City Council Discussion About Paying Lawyers Turns Tense, Calls Campaign Finance Rules Into Question

Jun 27, 2019

A Pittsburgh City Council committee meeting turned tense Wednesday amid discussion about approving a contract between the city's Ethics Hearing Board and two outside attorneys.

The board is seeking to contract with attorneys from two law firms: Rothman Gordon and DeForest, Koscelnik, Yokitis & Berardinelli. The contracts would be worth up to $45,000 combined, and would cover  services rendered during campaign finance hearings earlier this spring as well as future services.

If a city department spends more than $3,000 with a vendor, it's encouraged to enter into a contract with them, and such a contract needs to be approved by City Council. But five out of eight councilors present abstained to vote on contracts with the law firms on Wednesday.

Executive manager of the Ethics Hearing Board, Leanne Davis, said she's now going to call the city's Office of Management and Budget to see what the next step is. 

"It was their advice that [we] enter into the contract, so if we have to proceed on an invoice basis, I suppose that's how we would have to do it," she said.  "I think that if the invoices aren't paid I would think [the law firms] would have the legal action for that, so I think that could cause additional problems." 

Councilor Darlene Harris, who was a no-show when she was called before the Ethics Hearing Board to answer for violations of campaign finance rules during the primary, repeatedly attempted to dismiss Davis from the table. 

"I don't really need you at the table so if you’ll please leave," Harris said to Davis.

The request spurred a debate between Harris and finance committee chair Councilor Ricky Burgess about Council rules.

"You do not have to talk to her, but you cannot dismiss her,” Burgess said. 

Harris and her attorney Jim Burn have said the campaign finance rules are illegal. She was not the only one to criticize the campaign finance reporting process. Councilor Anthony Coghill said the process for submitting campaign finances is sometimes frustrating. 

"I'm all for transparency for campaign finance reports, but your due dates ... can we please in the name of efficiency and government coordinate with the county," he said. "[The city's due date] is two or three weeks from what the county's is and things change and donations come in; it just makes it a nightmare." 

Councilors Harris, Coghill, Erika Strassburger, Theresa Kail-Smith and Deb Gross abstained from voting. Councilors Burgess, Daniel Lavelle and Bruce Kraus voted to approve the contracts. Councilor Corey O'Connor was absent.

A final vote on the contracts is expected to be taken on Monday.

*This post was updated at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 27, 2019 to reflect that the contracts in question would cover both services already rendered and services that could be provided in the future.