When Allegheny County Councilman Tom Duerr wrote to the county’s Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Commission in March asking for an investigation of his colleague Bethany Hallam, he was reaching out to a panel that has not taken publicly known action against anyone for six years.
Duerr’s letter to the commission came after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Hallam reached out to state Rep. Emily Kinkead last year and asked her to resign her seat on the ALCOSAN board, which is appointed by city and county leaders. Hallam’s request came, the newspaper reported, at the behest of former board member and county Treasurer John Weinstein, who sought to replace Kinkead on the board. In return, Weinstein would stop supporting Kinkead’s opponent in the Democratic primary that year. Weinstein and Hallam have denied the report.
The letter alleged that the proposal violated the county’s Ethics Code by attempting to “cut back room political deals” regarding spots on the board.
The ACE Commission is the county’s primary vehicle for investigating and punishing ethical violations. Its public records, though, show dwindling activity and a struggle to enforce the single recommendation it has made since 2016.
Hallam said she believes the ACE Commission is the appropriate body to handle serious ethical concerns but finds Duerr’s public letter to the commission inappropriate because it could influence the outcome of a potential investigation.
“I hope that they will conduct a proper investigation, I hope that no outside people will be influencing their process, and I sure hope that this body that has a very specific and important purpose is not being used for political stunts,” Hallam said.
No matter the outcome of a potential investigation into the complaint, Duerr said he hopes the process will provide closure to the situation.
“If an ethical line was crossed, we can as a body decide what to do and to go from there, and if it wasn’t, we can move forward without having this allegation hanging over, well, both Councilwoman Hallam’s head but also the body’s head as well,” he said.
A commission that doesn’t comment
The county created the commission in 2002. Under the Ethics Code, the commission has jurisdiction over all elected and appointed county officials and county officers, including the chief executive and members of county council, as well as all county employees and members of county agencies.
The commission is made up of five voters of Allegheny County who have not been county officers or employees or been compensated by a county contractor. No more than three of them may be of the same party affiliation. Currently, it is composed of two Democrats, one Republican and two otherwise-affiliated individuals.
Under the airtight confidentiality that governs the commission, county voters may never know for certain whether the commission investigates the alleged conduct of Hallam or Weinstein. PublicSource reached out to all five members of the commission: Chair William Ward and member Kimberly Dunlevy declined interview requests and the other commissioners — Jesse Torisky, Daryl Reeves and Tonya Johnson — did not respond.
The commission communicates with the public largely through annual reports.
The commission has received 53 complaints during its two decades of existence, reporting roughly half of those complaints since 2016. Complaints dropped off in 2020 and have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Former commission chair Tim Moury said the low complaint numbers in the past few years could reflect a lack of public awareness of the commission.
“I think it’s just educating the public on, the commission’s out there,” Moury said. “I know we try to do some outreach within county government to explain what we’re there for and make people aware that it is available.”
Duerr said county council hasn’t worked with the commission so far in his tenure, which began in 2020. He argued that low report numbers are a positive because the commission is an entity one would hope not to have to use in the first place.
“This entity exists for this reason,” Duerr said. “I trust the systems we have in place in our government.”
26 complaints, 1 recommendation
Even in years that saw higher numbers of complaints, the commission dismissed the vast majority of them after — or even without — preliminary inquiry.
The commission conducted a full investigation of a report it received in March 2016 and issued a findings report in October of that year, but it was never disclosed whether or not county council took any action based on the report. Details of the involved complaint have not been made public.
The commission’s 2016 annual report noted that in November of that year, then-County Council President John DeFazio told the commission that council was “still considering” the commission’s recommendation. By July 2017, public meeting minutes say the commission sent a second letter to council regarding the recommendations of the commission, and that “without a response by either party further action will be taken” by the commission. The group scheduled a conference call for August 2017 to discuss any response or further action to the complaint.
But according to the commission’s 2017 annual report, it was still “awaiting the disposition of a recommendation” by the end of that year. No other meeting minutes or annual reports have made mention of the complaint since then.
Ward did not respond to a request for updates on whether the county council ever carried out the commission’s recommendation.
The commission doesn’t always provide a reason for dismissing complaints, but when it does, the most common reason is that the complaint did not align with the commission’s jurisdiction. Each time someone filed an ethics complaint during Dan Garcia’s six-year stint on the commission from 2011 to 2016, “chances were pretty good,” he said, that it would not meet the scope of the Ethics Code.
“If one of those complaints was, you know, ‘Somebody at the community dump didn’t treat me right,’ or, ‘They were mean to me on the phone,’ or something, that doesn’t really speak to the corruption,” Garcia said. “Really, it’s more of a customer complaint than an actual ethics violation.”
Moury similarly noted that in many cases, the complaints the commission reviewed in his time contained “personnel issues” rather than Ethics Code violations.
The commission has also dismissed complaints for being anonymous or unsworn. Before the commission will consider a complaint, the complaint must contain the name and position of the respondent; the name, address and phone number of the complainant; a statement of the allegations that the complainant believes constitutes a violation of the Ethics Code and a sworn verification signed by the complainant.
In its annual reports and public meeting minutes, the commission has not identified individuals who are the subject of ethics complaints nor who submitted the complaints.
“The last thing we want is for somebody to get accused of something, it’s a wrongful accusation, that wrongful accusation becomes public and all of a sudden, the public believes the accusation,” Garcia explained.
Commission can recommend, but not enforce, penalties
If the commission finds that a complaint justifies further review after preliminary inquiry, it can launch a full investigation, after which it either terminates the case or issues a findings report. From there, the respondent may request a hearing.
The Ethics Code lays out actions the commission may take after identifying ethical violations. If a respondent to an ethics complaint is found to have violated federal or state law, the commission is to turn the case over to the proper authorities. Otherwise, the commission can:
- Issue a written admonition that the respondent violated the code
- Censure the respondent expressing strong disapproval of the involved actions
- Suspend a county employee without pay, though this would be subject to personnel practices and union contracts
- Revoke county employment or a county contract, again subject to personnel practices and union contracts
- Recommend removal of an elected official, which would then be governed by the county charter or other laws.
Public records show no such actions after 2016.
Members of the commission are “mainly just fact finders,” Garcia said. If the commission identifies misconduct, Garcia and Moury said it is up to county council and the county executive to implement its ruling.
“There’s really not much the commission can do to enforce anything,” Garcia said. “I guess it’s not really the scope of that commission.”
The limits of the commission and its jurisdiction make sense to Moury. In his experience, the commission is “effective” and “brings things to light.”
"Anytime you’re dealing with, you know, the conduct, you don’t want politics to play into it," Moury said. "I think the way the commission is set up, that they have a defined criteria in which they need to evaluate things, you take the personalities out of it."
“I think there’s always room for greater opportunity for government to really be under the oversight of the people they serve,” Garcia said. “At the end of the day, that’s what government used to be or should be — right? — is that it’s supposed to be in the service of the people that employ it. And that would be us, the taxpayer.”
While Duerr said he places his confidence and trust in the commission, he also said reforming it is not fully off the table.
“If this entity, you know, potentially isn’t as robust enough or … needs some tweaks after this process is done, maybe I’ll take a look at trying to fix that as well,” Duerr said. “But as of right now, no, I have no reason not to be confident in their ability. I have no reason not to trust the process.”
Alexandra Ross is a student journalist in her senior year at the University of Pittsburgh and can be reached at email@example.com or @AlexandraNRoss on Twitter.
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.