You want political scuttlebutt, go to the back steps of the City-County Building. Around midday the portico facing Ross Street is a nest of city and Allegheny County officials and functionaries -- some catching a smoke, others getting some air, and all, always, gossiping.
It's not often that an alleged piece of back-steps chatter costs the county hundreds of thousands of dollars and has the potential to affect the balance of power on Grant Street. But that is what has happened, thanks to one Democratic official's alleged racial slur, subsequent firings, and Republican efforts to exploit a continuing rift in the majority party's ranks.
At lunchtime on a May day in 1999, county Clerk of Courts Office employee Ron Venturella was hanging out on the back steps when, he says, George Matta approached. Matta was then the mayor of Duquesne, and was campaigning to unseat Venturella's boss, Clerk of Courts Joyce Lee Itkin. The two men were acquaintances.
According to Venturella's sworn testimony in a 2001 deposition, which he corroborated in an interview with City Paper, the two talked about the staff at the Clerk of Courts office. Venturella, then a West Mifflin Democratic Committee member, testified that he told Matta the staff included a few "bad" employees, including blacks who got their jobs through connections to committee chairmen. Then, according to Venturella's testimony: "[Matta] said let me tell you something, I've been involved with niggers in Duquesne for 12 years, a few niggers in the Clerk of Courts is not gonna hurt me."
Matta beat Itkin, and fired Venturella and about 10 other Clerk of Courts employees. Six of those firings spawned federal civil rights lawsuits, and in a sworn deposition taken in March 2003, Matta denied ever having the conversation with Venturella. But the alleged slur weakened the county's position in the lawsuits, which resulted in verdicts, settlements and payouts to plaintiffs' attorneys totaling $461,992.
This year Matta faces a re-election challenge from African-American Republican Alice Williams, who considers Matta's alleged indiscretion a campaign issue. "Obviously derogatory slang ... is an acceptable part of life for him," she says. "I would disagree."
Williams' candidacy may be about more than capturing an office she says she wants to eliminate. Judging from contributions to her campaign, her bid has little chance of succeeding -- but may be the wedge Republicans need to peel key voters away from the Democrats.
"It's been against the law to fire anyone because of their political affiliation since the 1970s," says Downtown attorney Sam Cordes, who specializes in employment law. The word "affiliation" means not only party registration, but also whether an employee chooses to support a given candidate, Cordes says. "You know how Allegheny County is," he adds. "It takes a while for word to get around."
During the last four years of the three-commissioner system, when shifting alliances spawned waves of terminations, Cordes estimates that he won $1 million in verdicts and settlements for politically motivated firings. The new executive-council system has also generated business. Cordes sued Republican County Executive Jim Roddey -- and lost -- over the firing of Louis "Hop" Kendrick, former head of the Office of Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprises. And he has sued Democrat Matta over five firings, winning two verdicts and two settlements.
Newly elected officials can replace employees who hold policymaking roles, notes Cordes. But shortly after his election, Matta went beyond that, Cordes alleged in his lawsuits, firing mid- and low-level functionaries who had backed Itkin and replacing them with his supporters. Matta declined numerous requests for comment for this story.
Some Itkin hires received notice of their impending terminations on Christmas Eve 1999, according to the lawsuits. A handful of those pink slips would turn out to be presents in disguise.
Venturella and three other white males filed suit, resulting in two verdicts against the county and one settlement, totaling $160,141, plus payment of Cordes' bill of $101,851. A black woman, Kathy Williamson, filed a similar lawsuit alleging political and racial discrimination, and in that suit Venturella testified to the alleged conversation with Matta. The county settled for $50,000. The county says insurance covered part of the $311,992 in payouts, but won't reveal its deductible.
The most damaging case for the county -- and possibly for Matta -- was filed by East Liberty resident Vonda Brown. Brown had worked in the Clerk of Courts Office for more than a year as a "temporary employee" doing filing when Matta took office. She asked for full-time work, but on Aug. 4, 2000, according to her lawsuit, she was terminated. Matta testified that he fired Brown because she "had a hard time staying focused." Three days after the termination, another temporary employee -- Salvatore D. Tiglio -- was promoted to a full-time post Brown had coveted, paying $19,392 a year.
Brown hired attorney Timothy O'Brien and sued, alleging political and racial discrimination. In his March deposition in that suit, Matta said he'd never had the May 1999 conversation with Venturella. But asked by O'Brien whether he'd "had occasion ... to refer to African Americans as niggers," Matta responded: "I'm sure I've used the word." Later in the deposition he said he'd used the word in conversations with blacks and whites. "Tim, I'm going to tell you that I don't use the word in a derogatory manner," Matta said, according to the transcript. "I find it no different than when people use the word dago and honkie or a spic. I find that people use it in their day. I actually find your line of questioning here extremely insulting to me."
"If he thinks [racial slang terms] are acceptable words, then he's not very mature, and shouldn't hold any position of leadership," says Williams, as she pages through the deposition transcript. "Children say words like this to each other -- and their parents spank them for it."
In the 2002 book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy -- who is African American -- notes that some blacks are comfortable describing themselves or each other as "niggers." Courts, though, have ruled that its association with slavery makes it uniquely provocative when coming from white lips.
