Is City Ethics Code Unethical? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Is City Ethics Code Unethical?

Political activists charges ethics board with gagging whistleblowers

Mark Rauterkus, a South Side political activist and vice chair of the Allegheny County Libertarian Party, doesn't do anything by half measures. He is running in not one, but two races on the November ballot. And last month he filed not one, but three complaints with the city's Ethics Board ... and one of those complaints alleged a lack of ethics by the board itself.

Rauterkus' complaint against the board arises from a section of its own ethics code. The code asserts that any person filing or "precipitating" the filing of a complaint against another person could be subjected to an ethics investigation if "the person publicly disclosed or caused to be disclosed that a complaint against a person had been filed with the board."

That provision "muzzles whistle blowers," Rauterkus contends. "People aren't going to file a complaint if they subject themselves to investigation by making it public. It's a way to sabotage complaints right from the get-go."

His complaint calls for the Ethics Hearing Board "to strike down the concept of imposing secrecy onto citizens. ... The Ethics Hearing Board should never wrongfully punish and threaten all citizens who file complaints."

By talking to City Paper about the grievance -- and by posting some of his complaint on his blog, -- "I'm breaking the code," Rauterkus acknowledges. "Have you been to jail for justice lately?"

But ethics board members "need to be pushed," he contends. "Hopefully they don't come back to push me into 30 days in jail."

When asked whether Rauterkus would be investigated for going public with his complaint, Assistant City Solicitor Kate DeSimone said, "I really can't speak to that, because I don't want to violate that code myself.

"The code mandates that complaints be kept confidential."

"Absolutely unconstitutional," says Vic Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, referring to the confidentiality provision of the ethics code. "The First Amendment protects matters of public concern."

Walczak does not know the ethics board's motive for keeping complaints from becoming public, but "wanting to avoid controversy is not a justification to suppress free speech."

According to DeSimone, the Ethics Hearing Board is considering an overhaul of the ethics code, but she says it has not specified changing the provision Rauterkus objects to.

Ethics Hearing Board Chairwoman Sister Patrice Hughes did not return phone calls from CP seeking comment.

Rauterkus' complaint with the Ethics Hearing Board was accompanied by two others, each filed against a rival in the upcoming election: Allegheny County Prothonotary Michael Lamb, and Democratic City Council candidate Bruce Kraus.

Lamb, the complaint points out, is a board member of A+ Schools, a nonprofit group that advocates improving the Pittsburgh Public Schools. But Lamb is also a candidate for city controller -- a job whose responsibilities include financial oversight of the school district. That dual role, Rauterkus alleges, constitutes a conflict of interest.

"I don't know that I agree," Lamb said after being informed of Rauterkus' complaint. The controller audits the district's books, he says, but the position has no responsibility for setting budgets. Even so, he says, he has discussed the issue with people at A+ Schools, and "I have contemplated stepping down if I'm elected controller.

"If I'm fortunate enough to win the election, I'm going to ask the ethics board if it's a conflict or not."

Rauterkus' complaint against Kraus stems from his belief that Kraus has "expressed desires to the mayor and to others in the administration" that would prevent outgoing city councilor Jeff Koch -- whom Kraus beat in the primary -- from being "rehired into suitable job openings within the city." Koch was a former employee of the city's Public Works department.

In his complaint, Rauterkus states that he has "strong reasons" to suspect that Kraus has "blacklisted" Koch. "I don't have any hard evidence," he tells CP. "That's just the word on the street."

Kraus calls the accusations "rubbish."

"It's nonsense," said Kraus. "Why would I wish unemployment on [Koch]? What power do I have to do that?"

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