Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Oh, The Places You'll Go: The Reporter-Free Zone

Follow along?

Out a restricted access side-door, down a private corridor, out an electronically-locked back door, down a less-used elevator, across a long lobby, immediately back onto another elevator, and back upstairs again.

That's the circuitous path the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board nominee took out of city council chamber, thanks to an aide to the mayor and a city law department lawyer.

What happened with Ethics Board Nominee Penny Zacharias after her questioning by council became much more interesting than her appearance itself. ( She was welcomed with polite, brief, encouraging comments by council members.) Elaine Effort of KQV and I were the only reporters covering her appearance, and I was there without a photographer. We were going to introduce ourselves and ask the nominee a few basic questions.

Now, the unexpected intrigue.

Instead of walking out of council chamber's public door, Mayor Ravenstahl's Manager of Policy Gabe Mazefsky and Assistant City Solicitor Kate DiSimone led Penny Zacharias out through a private side-door to the city clerk's office. Elaine Effort and I left council chamber by the main door; from the hall, we could see the trio standing behind council's reception area. We approached. They retreated down the private council hallway.

I asked a city clerk official if we could speak with Zacharias, and she told us they were apparently meeting. Three minutes later, she told us that they were gone.

Elaine and I headed for the City-County Building lobby, checking out the exits on the Ross Street side and Grant Street side. I phoned mayor's aide Mazefsky, who told me the nominee had left. At that point, Elaine called to me. She'd spotted Zacharias and DiSimone. The pair had gotten off an elevator on the opposite side of the building from city council, near Ross Street. They were standing around a corner next to the elevator, away from wider view.

Remember, I don't have a photographer, just my microcassette. Elaine Effort approached Zacharias with her KQV microphone and audio recorder to ask a few questions, but Zacharias refused and started walking away.

Elaine pointed her microphone and began recording, and I clicked on my microcassette. Zacharias and the assistant solicitor kept walking--so we did too, recording as we went. The audio on my cassette is hard to hear because of the lobby's accoustics, but here's what I can make out:

Effort: "Why can't you answer just a few-- a simple question?"

Nominee Zacharias: "I'm not answering (unintelligible)."

Mayo: "Would you be willing to talk to us about how you came to serve on the board? Had you sought out a position, or were you nominated or invited?"

Effort: "It's a public board..."

Solicitor DiSimone: "She was nominated by the mayor."

Mayo: "Right. So the question was: was she recruited for the position? Did she volunteer?"

Effort: "How did it come to you? Why are you uncomfortable talking about a public board that people are interested in seeing reconvened? Why is it a problem? It's a public board."

Nominee Zacharias (not breaking stride): "That's correct, and I'm very excited to serve on it, and I'm looking forward to it."

Mayo: "Would you be willing to stop walking and chat with us, and answer a few basic background biograph(ic)al questions?"

( At this point, Zacharias and the assistant city solicitor get back onto another elevator--this one on the opposite [i.e. Grant Street] side of the City-County Building. I hold the elevator door open and Elaine joins me in doing so.)

Solicitor DiSimone: "I'm going to show Miss Zacharias where our meeting is going to be on Friday."

Mayo: "You are (who); I'm sorry?"

Solicitor DiSimone: "My name is Kate DiSimone, I'm with the city law department and will be meeting this Friday..."

Mayo: "Do you know what time and the location of the meeting?"

Solicitor DiSimone: "The meeting is scheduled for 10 o'clock. I'm not sure of the location yet." ( Editor's note: see two answers earlier, above.)

Mayo: Okay, and under the Sunshine Act, it will be open and we'll be able to attend, correct?

Solicitor DiSimone: "We're not sure if it's going to be a business meeting yet, based on the fact that only three members have RSVP'ed to us so far, so..."

Mayo: "Nonetheless, you're covered by the Sunshine Act. You can't, unless..."

Solicitor DiSimone: "We are covered by the Sunshine Act, and certainly it's an Ethics Board meeting; we're not interested in hiding...from the media or from publicity. But one of the first orders of business will be for the board to elect a chairman, and the members really don't know each other very well yet. So perhaps the first order of business... well, not business, but... The first thing for them to do is get to know each other a little bit and decide how to move forward on the chairmanship."

Mayo: "What members are available for the meeting?"

Solicitor DiSimone: "We have Penny, we have Sister Patrice Hughes, and I believe Kathy Buechel."

Mayo: "Okay, and I guess she (Zacharias) won't be confirmed by then, so they (council) won't vote until next week."

Solicitor DiSimone: "No, they will not vote next week, but judging from the tenor of the council meeting today, I don't think there's going to be any problem."

Mayo: "It will be a get-acquainted session."

Solicitor DiSimone: "I believe so."

Mayo (to Zacharias): "And again, why were you declining to just stand still and talk to us...and why'd you duck out the back door?"