In his deposition, Matta said he has used the word in front of African Americans including Duquesne City Councilor Barbara Lane. Lane says she doesn't remember Matta using the word. "He would not use it in a derogatory manner," she says. "George is not a bigot. George does not care about race, just about what's right and wrong."
The Brown suit alleged that in 2000, Matta hired 21 whites and one black in the Clerk of Courts office. In his 2003 deposition, Matta was able to name four African Americans he'd hired since 2000. The County Manager's office says 13 percent of Matta's staffers are racial minorities. That's comparable to the 17 percent minority composition in the Roddey-controlled executive's and manager's offices, and the 14 percent in Controller Dan Onorato's office. Onorato is Roddey's Democratic challenger in the November election.
Nonetheless, in August, the county agreed to a $150,000 settlement with Brown that also compelled Matta to rehire her to a full-time position. The county is now self-insured, so taxpayers are footing the bill.
Williams says Matta's quotes and the suits will be an issue in her race to unseat him. "Racial and political discrimination is something that should concern everyone in Allegheny County," she says, eyeing the transcript. "The voters will get this information."
Williams earned her bachelor's degree in human resources and her master's in organizational leadership from Geneva College. She served as a Wilkinsburg School Board member during the late 1990s, and left her job as a sales representative for Verizon to run for clerk of courts. Should she beat Matta, she says her goal would be to make a single personnel change: "I am running to eliminate my job."
Roddey and other Republicans have long advocated the elimination of most of the 11 independently elected row officers, 10 of whom are Democrats. They argue that if officials who manage court records, send out tax bills, select juries, transport prisoners, serve warrants and autopsy cadavers were appointed, rather than elected, they'd be less likely to form fiefdoms and hire their friends. Roddey's administration claims such a move would save $6 million or more, but has produced no detailed study.
The county charter says voters must decide whether to consolidate row offices, and courts have said such a referendum can't happen until 2005. Williams says she'd start downsizing her office right away, campaign for its elimination, and then, if voters oblige, "I'll go back into the job market." If not, she'll leave after one term.
Getting that term won't be easy. Matta is the Democrat in a county in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one. As of June 9 -- the most recent date on which candidates filed campaign finance disclosures -- Matta's war chest contained $116,998. Williams reported raising $900 and spending $795, leaving her with $105.
Her donors may get their money's worth, though, even if she loses.
Roddey's campaign gave Williams' $500 in cash, and Republican Committee of Allegheny County Director Mike Devanney pitched in $250. Roddey's political committee also loaned Williams part of its Downtown office suite -- valued at $1,669 from April through June 9 -- from which Williams' campaign continues to operate. Williams says that since June 9 she's "had to go out and do good, solid, honest fund-raising." The results won't be known until Oct. 24, when the next campaign finance disclosures are due.
"I don't think she's making that much of an impact," says county Democratic Committee Chairman Tom Flaherty. "Apparently, [Roddey] is just using an African American as a kamikaze candidate."
The obvious target is the longstanding relationship between blacks and the Democratic Party. Republican Roddey has appointed African Americans to powerful boards and posts in his administration, and GOP county councilors were largely responsible for elevating black Democrat Jim Simms to council's presidency in 2001. Simms subsequently ran for controller as a Democrat, but won neither the party endorsement nor the primary.
"I absolutely believe that it's wrong on its face for an entire race of people to belong to one party," says Bill Pratt, a black Republican who is a former Penn Hills councilor and is running for a seat on that body again this year. When he first ran for borough council, Pratt says, he approached both parties. The Republicans "opened their arms for me."
The GOP hasn't drawn to its bosom the interests of African Americans, counters Kendrick, a black Democrat who recently resigned from a temporary appointment to county council. Republican President George W. Bush, for instance, has fought to end affirmative action in university admissions. "With Bush being in [the White House]," says Kendrick, "I don't think the Republican ticket is going to sell at all."
On Sept. 25, two dozen African-American elected officials gathered in Wilkinsburg to endorse Onorato. Onorato says the Williams campaign won't derail black support -- especially since the Republicans are running white Becky Barrett-Toomey against the Democratic Recorder of Deeds Valerie McDonald Roberts, who is black.
A look back to 1995, though, shows what can happen if the black electorate has doubts about the Democratic ticket. That year, Democratic commissioner candidate Mike Dawida said his ticket "didn't need" strong black support. He won a seat on the three-man commission despite the resulting uproar, but his running mate didn't, leading to the Republican takeover. Any disenchantment with Matta probably wouldn't have as great an effect. But with a black Republican taking on a white Democrat accused of racial slurs and civil rights violations, the clerk of courts race could cost the Dems votes in what's expected to be a tight election.
Williams says she's in this for the taxpayers, and not to benefit Roddey, though she notes that, "I am a Republican woman, and I believe in the philosophy that Mr. Roddey has for county government." She doesn't rule out another run for office.
As for Venturella, the former Democratic Committeeman landed on his feet after Matta fired him, first taking a job in the sheriff's office, then transferring to the county's Kane Hospitals. Still, he regrets that the federal court didn't order Matta to rehire him. "You don't know how much I wanted my job back," Venturella says. "I could lay on the floor naked and he wouldn't fire me now."