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Ethics debate becomes top issue in Allegheny County executive race

Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein addresses reporters from the Allegheny County Courthouse as a debate over ethics roils the county executive race
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein addresses reporters from the Allegheny County Courthouse as a debate over ethics roils the county executive race

Allegheny County’s next chief executive will be responsible for delivering services to some 1.2 million people. But for most of last week, the race for that job has focused almost exclusively on just one of those residents — County Treasurer John Weinstein — and on ethics in government.

The result has been an increasingly contentious campaign that became more charged late last week, when Weinstein fired back at one of his rivals.

Reports by WESA and other outlets in recent weeks have raised questions about Weinstein’s conduct, including allegedsecret deals to be returned to the board of the county’s sewer authority, and whether his support of a local judge produced jobs for people tied to Weinstein personally.

Such reports prompted one of those rivals — City Controller Michael Lamb — to issue an ethics pledge that his campaign said was a response to “apparent instances of improper influence and conflicts of interest.”

Terms of the pledge were straightforward: It includes a vow “to be honest” and to refuse gifts “from anyone trying to exert influence,” for example. But Lamb also used the event to criticize the county Retirement Board — which Weinstein chairs — for not taking up a proposal to bar campaign contributions to county officials from firms that do work for the pension fund.

“I was surprised — I was actually angered — by the fact that common-sense ethical reforms would be rejected,” Lamb said.When we see political games get played with retirees’ money and our active employees’ money, it concerns me.”

Proposed by county Controller Corey O’Connor, who also sits on the Retirement Board, the measure is similar to prohibitions on other government pension funds. The board did not kill the proposal but tabled it for further review after Weinstein said it had been drafted improperly. On Friday, Lamb called it “unconscionable … that they’re not addressing this issue.”

His remarks came the week after another Democrat in the county executive race, Dave Fawcett, urged an overhaul of the county’s campaign-finance laws to include more frequent public disclosure of contributions as well as limits on how large those contributions can be.

And it came one day after state Rep. Sara Innamorato’s campaign proposed her own ethics agenda, which incorporated campaign-finance limits and began with her pledge to disclose her contributors online on a monthly basis, as well as posting notice about campaign hires.

As county executive, I want to create an honest, transparent and responsive county government,” she told reporters. “And I'm not just here to talk about it.”

Innamorato also pledged that as county executive, she would sign “a gift ban for county employees and the executive herself from accepting gifts on lobbying and contracting reform.” County ethics rules currently prohibit employees from soliciting for such gifts and require the gifts be reported, but don’t prohibit accepting them.

She said she'd also limit contact between vendors bidding on county contracts and the staff administering the work — an effort to remove any favoritism from awarding the bid.

County government “exists to solve our toughest problems and to make people’s lives easier. It’s not an ATM for the rich and well-connected,” she said.

Unlike Fawcett and Lamb, Innamorato made no mention of Weinstein at all, and she declined to address a reporter’s question about him.

”I really want to talk about the issues that are impacting the people of this county,” she said.

That’s been a consistent tack for Innamorato even as the tenor of the broader campaign has gotten uglier. Things got more fractious on Friday, when Weinstein sought to change the subject by launching an ethics-based attack on a staffer in Lamb’s office during a news conference in the Allegheny County Courthouse.

Weinstein said that an aide to Lamb, Gina DiNardo, did not in fact live within city limits but had a residence in Peters Township and had worked as a paraprofessional for the school district there.

“This happened in the office where the person is responsible for monitoring fraud, abuse, and the waste of taxpayer dollars,” Weinstein said. “That is the epitome of hypocrisy.

“It begs to wonder if he knew about this and he condoned it — why?” added Weinstein, who mocked Lamb’s campaign as being on “life support.”

DiNardo had, in fact, resigned the day before: Lamb said she was given the opportunity to do so when he discovered she had done some work in the suburban district — which violates a prohibition on city workers taking jobs from other government agencies. He declined to discuss her personal circumstances but said she professed to live within the city.

In any case, Lamb said, “For John, the person who fights every attempt to strengthen the public trust, to call this out is comical.”

Unlike his rivals, Weinstein did not tie his attacks to a broader ethics-reform agenda, although at one point he did appear to reverse his position on proposals to impose campaign-finance rules on county candidates.

Weinstein, whose campaign fundraising includes a $100,000 contribution from trucking executive and developer Charles Hammel, initially repeated an earlier assertion that such laws should be passed at the state level.

But after being questioned by a reporter about whether he was content to leave the task to Harrisburg alone, he said he was “for campaign-finance reform, and I would do everything I can to make that work.” Asked if that meant he would support county-level change if elected, he said, “Yes, absolutely.”

Still, it didn't take long for the focus to swing back in Weinstein's direction. On Saturday, Allegheny County Councilor Tom Duerr said he'd filed an ethics complaint against fellow Democat Bethany Hallam for her purported role in trying to create a vacancy on the county sewer authority for Weinstein to fill.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.