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Friday, June 10, 2011

Get ready for some REAL influence peddling, Pennsylvania

Posted By on Fri, Jun 10, 2011 at 6:40 PM

What does the news that ExxonMobil has bought two more Marcellus shale drillers mean for Pennsylvania?

For environmentalists, it's yet another sign that the heavies are taking an increasing interest in the state's gas desposits. And that means that when citizens seek to protect water supplies, for example ... these companies are poised to blow them out of the water.

You might have thought that Marcellus drillers had plenty of influence already, given the seven-digit sums the industry contributed to Gov. Tom Corbett and other pols last year. But that's chump change compared to what a big hitter like Exxon can do when it decides to put its mind to it. 

Concern about the growing role of these big players is mounting. Last year, oil giant Chevron reached a deal to acquire another big player in the Marcellus, Atlas Energy. And  alarm bells went off about what that means for environmental reforms:

With 43 lobbyists and a federal influence-peddling budget of at least $35 million this past election cycle, Chevron must have an ambitious agenda for the politicians in Washington, DC. The company just paid $4.3 billion to acquire Atlas Energy and its extensive holdings in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale so first and foremost on the company's agenda will be fighting any efforts to have the federal government regulate hydraulic fracturing. 

On the hit list is a bill backed by Pennsylvania's own Robert Casey -- the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC Act, to its friends). That bill is an attempt to close the "Halliburton Loophole," whereby gas drillers are exempted from federal regulations requiring full disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

Exxon Mobil doesn't lack for lobbying muscle either. Since 2009, the company has spent roughly $40 million on lobbying -- and the FRAC Act was one of the items on its agenda. (Exxon Mobil already had natural-gas holdings; in 2009 it bought another driller, XTO Energy. By that point, Exxon was reportedly cautious enough about anti-fracking concerns to build an escape clause in the deal should stringent regulations be put in place.) That's not including the big-dollar campaign contributions from company sources -- recipients of which include our very own Pat Toomey and a mostly Republican cast of House reps. 

Nor are Exxon or Chevron shy about throwing their weight around on the state level. In Colorado, for example, both those companies contributed a reported $1 million each to oppose a 2008 statewide referendum levying a severance tax on natural gas. In all, energy companies gave upwards of $10 million, joining with labor groups and other backers to drastically outspend supporters of the new tax. The referendum was defeated by a whopping 58-42 margin. 

By contrast, look at last year's contributions from the firms Exxon and Chevron have acquired. According to Marcellus Money, a contribution-tracking site operated by Common Cause and Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, Atlas Energy gave a piddling $5,500. Mere pikers! The firms Exxon bought -- Philips Resources of Warrendale and TWP of Butler -- don't even show up on the list.

Chevron, whose acquisition of Atlas was announced just days after the November election, made no contributions in state election contests. Exxon contributed $10,000, but it has more skin in the game now. 

So if you though big-money donations from gas drillers were a problem in 2010, hold on. You haven't seen anything yet.

ADDED: And if you want to speak out about Exxon -- specifically its unearthly power to avoid any sort of equitable taxation -- today's your chance. This afternoon, a "March for Corporate Accountability" will commence in Market Square, Downtown, cross the Mon, and end up at an Exxon station near Station Square. And temperatures are only gonna be in the low 80s today!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Free agent: P-G sports scribe moves across town

Posted By on Thu, Jun 9, 2011 at 4:20 PM

After 26 years at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, high-profile sportswriter and former Pirates beat writer Dejan Kovacevic is leaving to become a sports columnist at the Tribune-Review.

The reason? The Trib promised him a long-coveted job as columnist.

"I've worked pretty much every position this job has to offer over the years from copy editor to covering table tennis at the Olympics in Athens," Kovacevic said during a phone interview Wednesday night. "But becoming a sports columnist is what I've always wanted to do and I feel I'm ready to make the move.

"Honestly that's the only motivation behind leaving. I want to be a columnist, and this was the best opportunity for me to do that."

Kovacevic's move is rare -- Pittsburgh is a two-newspaper town, and competition is fierce -- but not unprecedented. Sports guy Rob Rossi left the P-G in 2002; Bill Steigerwald also made the jump, seeking out an editorial page more in sync with his libertarian sensibilities. 

Kovacevic's column will begin appearing tomorrow. He will write two weekly columns for the Trib on Monday and Friday throughout the summer. When there are more sports to write about, he says, his writing load could increase to three times per week.

"I'm looking forward to the summer to get my feet wet and developing my voice as a columnist," Kovacevic says.

Kovacevic spent six years covering the Pirates. Earlier this year, however, he asked to be removed from the beat and began writing sports features and blogging on the Post-Gazette's premium online site, PG Plus; sources inside the paper all agree he was a major draw, with a significant following.