Nominee Zacharias: "I was in a meeting, actually after the meeting. I was getting some materials that were mentioned at the meeting. Nothing to hide. Just going on with Miss DiSimone right now."

Mayo & Effort: "Okay, thank you. Thank you." ( The elevator doors closed. )

( Note: while Mazefsky said Zacharias had left, she had actually walked halfway around the City-County Building's fifth floor, rode an elevator down to the first floor, walked across the lobby to the side where she began, and then rode an elevator back up again. Some members of the general public must do that to get to areas on floors divided by locked doors and restricted access. With her escort, however, it doesn't appear the nominee had any trouble passing through restricted areas.)

I'm recounting all of this here for a few reasons. For one, it's a window into what reporters sometimes face in gathering the most simple information from public officials. For another, it shows a reason why I'm so interested in the slow-to-revive ethics board. The most simple answers and access somehow become complicated and difficult-to-get when covering this story. It's the sort of thing that naturally gets a reporter's attention.



Judge Rufus Peckham said...

If they had just stood there and answered your questions with even generic responses, I suspect this would not have been especially newsworthy. But it became a very interesting story simply because they tried to elude you. And if these people refuse to speak with you, how accessible will they be to the public? Perhaps they'll invite you to stand behind the barricades at the Mayor's coronation next January. Come off it! They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Mark Rauterkus said...

I blog about this sillyness.

Childishness on Grant Street, like you've described, is not acceptable. If I was mayor and read about this saga, I'd put the staffer on probation. The nominee's behavior is suspect as well.

On day one, you try to make a good impression. That's what she did.

The pathway to the door is more direct, I dare say.

It will also be interesting to see what they do next. If I'm mayor, she is calling you back to answer questions at your pleasure, either on the phone or in person tomorrow.

Char said...

PLEASE keep on this. The most important first step they take will be to define their scope, mission and charter. Tired of their silence and absence I decided to call one of their members myself. (Rabbi Daniel Schiff) He said the 1991 ordinance that brought them into being was so vaguely written that they really have no idea how they are to operate. Can they investigate anyone or any issue at will? Does something have to be "referred" to them? If so, by whom? Can "common" citizens bring things to their attention?

These are all things that are not spelled out AT ALL in the original ordinance. Rabbi Schiff said their first order of business, after electing a chair person, should be to define the who, what, when, where and how they operate.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me they shouldn't have to re-invent the wheel, don't other cities have entities comparable to the Ethics Board?

A review of other similar bodies' rules, systems & results would be a good place to start. Of course this should've all been done already...

Bob Mayo said...


The City Ethics Handbook clearly says "the Board may initiate proceedings by its own motion", as you'll see below.

It also says "the powers and duties of the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board" include the authority to not only:

-"Receive and dispose of complaints of violations of the ethics provisions of the
Pittsburgh Code and Charter"

but also to:

-"Conduct investigations, hold hearings, subpoena witnesses and compel their
attendance, administer oaths, take testimony, require evidence on any matter under
investigation or any questions before the Board, make findings of fact, and issue

A. Who may File a Complaint
-Any person may file a complaint about alleged ethics violations of the Pittsburgh Code or
Charter. In addition, the Board may initiate proceedings by its own motion. A person
signing a complaint shall:
1. Reasonably believe in the existence of the facts upon which the claim is
based; and
2. Reasonably believe that the complaint may be valid under the ethics
provisions of the Pittsburgh Charter and the Pittsburgh Code."

Bob Mayo said...

To anonymous...

Check out this previous post for info on a couple of other ethics panels.

Bram Reichbaum said...

DiSimone obviously would report to Specter; Mafesky would report to Ravenstahl. But from what you've seen; is it as simple as that? Or are they sort of in the subsidary orbit of other officials?

And someone has to say it -- I guess Elaine gets an A for Effort.

Anonymous said...

It is rather sad that you people have nothing better to do than make issues where none exist. Did you ever consider that perhaps one or more of these proposed board members are private citizens, that work in the private sector, have no affiliation with public official and simply don't have experience dealing with the media? Isn't that what we should want in board members? Or, are you actions going to bring about exactly what you purport to be guarding against,i.e., a board that is full of political hacks who know how to "talk" to the media and are tied into the political machine. If you keep attacking people that work in the private sector and and agree to serve the City of Pittsburgh by helping to ensure ethical government, you will get what you ask for.

Bob Mayo said...

To anonymous...

Ms Zacharias was hardly under "attack". She's a capable attorney from one of the city's biggest law firms who serves as counsel on major financial deals. She had just been interviewed by City Council as a nominee to a public post in a meeting cablecast live on TV.

It was the choice of a mayor's aide and an attorney from the city law department to shuttle her all up and down hallways and elevators, instead of letting her field routine questions from two reporters. Perhaps it was the actions of her escorts that were "making issues where none exists".