(Pittsburgh) August 29, 2018 As the Allegheny County Airport Authority embarks on a $1.1 billion modernization project at Pittsburgh International Airport, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner called for immediate action to insulate the Authority and the County from potential conflicts of interest and self-dealing.
In recent weeks, it was revealed in media reports that two Airport Authority board members made financial investments in OneJet, a startup air carrier that was paid $1 million by the Authority in 2016 and is now being sued by the Authority for breach of contract. OneJet also received a $1.5 million loan from the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County.
“For board members to stand to gain or lose financially from their decisions on the Airport board is the textbook definition of ‘conflict of interest,’” Wagner said. “When two of nine members of a board happen to have financial ties to an airline which received public money from a decision of that board, it’s not a coincidence, it’s part of that board’s culture.”
Wagner called for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to request the resignations of the two board members, Robert Lewis and Jan Rea, and to determine if any other board members have financial ties to firms with which the Authority does business. Fitzgerald appoints all nine members of the Authority board.
She said the boards of the other County-related authorities, including ALCOSAN, the Port Authority, and the Sports and Exhibition Authority should come under the same scrutiny.
Wagner renewed calls for County ethics disclosures to be improved so that filers would have to definitively state all businesses with which they are affiliated which have done or sought to do business with the County or an authority. In 2015, Wagner revealed that a firm owned by Lewis was under contract with the Airport even as Lewis served on its board.
With the Airport modernization–one of the biggest building projects in the region’s history–to begin next year, Wagner said extra measures must be taken to prevent self-dealing and ‘pay to play.’
“We cannot risk the execution of a project of huge importance to our region being compromised by potential conflicts, real or perceived,” she said.
The Tribune-Review also reported that Lewis failed to submit a legally required financial disclosure form for 2017 which was due May 1.
“When board members cannot be bothered to meet the extremely low bar for public disclosure that current law requires, it is clear that a higher standard is needed,” Wagner said. “I have called in the past for financial disclosures to be filed prior to County Council voting on board appointments so that potential conflicts of interest may be vetted. Today, someone may serve on a board for over a year without any disclosure of a conflict. By that same token, there must be repercussions put in place if board members fail to make these disclosures.”
Since taking office as Controller in 2012, Wagner has continued to advocate for reforming the secretive workings of the County-related authorities, which spend about as much annually as County government itself. While outdated state laws provide sole authority to independently examine the books of most authorities to the Pennsylvania Attorney General, which does not have an auditing division nor employ auditors, Wagner has called for these agencies to voluntarily open their books to her team of auditors.
“The authorities are significant stewards of public money and perform some of the government functions that are most crucial to our residents’ daily lives. Our citizens must be able to have confidence that these bodies are operating with the public’s interests in mind, not personal interests,” Wagner said.
“As Justice Brandeis wrote, ‘Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.’”