It triggered the sharpest exchanges of WTAE's mayoral debate. Independent challenger Kevin Acklin repeatedly questioned Pittsburgh Democratic Mayor Luke Ravenstahl about the influence and role of a private businessman in his administration. Acklin claims that Cranberry businessman John Verbanac is powerful figure who has clients that stand to benefit from influencing Ravenstahl's policies. As he did during an earlier debate, the mayor described John Verbanac as a friend but he ridiculed Acklin's allegations as desperate and false. Verbanac himself later dismissed what he called Ackin's attempt to impugn him as "distasteful and wrong".
Acklin told Ravenstahl he had obtained:
"...very specific documents and e-mails that prove that Mr. Verbanac has had a very intimate relationship with your administration He's written your speeches, he literally puts words into your mouth. He's called the shots on who you hire and fire. He advises you on city policies and developments, including developing your strategic plan. He advised you on the firing of BBI (Bureau of Building Inspection) Director Ron Graziano and also called for the purging of your staff. It was very clear, Mr. Ravenstahl, that you lied to the people of this city..."
"What business interest does John Verbanac have before your administration or with any of these city authorities?"
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl:
"First of all, he has none, I answered the question last week, that he is a friend of mine. Your accusations are wrong. They're inappropriate. And I think they show the level to which apparently this campaign is going to go over the next couple of weeks. Bringing private citizens into conversations, making accusations that are false, like Kevin just did. And I'm not going to get into the minutiae of responding to every single thing that he thinks he can throw against the wall. I would just advise Mr. Acklin to be very, very careful."
"Is that a threat?"
"The mayor just lied again. We have information in documents again, including e-mails that prove very clearly..."
"I don't understand your point, Kevin. John Verbanac is a friend of mine, yes."
"Who very much is actively involved in your administration at the same time he literally has business interests in front of the city, that we have documentation to prove. Isn't that the definition of corruption?"
"Not at all. Because I have conversations with a gentleman who's a friend of mine?"
"At the same time he's directing your policies."
The barbs continued after the debate, during my interviews with the candidates. You can click the link below to listen to the raw audio from my mp3 recorder. Below that you can read some breakout quotes from the Q&A.
• "To be clear, these aren't attacks. These are facts..."
• "It's very that Mr. Verbanac has played a strong role in this administration. It's also very clear that he has business interests in front of this city."
• "...These documents came from a former high ranking official and I was a little taken aback by the fact that he (Ravenstahl) lied to us."
• "...It matters because people want honest leadership in government. And you have a situation here with someone with a lot of influence over this mayor's administration (who) also has a lot of interest in business before the city. These documents speak for themselves. "
• "...And if this isn't corruption, I don't know what is."
• "It's laughable. Especially when you consider if he and I were so close, I don't think I would have been a supporter of the Isle of Capri's bid for the casino license."
[Note: Verbanac had ties with Forest City Enterprises, which was teamed with a competing casino license bidder.]
•"I'm not sure exactly what Mr. Acklin is referring to . I think it shows the desperation right now in his campaign. That John Verbanac is a friend of mine -- he is a friend of mine. When I make decisions I speak with a lot of different individuals. Including my staff, including friends..."
• "Once again, It's a desperate attempt by a desperate candidate to try to create some interest in a race. And it's uncalled for. And you'd have to ask Mr. Acklin why he's choosing to stoop to these levels."
• "..He's (Verbanac's) never given a dollar to my campaign. He's never contributed to my campaign. He's no more than somebody I bounce ideas off of... There's no inappropriate relationship there whatsoever."
Franco Dok Harris, the other independent candidate for mayor, said after the debate:
"You hear whispers all the time. We don't have a stack of documents like the Acklin campaign or try to paint any kind of pictures. What we're doing is, we're trying to bring a positive message."
[Note: Excerpts from the documents released by the Acklin campaign appear on Bram Reichbaum's blog, The Pittsburgh Comet.]
In response to my phone messages, I received the following e-mail from John Verbanac:
With regard to your inquiry, here is my statement.
" I consider myself to be a valued friend and advisor to this Mayor, his predecessor and a number of current and former public officials, non profit and private business leaders. The fact that a desperate candidate in an effort to bolster his failing campaign would attempt to impugn me or the Mayor is distasteful and wrong and an example of why voters are so disenchanted with politics."