He left the Pirates beat, he says, because it because with the advancement of social media and live blogging, covering the team became a 24-hour job. "You're never off," Kovacevic adds.

And while he says he was enjoying his new online duties, it still wasn't column writing.

Then about two weeks ago he was first approached by the Tribune-Review. The Trib has lost some of its own marquee talent in recent years; Joe Bendel having left for radio in the 2000s, followed by Mike Prisuta in 2009,  Kovacevic says that after the Trib reached out, he met with P-G editor Dave Shribman and told him about the Trib's overtures. He said there were attempts to keep him at the P-G. But sources close to the situation tell CP that none of those pledges included the promise of writing a column in the immediate future.

Kovacevic's departure comes hard on the heels of the resignation of Colin Dunlap, who had replaced Kovacevic as Pirates beat reporter, then left last month to spend more time with his family. There has been speculation that Kovacevic's move had to do with the paper's history of financial troubles, layoffs and buyouts. But he says that's not the case.

"The decision really doesn't have a lot to do with the Post-Gazette," Kovacevic says. "The paper is filled with great people and tremendous journalists.

"It's rare for anyone in our business to be able to move on and be able to make an upward move. It's even more rare, I think, in a competitive two-paper town. So for me this came down to making the best decision for my family and for myself professionally."

PA voters may not have heard the last of Dan Onorato

Posted By on Thu, Jun 9, 2011 at 9:41 AM

In the wake of last November's gubernatorial election, when Tom Corbett steamrolled Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato by a 9-point margin, a lot of folks were willing to write Onorato's political epitaph. That Onorato would lose Pennsylvania was no surprise ... but he even lost Allegheny County itself -- a circumstance that had Republicans chortling. 

In the wake of the loss, Onorato decided not to seek relection to his county post. But voters in Allegheny County -- and the rest of the state -- may not have heard the last of him.

This past weekend, the state's Democratic Committee held a gathering at Seven Springs. And on both days of the gathering, I've been told, one of the higher-profile attendees was Onorato himself. 

I've spoken to a handful of party insiders who say that while Onorato wasn't formally declaring a campaign, he very much sounded like a guy pondering another statewide run -- this time probably for state auditor general in 2012. Onorato, whose term as county executive ends this year, was making noise about his willingness to take an active role challenging the policies and talking points being crafted in Harrisburg, where Republicans control both houses of the legislature as well as the governor's mansion. 

Auditor general would be an intriguing choice for Onorato. The incumbent, Jack Wagner, is an old rival -- the two ran against each other in last year's gubernatorial primary. But Wagner is finishing up his second term in office, and can't run again; he's considered a likely candidate to run for mayor of Pittsburgh in 2013.

Onorato has previously served as county controller, the local equivalent of the post. And while his gubernatorial run may not have been successful, it certainly has given him an advantage in terms of name-recognition. Especially compared to other Democrats said to be considering a run -- like York County state Rep. Eugene DePasquale and Chester County Treasurer Ann Duke.

Onorato would have to replenish his campaign warchest, which was more than $200,000 in the red as of the end of 2010. But Onorato is proven fundraiser, having pulled in more than $12 million that year.

And what of the fact that Onorato did lose his home county to Corbett? Part of his pitch to Dems at least weekend's retreat, it seems, was that those numbers aren't the stinging rebuke they might first appear to be. His 213,429 votes countywide last year wasn't enough to best Corbett, but it was a better performance than Onorato turned in while facing incumbent Jim Roddey in November 2003. (It's slightly less than he got in the 2007 general, but he was running unopposed in that election.)

Of course, you can't really compare vote totals in an off-year contest with those in a gubernatorial election -- and there was also a high-profile Senate contest in play last year, which no doubt brought some voters to the polls. Even so, it bears remembering that Allegheny is Corbett's homebase as well. Not to mention that Onorato was without question caught up in a Republican "wave year," and on the wrong side of a historical trend in which the governor's mansion switches hands every eight years.

Onorato is a pugnacious candidate. It'd be interesting to see how he fared in a statewide race where the odds weren't so heavily stacked against him. And at least this time around, he probably wouldn't have to instruct Pennsylvanians on how to pronounce his name.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Jazz fans seek slower tempo in radio sale

Posted on Tue, Jun 7, 2011 at 9:21 PM

Jazz Lives in Pittsburgh, a group of notable jazz musicians and fans, is asking the FCC to slow down the process for transferring WDUQ's license to new owners, who want to overhaul its jazz-and-NPR format.

