Conflict of interest concerns raised over Pittsburgh councilman’s UPMC deal

August 8, 2018

Pittsburgh City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle

A Pittsburgh activist vowed Thursday to file an ethics complaint against City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle over a deal Lavelle reached with UPMC in the days leading up to council’s approval of the hospital giant’s plans for an expansion of its Mercy Hospital in Uptown.

Mel Packer of Point Breeze said Lavelle had a clear conflict of interest because his wife, Rachel Riley-Lavelle, is a member of the UPMC Mercy board of directors.

Lavelle has disputed that his wife’s seat on the board presents a conflict of interest.

Council, including Lavelle, on Tuesday signed off on UPMC’s plans for a $400 million vision and rehabilitation hospital on the Mercy campus. Local activists, including Packer, objected to the plan, saying they first wanted UPMC to agree to a list of demands, including collective bargaining for employees.

“It’s just a very clear case of conflict of interest,” Packer said. “I’m definitely going to file a complaint. Any moral or ethical political official, who sits down with a corporation and his wife sits on the board of that corporation, should not be doing that. He should have recused himself.”

Lavelle negotiated an agreement with UPMC in which the health care system promised to provide an addiction clinic, mental health services, minority job opportunities and other services as part of the Mercy expansion. The agreement was released one day before Tuesday’s vote.

Lavelle did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday. He addressed Packer’s accusation made during a prolonged council meeting Tuesday.

Lavelle confirmed his wife sits on the UPMC Mercy board, but said it is “distinct and different” from the UPMC board of directors. He said she receives no compensation, that UPMC appointed her to represent the community and that she signs an annual conflict-of-interest policy.

“For me there actually is no conflict there,” Lavelle said.

State ethics law prohibits public officials from using their offices to benefit themselves or immediate family members, or businesses in which they are involved. Pittsburgh has a similar regulation prohibiting officials from exerting influence over property or a business in which they or direct family members are involved.

A main difference is that the city’s rules do not specifically include a public official’s spouse. A spouse is not considered a direct family member under city regulations.

Robert P. Caruso, executive director Pennsylvania Ethics Commission, would not comment specifically about Lavelle but said the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court has ruled that nonprofits such as UPMC constitute a business.

“In conflict of interest you have to prove a gain, that there would be some type of a benefit as a result of a public official’s action,” he said. “It’s not restricted to just the public official’s family member getting paid for it. If they serve on a board somewhere, and if that entity gets a benefit as a result of the public official’s action, that could still be a conflict of interest.”

Packer said he has yet to decide whether he would file a complaint with the state, city or both. He said he is in the process of researching the rules of both before filing.

“That’s what’s taken the time, to find out what is the proper way to do it,” he said. “We don’t want it to be overturned by a technicality.”

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