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Allegheny County ethics board urges Hallam be 'admonished' over purported 2022 deal-making efforts

Allegheny County Council member Bethany Hallam (D-At Large).
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Council member Bethany Hallam (D-At Large).

Allegheny County’s Ethics Commission has recommended that County Councilor Bethany Hallam be “admonished” for violations of the county’s ethics code — violations that it says stem from efforts to give outgoing Treasurer John Weinstein an opportunity to join the board of ALCOSAN.

Hallam failed to live up to the “highest ideals of honor and integrity” the code requires and used her office to try to shape the outcome of an election in 2022, the commission ruled.

Admonishment is the least serious sanction the commission can recommend, one which carries no penalty beyond an expression of disapproval. And the commission found that Hallam had not benefited personally from any of the conduct alleged.

The findings, which were issued Nov. 28 and circulated to county council members by council President Pat Catena on Dec. 14, are based on allegations that Hallam sought to broker a deal between Weinstein and state Rep. Emily Kinkead in 2022.

At the time, Kinkead faced a Democratic primary opponent in Nick Mastros, who was rumored to have Weinstein’s backing. Kinkead and her campaign manager, Schuyler Sheaffer, said that Hallam told Sheaffer that “John has a deal for Emily.”

Under the purported terms of the deal, Kinkead would step down from her seat on the seven-member ALCOSAN board, creating a vacancy that could be filled by appointing Weinstein, who wanted to return to the board after Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald chose not to reappoint him months before. In return for Kinkead’s resignation, Weinstein would allegedly withdraw support from Mastros.

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The controversy surfaced this past spring, when Weinstein was running for Allegheny County Executive and Hallam was seeking re-election to her council seat. Both Weinstein and Hallam denied the allegations strenuously at the time. But County Councilor Tom Duerr, a frequent Hallam foe, filed a complaint with the county’s five-member Accountability Conduct and Ethics Commission, asking them to look into the allegations.

The commission’s final order was accompanied by a 20-page confidential report detailing its findings of fact and legal conclusions, which was obtained by WESA. That document asserts that the commission found Hallam’s “adamant denial” to be “less credible than that of other individuals” who said Hallam spoke to them about the purported deal. They included Kinkead, Sheaffer, and city council member Bobby Wilson, with whom Hallam also allegedly discussed the deal.

The commission’s report also cites phone records and texts between Hallam and others, demonstrating that conversations of some sort were taking place at the time — including Hallam’s assertion that it might “butter up” Kinkead to tell her that Hallam knew a “super-wealthy attorney who wants to have a rich-people fundraiser” for Kinkead. There does not appear to have been a record that confirms the parameters of the purported “deal.”

The commission’s report discusses at some length, complete with a reference to Shakespeare, the art of political deal-making and the shifting nature of political alliances. And it notes that Hallam and Kinkead had been friends and political allies, and that Shaeffer had been a tenant of Hallam’s. (The two later ended up in court over a security-deposit dispute.)

“[S]ome may argue that Hallam’s discussions … constitute legitimate discourse and permissible ‘political activity,’” the report acknowledges. But “it is unambiguous that such ‘backroom’ political deals … fail to represent the ‘highest ideals of honor and integrity’ and also do not ‘serve the best interest of the public.’”

The ethics code requires officials to live up to both of those standards, and the commission’s final order found that Hallam failed to do so. It also found that she ran afoul of a prohibition that “no [official] shall use the authority or influence of his or her office for the purpose of interfering with the result of an election.”

The commission determined that Hallam did not stand to benefit personally from the deal, however, and thus had not violated an ethics rule that prevents officials from receiving “a fee or other compensation [for using] the influence of his or her position to provide a special service or favor.”

On Thursday evening, Hallam responded to the report by seeming to channel Richard Nixon, sending WESA a brief text that asserted, “I am not a crook!” followed by an emoji of a hand giving Nixon’s iconic “V for victory” sign.

After hearing of Hallam’s admonishment Thursday night, Kinkead said she considered the ethics commission’s response “more than adequate.” Hallam’s actions, she said, “I don’t think warranted anything more serious than [the commission] did.”

Kinkead noted, too, that while the incident had also raised questions about Weinstein’s own actions, the subsequent complaint put “a lot of focus on Bethany, not John.”

It’s not clear whether Weinstein could have counted on being named as Kinkead’s replacement on the ALCOSAN board even if she had stepped down. Her seat is appointed by Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, whose office told WESA earlier this year that “The mayor would never consider somebody for the ALCOSAN seat who is not a resident of the city.” Weinstein lives in Kennedy Township, and the commission itself agreed that the proposed deal “would be highly improbable to achieve.”

Still, it determined that “the feasibility of [the deal] is immaterial because it nonetheless was calculated to interfere with the results of the Primary Election between Kinkead and Mastro.” And whatever allegiances might have existed between those involved, it found, “Hallam’s offer of a ‘back room’ political deal certainly was not prudent or welcome.”

Duerr seemed unsatisfied with the outcome of his complaint. In a statement he posted on social media Thursday evening, he said “To say these findings are disturbing would be putting it mildly.” For an official to engage in the conduct at issue, he said, “flies in the face of every promise they made when they took their oath of office. Allegheny County deserves so much better than this.”

Duerr added that while he appreciated the commission’s fact-finding efforts, the “recommendation of simple ‘admonishment’ falls far short of the remedy required to ensure this never happens again.”

The commission has limited power to act on its findings. The ethics code allows for five levels of response, beginning with an admonition “indicated that the respondent has been found to have violated” the ethics code. A stronger statement of censure, which expresses “strong disapproval” is the next level.

More serious ethics violations can result in suspension or dismissal of a county contractor or worker “in compliance with existing personnel practices and collective bargaining agreements,” or a recommendation that an elected official be removed.

Ultimately, however, the code requires that “the County Council and Chief Executive or appropriate elected County Official shall take appropriate action” based on its findings. That clearly rankled Duerr, who is leaving council at the end of the year but in his statement pledged to speak with his colleagues about the seriousness of the issue.

If council leaders couldn’t devise a fitting sanction, he said, “it will fall upon the residents of Allegheny County to hold Councilwoman Hallam responsible.”

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.