In a written objection to the agency, Jazz Lives asks that the license not be transferred to Essential Pubilc Media until the would-be ownership "responds to the programming needs clearly articulated by the community served by WDUQ."

EPM is a consortium of local radio station WYEP and Public Media Company, the offshot of a Colorado-based nonprofit that consults with nonprofit broadcasters.  On May 25, the group announced its plans for WDUQ: Instead of its current level of jazz programming -- roughly about 100 hours a week -- the station's new ownership would broadcast a half-dozen hours on Saturday evening. The rest of the schedule would be taken up with expanded NPR offerings, and locally produced journalism. 

The new owners have pledged to broadcast jazz on an HD station, and while such stations can only be picked up by special receievers, EPM has promised to offer vouchers that will help WDUQ's current subscribers purchase the necessary equipment.

That didn't satisfy Jazz Lives. In a statement today, the group said that "As a result of these actions, Pittsburgh's artistic and cultural diversity faces a serious threat" -- one that could be warded off "by delaying the application transfer and insisting on an appropriate response by Essential Public Media."

EPM is clearly hoping not to wrap up the sale quickly: Execs have set a July 1 target date for aquiring the station. 

In early May, Jazz Lives offered an alternative plan to EPM, one that would leave 42 hours a week of jazz programming on the weekly schedule. But Evan Pattak, who chairs the organization, tells City Paper that while talks were cordial, EPM made it clear their course was set.

Jazz Lives includes an impressive roster of musicians and other cultural figures: Jazz artists like Joe Negri and Nathan Davis are among its members, as well sportscaster Bill Hillgrove, historian Laurence Glasco, former city councilor Sala Udin, and longtime black activist Tim Stevens (who does a bit of jazz singing himself). 

Patak says the group's next step is not yet clear: The matter is in the hands of the FCC, which is slated to hold an as-yet-unscheduled public hearing on the license sale. As for the offer to put jazz on HD radio, he says Jazz Lives is unimpressed: If HD radio is so great, after all, why not put the news programming on it?



Kail-Smith proposes new strip-club zoning, and a lap-dance ban

Posted By on Tue, Jun 7, 2011 at 3:08 PM

City councilor Theresa Kail-Smith this morning introduced legislation that would regulate how adult entertainment businesses are permitted and operate in the city.

If the changes go through, zoning rules would be more clear cut ... and lap dances would be outlawed.

Spurred by two new clubs proposed for the North Side and the West End -- part of her district -- Smith says "interest in more adult entertainment establishments is continuing to billow forth, since we remain, for all practical purposes, the Wild West when it comes to adult business operation."

Permitting for adult entertainment -- like strip clubs, adult book stores and theatres -- is currently handled through city zoning code and requires permission from the City Planning Commission and City Council. Smith proposes changing the process to make it permitted "by use right" in the General and Urban Industrial districts.

"For decades upon decades, Pittsburgh has relied on essentially one rule when it came to regulated sexually-oriented businesses: you had to ask before you could open one," Smith said at a press conference today. "This [legislation] is absolutely necessary to eliminate any perception of arbitrary decision-making by public officials based upon vague standards."

The second bill deals with conduct, prohibiting entertainers "in a state of undress" from going within six feet of patrons. It also prohibits physical contact between them. Stages must be at least 18 inches high and rooms must be well-lit. Smith said current clubs will not be grandfathered into these regulations and will have to change how they operate.

The final bill requires that adult entertainment owners, operators, managers and employees are licensed, undergo criminal background checks and an annual renewal.

Smith says enforcement will fall to the Bureau of Building Inspection and the Department of Public Safety. As for enforcing the 6-foot/no-contact rule, she says "Enforcement is crucial but it's going to hold owners accountable as well."

Bram Reichbaum, author of the Pittsburgh Comet blog and research consultant in Smith's office, says that concerned residents have already volunteered to monitor the establishments and call the city's 311 line if they spot violations.

Appeals will be handled through nuisance property appeals board.

Smith said the city's adult entertainment ordinance has been "Constitutionally problematic" after it was successfully challenged by HDV-Hustler club in Chateau. The city is also currently appealing a judge's approval for a club proposed by Marquise Investments in the West End. The appeal is still pending.

Smith said she modeled her bill off of an Ohio ordinance and has been vetted by the city's law department. "These are the types of laws which can ensure that important First Amendment freedoms can co-exist peaceably in an urban environment, attracting as few negative secondary effects as possible for communities, neighbors, patrons and employees alike."

Friday, June 3, 2011

In county exec race, anti-fracking activist earns 490 write-in votes

Posted By on Fri, Jun 3, 2011 at 5:44 PM

Dana Dolney's last-minute write-in campaign for county executive yielded 490 votes May 17, according to unofficial results from the Allegheny County Elections division. (Write-in results take longer to tabulate, and only became available in the county exec race today.)

