A flurry of news reports and press conferences in the past month shifted corruption, transparency and ethics to the center of the crowded race for Allegheny County executive, a highly anticipated election campaign that was once expected to focus on policy issues like the environment, criminal justice and affordable housing.
Accusations of impropriety have flown between candidates, but regardless of who emerges from the seven-candidate field and takes Western Pennsylvania’s highest elected office, they will inherit a county government structure that itself has an imperfect record when it comes to transparency.
PublicSource surveyed the candidates for their stances on a set of policies — already in use in other local governments, such as the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — that would give the public a clearer view of how the county does its business. From the way the county awards contracts to campaign finance regulations to the executive’s own activities, the seven candidates nearly universally signaled that greater transparency awaits when a new county administration enters in January 2024.
“There’s no question here, Allegheny County is standing out for these pretty substantial gaps in public integrity law,” said Pat Christmas, policy director at the Philadelphia-based good government group Committee of Seventy.
Amie Downs, the communications director for current County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, wrote in an email that the county has “made significant improvements to increase transparency” during his three terms, and cited websites allowing residents to view data on air quality, health inspections, COVID-19 cases and more.
Here is where candidates stood on nine potential transparency measures and what it could mean for the county going forward:
Read the candidates’ full survey responses here.
Bringing county business online
The county makes thousands of transactions every year as it conducts its business. Candidates said they would try to make it easier for residents to find and inspect county contracts online. Currently, contracts are viewable through a search engine.
As city controller, Michael Lamb’s office created a website that houses contracts, campaign finance and lobbying data for the public to explore.
“These sites are designed to help residents understand how Pittsburgh spends and receives money,” Lamb wrote. “I would absolutely bring these tools to the county level.”
Entrepreneur Will Parker said his administration would "create an app or website to keep track and update all activities pertaining to county contracts."
The candidates also said they would open up the county’s procurement process to public scrutiny, allowing online viewing of requests for proposals [RFPs], as the city already does.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Christmas said about publicizing county business. “When government contracts in particular are not out there in the open, the risk goes up for contracts going to firms or individuals for reasons that are not in the public interest.”
Each candidate agreed to publicize their daily schedule of public events, something that was done by former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto but not his successor, Ed Gainey, or current county Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
“The public deserves to know how I spend my time as their county executive,” wrote Lawrenceville state Rep. Innamorato. “I would utilize the county government website to create a dedicated page where the public schedule would be updated regularly.”
Downs wrote that Fitzgerald has not released daily schedules because he has numerous meetings with people who “expect some level of confidentiality.”
Curbing undue influence
Several candidates have made proposals and statements in recent months to curb the influence of special interests and money on politics and politicians, sometimes referring to a “pay to play” system in the county.
The six responsive candidates agreed they would favor banning members of boards and commissions from receiving political contributions from vendors who have business before that board. The county executive by statute sits on numerous boards, such as the Retirement Board and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.
Candidate Dave Fawcett, an attorney, said he would go even further, banning people who make large contributions to county officials from serving on boards of county agencies and authorities. “Without these common-sense measures, the obvious corrupting influence of money will inevitably seep into county business and operations,” he wrote.
The candidates also each said they would ban county officials from accepting any gifts in their official capacity.
There is also some agreement that stringent new campaign finance regulations could be on the way for Allegheny County. Though several campaigns are collecting five- and six-figure checks, most candidates have signaled a willingness to make this spring’s free-for-all the county’s last.
Legislation to install contribution limits and more frequent public disclosures for county-level candidates is making its way through the county council, and five of the seven executive candidates expressed some or total willingness to champion the measures.
“At present, a small group of political and corporate interests are able to exercise an unfair amount of corrosion over local elected officials,” Fawcett wrote. “We need to stop this immediately.”
The only candidate to come out against new campaign finance limits was former PNC executive Joe Rockey, the only person on the ballot in the Republican primary. He wrote in his survey response that limits would “run the risk of turning into an incumbent-protection law,” preventing challengers from amassing enough cash to overcome the built-in advantage that incumbents tend to enjoy.
County Treasurer John Weinstein, who by all accounts has raised far and away the most money in this race, signaled an openness to reform but notably did not endorse any specific policy.
“I have no objection to, and in fact enthusiastically support, any form of campaign finance reform that is supported by our constituents, our legislative leaders, and is crafted and enacted in the proper fashion,” Weinstein wrote.
Weinstein’s views on the matter have shifted since he launched his campaign. In an interview with PublicSource shortly after his January campaign launch, he said he would only favor campaign finance reform if it came from the state legislature and applied statewide. In March, when pressed at a news conference by a WESA reporter, he said he would favor enacting reforms at the county level.
Ethics concerns overtake campaign
The first months of this campaign, Allegheny County’s first competitive executive campaign since 2011, were focused on policy. Candidates showed little disagreement on the core issues in public.
Then accusations surfaced in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Weinstein tried to use his political influence to gain a seat on the board of ALCOSAN, the sewage treatment agency, and that he was under FBI investigation while he served on the board previously. Weinstein has denied any wrongdoing during his time on the board and denied trying to return to it.
His political rivals seized on it, casting this election as a referendum on corruption and old-school politics. Lamb released a “Pledge of Good Governance,” inviting other candidates to join him in committing to transparency measures. He floated the pledge in response to Weinstein moving to table a reform measure for the county’s pension fund — a rule that would have prevented the pension board from contracting with firms that made political donations to board members. Weinstein has long led the county’s retirement board and has received political contributions from contractors over the years.
Weinstein said during the board’s March meeting that the proposed reform couldn’t be adopted because it was not written properly. But he endorsed similar ideas in his response to the PublicSource survey.
“I believe that a county official who has received a campaign contribution from a vendor should recuse themselves when that vendor is being considered for a county contract,” Weinstein wrote. “I would also, however, strongly recommend that all independent county authorities ban political contributions to board members.”
(Left) Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein, pictured on the right, speaks during a county executive candidate forum on Feb. 18, 2023. (Right) City Controller Michael Lamb. (Photos by Charlie Wolfson and Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Weinstein fired back at Lamb in March, summoning reporters to the county courthouse to blast the controller for allegedly employing somebody in his office who did not live in Pittsburgh and who had a second job at a public school — both of which would violate city employment laws. Lamb dismissed the employee in question in the days before Weinstein publicized the issue, according to the controller’s office.
Meanwhile, Innamorato took campaign finance reform into her own hands, publishing a list of donors to her website well ahead of the May 5 deadline for disclosures required by law. She called on other candidates to do the same during a news conference but none have followed suit.
Asked if he was surprised by the near unanimity with which candidates supported measures referenced in the PublicSource survey, Christmas said he would have been surprised if there was much dissent, and that most of the reforms are a “no-brainer.”
Whether or not the eventual winner will follow through on the reforms is another matter.
“A lot of promises are made on the campaign trail,” Christmas said. “Once people get into office, they need to be held accountable for them. And that comes down to the residents, taxpayers, advocates, stakeholders, community civic leaders holding their elected officials accountable for the things they said they’d do.”
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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