schiff that had there been a limit on charity events, he and his family would not have been able to accept and attend a Yeshiva School dinner -- at the cost of $3,000.
"I think we're all getting caught up on the monetary value of things," Ravenstahl said. "It would be different if I was the beneficiary of $9,000, but I wasn't."