Weinstein and Hallam deny dealmaking over ALCOSAN seat, as drama engulfs county executive race
Attorney David Fawcett, a candidate for Allegheny County Executive, denounced a rival in a news conference Friday as he called for overhauling the county’s campaign-finance rules.
The move further stoked controversy around one of the race’s front-runners: County Treasurer John Weinstein.
Fawcett noted that candidates for county office, unlike those for federal posts, can receive campaign contributions of any size, and he said that “allowing candidates, including elected officials, to receive limitless money from a person or organization is wrong.”
He also called out Weinstein in regard to a media report that in early 2022, County Councilor Bethany Hallam asked state Rep. Emily Kinkead if Kinkead would step down from the board of the sewage-treatment agency ALCOSAN, in hopes that Weinstein could be appointed to fill the resulting vacancy.
In exchange, Weinstein allegedly would withdraw financial and other support for Nick Mastros, who at the time was challenging Kinkead’s re-election bid with help from building-trades unions friendly to Weinstein as well.
On Friday, Fawcett accused Weinstein, a prodigious fundraiser, of having “utilized the power of [unlimited] contributions in our political system to try to intimidate and bully” Kinkead.
Weinstein initially did not respond to a request for comment Friday, although he sent a text message that he would reply. On Friday night, however, he released a statement in which he objected to what he called "rumors, outright falsehoods and innuendos slung by competitors ... My goals never were and never will be to advance me; my goals are to advance this County."
Fawcett has contested the power of campaign money before. As an attorney, he successfully tried a case against West Virginia coal baron Don Blankenship, even after Blankenship bankrolled the campaign of a state Supreme Court Judge who ruled in his favor.
“I know firsthand the corrosive nature of campaign money in politics,” said Fawcett, who ultimately won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that judges shouldn’t take part in cases in which a party played a substantial role in electing them to office.
The debate around events at ALCOSAN, meanwhile, is arguably corrosive in its own right.
In early 2022, Weinstein had recently been removed from the board of ALCOSAN when County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a longtime foe, decided not to reappoint him to the board seat. ALCOSAN is preparing for a massive $2 billion, 20-year investment in infrastructure to handle stormwater flows that overwhelm the system. Such projects attract considerable attention from businesses and unions who are keen to win contracts to perform the work.
Kinkead, who’d been appointed to the ALCOSAN board by former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, told WESA that “I’d never had any interactions with Weinstein outside ALCOSAN board meetings at that point.” But in March 2022, she drew a surprise challenger to her re-election bid: North Side sandwich shop owner and Ross Township resident Nick Mastros.
Kinkead said she heard “through the grapevine” that Weinstein had taken an interest in Mastros’ bid. She said she reached out then to County Councilor Bethany Hallam, a progressive who joined a coalition of progressives and more conservative Democrats on the county council, which Weinstein cobbled together in 2020 and whose leadership named Hallam to the county Jail Oversight Board.
“I talked to Bethany and said, ‘You have a relationship with John. Can you see if this is true?’” Kinkead said. The goal, she said, was to determine, “How do we shore up our allies and protect ourselves against anyone working against us?”
Weeks later, Kinkead said, she and her campaign manager Schuyler Sheaffer heard a response.
Sheaffer said that Hallam came to his apartment — she was his landlord at the time — and said, “John has a deal for Emily. If Emily leaves the board at ALCOSAN, he will get her any board she wants in the area, and pull back support for Nick Mastros.”
Kinkead said that when Sheaffer poured cold water on the idea, Hallam reached out to her directly. Hallam, she said, was “playing [the idea] off as a thought she had had. … She was like, ‘I just thought this was a way to make everybody happy.’”
Hallam denied almost every aspect of Sheaffer and Kinkead’s account. For starters, she said, her talk with Sheaffer “wasn’t an in-person conversation, it was not in his apartment, and none of those things were said. … There was no deal that was offered.”
Hallam said that at a meeting, she asked Weinstein whether he was backing Mastros, and he disavowed any involvement in Mastros’ campaign. She said Weinstein did mention his tenure on the ALCOSAN board as a separate topic during that conversation. “But it never came up that if Emily left it, he’d back off the race.’”
Hallam said that when Kinkead heard that Weinstein had mentioned ALCOSAN in the same conversation, “She told me, ‘That’s illegal.’ She took it as a trade-off.”
But Weinstein, Hallam argued, would be hard-pressed to promise a board position to anyone else — and he had no reason to think he could be restored to the ALCOSAN board, she said.
ALCOSAN is a joint city-county agency, with board members appointed by both the mayor of Pittsburgh and the county executive. Kinkead’s seat was mayor-appointed — while Weinstein lives outside the city in Kennedy.
“How would Emily getting off the board get John on it?” Hallam asked.
Indeed, the one point almost everyone agrees on is that there is no clear reason that Weinstein could expect to fill the seat even if Kinkead did vacate it.
In his statement Friday night, Weinstein said, "Even had the other member resigned, I would not have been eligible for that position, which is exclusively reserved for City-based employees."
While a mayor would not necessarily be barred from choosing a non-resident, Mayor Ed Gainey’s spokesperson, Maria Montano, also said it would not have happened.
“The mayor would never consider somebody for the ALCOSAN seat who is not a resident of the city of Pittsburgh,” she said.
In fact, she noted that in the early summer of 2022, Gainey did fill an ALCOSAN board vacancy when then-City Councilor Corey O’Connor was named county controller. Gainey chose City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith to replace him.
“It was always the mayor’s intention to fill that seat with another member of City Council,” Montano said.
In the end, Kinkead won her race easily, besting Mastros by a nearly two-to-one margin. And Weinstein is still off the ALCOSAN board. While he is considered a strong contender for county executive, controversy seems all but certain to continue.
Late Friday, Republican County Councilor Sam DeMarco said such reports reflect “exactly the kind of backroom politics Allegheny County cannot afford.” He called for an investigation — and for Hallam to step aside from chairing a county council committee on government reform — arguing “It is apparent that she is not a reformer.”
Fawcett, for his part, is calling for campaign contribution limits similar to those that exist under federal law, and to require additional financial reports to supplement the sole pre-primary filing for the calendar year.
“There should be greater transparency through timely reporting of contributions,” he told reporters.
Fawcett noted that already “a series of stories” had come out raising questions about Weinstein’s political influence — including a WESA/Public Source report earlier this week.
“And it wouldn’t surprise me,” Fawcett said, “if there’s more to come.”