Some 990 write-in ballots were tabulated in the Democratic primary; Dolney topped the write-in field, followed by 212 write-ins for D. Raja, who won the primary on the Republican side. 288 votes were cast for various other names. 

Dolney -- an environmental activist opposed to natural-gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale -- jumped in the race because she felt both the two Democratic candidates, Rich Fitzgerald and Mark Patrick Flaherty, were too cozy with the gas industry. Flaherty had proposed investing county money in drilling ventures, while Fitzgerald, the race's eventual winner, was embarrassed days before Dolney entered the race, when an email was leaked showing him begging the drilling industry for campaign contributions.

Dolney hadn't yet returned our calls Friday, but when she spoke to us the morning before the election, she was hoping to get about 1,000 votes.

She'll have to settle for half that, but 490 votes might not be so bad. Especially when you consider that City Paper's blog post was the only media attention she got, and that she only "officially" began campaigning the day before the primary was held. 

In fact, if you count votes on a per diem basis, Dolney actually outpaced Flaherty. He announced his campaign January 19, and ended up with 52,802 votes -- garnering an average of 444 votes per day. (Fitzgerald formally announced his campaign later in the month, and racked up 609 votes per day of campaigning.) 

In any case, Dolney shows little sign of stopping. 

On her campaign Facebook page, she indicates she is likely to give it another shot in November's General Election -- this time against Fitzgerald and Raja.

"I assure you that I am not done yet, " Dolney wrote. "This is an issue that transcends party, which is why we should run as an independent candidate against these guys ... they have no idea what we have in store for them come fall!"

Activists keep pressure on Zappala in Miles case

Posted By on Fri, Jun 3, 2011 at 3:30 PM

Activists seeking justice in the January 2010 arrest of Jordan Miles today delivered 1,000 petitions to the Allegheny County District Attorney's office, urging DA Stephen Zappala to press charges against the three Pittsburgh police officers accused of beating the Homewood teen-ager.

"This incident has provoked outrage on the part of many people," Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, told reporters on the steps of the Allegheny County Courthouse. "Try [the officers]. Let the jury decide."

After speaking with reporters outside the courthouse, roughly a dozen activists walked to the district attorney's third-floor office to deliver the petitions. A secretary accepted the petitions on the DA's behalf, telling the activists that neither Zappala nor his spokesperson Mike Manko was available to meet with them.

Activists made a similar delivery last August. Upset that Zappala had not filed charges against officers Michael Saldutte, Richard Ewing and David Sisak, demonstrators handed Manko 1,000 petitions and peppered the DA's spokesperson with questions as to why Zappala hadn't yet acted on the case.

At that time, Manko explained the DA's office was prohibited from conducting an investigation, because the U.S. Attorney's office was in the middle of its own investigation into Miles' arrest.

But ever since the feds dropped its case in early May, prompting the city to put the officers back on the streets, activists have been vocal in demanding that Zappala press charges. In the past few weeks, the Alliance for Police Accountability has organized protests at sites such as the police headquarters, on the North Side, and the Office of Municipal Investigations, in the Strip District.

"We are looking for a response," Brandi Fisher, of the APA, said after today after leaving Zappala's office. "What is taking [Zappala] so long?"

Activist Brandi Fisher (at microphone) urges criminal charges against officers in the Jordan Miles case.
  • Activist Brandi Fisher (at microphone) urges criminal charges against officers in the Jordan Miles case.

"I don't know if he's waiting for us to get tired," she added. "There's no way that DA Zappala doesn't know that a crime was committed."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

In wake of May primary, Jacque Fielder departs as ward chair

Posted By on Thu, Jun 2, 2011 at 11:58 AM

Earlier this week, we had a post-mortem about the race in city council district 9, in which we noted that challenger Phyllis Copeland-Mitchell experienced some tough sledding, despite the backing of Ward 12 chair Jacque Fielder. Copeland-Mitchell finished third -- out of three candidates -- even in Ward 12 itself.

This morning, word comes that Fielder herself is resigning her position "for personal reasons." She sent a letter to Allegheny County Democratic Commmitee Jim Burn that reads as follows:

Please accept this letter as formal notice of my resignation from the position of 12th Ward Chair and as a member of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, effective May 28, 2011.

After careful consideration, I have decided to leave the committee for personal reasons.

Thank you for all your support and the opportunities for growth that have been provided to me.

I wish you and the party well.

Please let me know if there is anything I can do to assist in the smooth transition of my responsiblilities.

We'll have more if further details become available. 


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