The latest episode of the Grant Street Follies, you may have heard, is that the Urban Redevelopment Authority is paying executive director Pat Ford $93,000 to stop working for it. That's a lot of money to pay someone for not working, even in city government. So there's widespread suspicion that Ford -- who wrote a fiery resignation letter alleging a "culture of deception and corruption" in the city -- got the money because he knew too much. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration, critics speculate, was trying to buy Ford's silence.
But the real story is this: For better or worse, I'm not sure Ravenstahl will get his money's worth.
Ravenstahl's critics act as if he invented every dubious practice in government, but buying peace and quiet has almost become SOP. In 2004, for example, Mount Lebanon's school district gave its ousted superintendent a severance package worth roughly a half-million dollars. Earlier this year, Peters Township's school board paid more than $120,000 to hustle its own controversial superintendent out the door. By the standards of a prosperous suburban school district, Pittsburgh may have gotten off cheap.
Except we may not have heard the last of Pat Ford.
The URA settlement, signed Sept. 11, means Ford himself won't sue the city or disparage it in public. But as Ford's attorney, Lawrence Fisher, has said, nothing in the settlement prevents Ford from assisting law-enforcement in a criminal case -- and while prosecutors are mum, Fisher has repeatedly suggested that Ford has done some talking already. Fisher comes across to some as a loudmouthed buffoon, but he looks pretty smart to me: His client walked away with tens of thousands of dollars ... and he may yet get a chance to take the piss out of his former employer anyway.
In fact, one day after the URA approved Ford's severance package, City Council President Doug Shields sent letters to the U.S. Attorney's office and the state attorney general, urging them to "expeditiously pursue an avenue of official inquiry," about Ford's allegations of corruption. Shields noted, for example, that in the fallout from Ford's departure, allegations had surfaced that Ravenstahl's campaign contributors had received government contracts unfairly. There were "allegations of illegal activity" in writing, "and nearly $100,000 taxpayer dollars being used in conjunction with what is effectively a gag order," Shields wrote. "[T]he time has come to put rumor and innuendo to rest and get to the truth."
You'd think Ravenstahl would want to put the innuendo to rest as well. But apparently we've only just gotten started. In response to Shields' letter, Ravenstahl issued a statement accusing Shields of "erratic and unprofessional behavior," and of actions that are "cheap, ill-motivated and just plain wrong." The statement also takes a jab at Shields' "underwhelming run" for city controller last year -- a reference apparently intended to suggest both that Shields is motivated by politics, and that he's not very good at it. (Though it's worth nothing that the guy who won that race, City Controller Michael Lamb, has been threatening URA audits of his own in light of recent events.)
The charge of political grandstanding is easy to make: You can toss it around any time a politician takes a stand. For his part, Shields says "I haven't made any decisions" about running for mayor, and he freely acknowledges his letter may have no effect: After all, "I don't know that [prosecutors] aren't already investigating." If they aren't, his letter probably won't make much of a difference: The questions it raises would have occurred to any prosecutor after scanning the morning headlines.
But that just makes Ravenstahl's response harder to understand. An investigation is either happening or it will never happen. And if Ravenstahl really has "full faith that the people of Pittsburgh see right through Shields," as his statement claims, why bother portraying Shields as a lunatic? Especially when Shields is only asking questions that have already occurred to half the city?
And there, much of the city will conclude, is your answer. Except for a vague line about "resolving potential lawsuits to protect City taxpayers," Ravenstahl's statement doesn't address the substance of Shields' allegations. It just attacks the messenger instead.
All of which makes Ravenstahl's statement even more disturbing than Ford's newly purchased silence. Giving Ford $93,000 to go away is actually not a bad investment. I just have a feeling the final tally is going to be a lot higher than that.