Thursday, April 17, 2008

Billboard Back Story: Brewing Controversies

[Looking for my "Media Debate Blowback" post? Click here.]

There's an intriguing back-story that led up to the peacemaking between Lamar Advertising and Pittsburgh Council members who challenged the legality of their permit to erect an electronic billboard downtown. My Channel 4 Action News report lays out details. I obtained copies of legal filings that reveal a battle of subpoenas and discovery motions, averted just in time.

Here's the text of my TV story.

If this agreement on the Lamar electronic billboard going back through channels hadn't been reached, legal documents show council members were pressing for testimony under subpoena by:

• city URA Executive Director Pat Ford, who struck the deal,
• his Lamar executive best friend Jim Vlasach, with whom he negotiated.
• and Mayor Ravenstahl's Executive Secretary Yarone Zober.
That won't happen now. But the State Ethics Commission is still reviewing gifts received by Ford and Ford's wife -- Mayor Ravenstahl's former press secretary Alecia Sirk -- from Vlasach. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl: "This process in the infancy stages and we'll see where it goes. I'm not concerned about that at this point, and welcome the investigation at the state ethics commission and look forward to their findings."
Legal documents show council members were asking the zoning board to subpoena all records -- quote--

"pertaining to gifts, remuneration, or 'in kind' services provided by Lamar to any official or employee of the City of Pittsburgh..."
The basis?
• The documents say -- quote-- "Mayor Ravenstahl, Mr. Ford, and Mr. Vlasach are all believed to be personal friends."
• The discovery was targeted to -- quote -- "consider whether Lamar applied improper influence to these public officials with respect to the led application approval".
Work on the Lamar electronic billboard is stopped until it clears the normal planning and zoning public process. Meanwhile, published reports [by the PG's Rich Lord] say two different, out-of-town companies also got approval for billboards through Ford without the normal approval process. Mayor Ravenstahl confirms he stopped by Ford's dinner meeting with those execs.
Ravenstahl: "To say hello."
Q: "You just said 'hi' and left?"
A: "No, I mean we just communicated and Pat mentioned that they were in town and I went up to say hello, just like I talk with anybody that's interested in doing business with Pittsburgh. "
Two Oregon-based Liberty Pacific media execs at that dinner meeting later contributed a total of $25,000 to Ravenstahl's campaign.
Q: "Any campaign aspects discussed in the meeting?"
Mayor Ravenstahl: "No."
Q: "Did those donations in any way influence how the their billboards got approved?"
A: "No. I had nothing to do with the approval of the billboards."


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