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Pittsburgh ICA board dumping executive director

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Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Mt. Washington resident Harry Liller was the only one to comment during The Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority for Cities of the Second Class at the City-County Building, Friday, April 15, 2016.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Former Pittsburgh Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA) executive director Henry Sciortino of West Chester.
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Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
BJ Leber leads discussion during The Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority for Cities of the Second Class at the City-County Building, Friday, April 15, 2016.
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Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
BJ Leber leads discussion during The Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority for Cities of the Second Class at the City-County Building, Friday, April 15, 2016.

Henry V. Sciortino, the man who oversaw more than a decade of budget battles between state fiscal overseers and Pittsburgh officials, is losing his contract with a board that vows to clean up the watchdog agency.

The Pittsburgh Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority board unanimously voted at a special meeting Friday to let Sciortino’s month-to-month work contract expire, effectively terminating his employment. His last day is May 31. The board unanimously agreed to find an interim replacement, but named no one to the post.

The action occurs in the wake of a Tribune-Review investigative series detailing what appears to be shoddy record keeping at the agency and Sciortino’s personal bankruptcy.

The only employee at the ICA since former Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Philadelphia, named him executive director in 2004, Sciortino, 67, led the agency through a tumultuous era of often rancorous tilts with city officials in an ongoing effort to erase $1 billion in municipal debt and fully fund the pension and health care plans for city retirees.

Sciortino, who has been undergoing medical treatment near his West Chester home, was not present at the meeting in council chambers at the City-County Building and did not return messages seeking comment. White collar criminal defense attorney Tom Farrell said that he is representing Sciortino. When asked if he would like to say something positive about Sciortino’s 11-year tenure at ICA, he said that he had “a lot of nice things to say about him, but not to you.”

Reading from a prepared statement and refusing to discuss the decision with reporters, newly elected ICA board Chairwoman BJ Leber promised reforms.

“There is a lot of interest in the ICA, as well there should be,” she said. “It is important to the future of the city and involves a great deal of money. It is unfortunate, but necessary, that all of us are spending so much time and energy on the past. It is, however, a new day.

“The newly configured ICA board is looking forward to being responsive to efforts and requests from various agencies and offices to work with us to understand the ICA’s past. We will work with the Legislature, the Governor’s Office and the Mayor’s Office to strengthen the city’s finances. I pledge that from here on out, the ICA will be a transparent operation and all decisions and procedures will be based on good government principles.”

On March 28, a slate of three new Democratic appointees to the five-member voting panel reconfigured the board, electing one of their own, Leber, the chairwoman.

A Trib investigative series in late March revealed Sciortino’s ICA could not produce 92 percent of invoices tied to agency spending between 2010 and early 2016, with much of the spent funds linked to no-bid contracts.

The Trib reported that Sciortino sought personal federal bankruptcy protection between 2010 and 2011 after being accused in Philadelphia Common Pleas court filings of trying to hide hundreds of thousands of dollars from creditors in a string of sham companies run out of his home.

The bulk of the ICA’s board members since 2010 told the Trib that they were not informed about Sciortino’s bankruptcy or the allegations about his companies. The newspaper’s stories triggered ongoing probes by the state Auditor General, State Ethics Commission, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, FBI and the U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, and Sen. Jay Costa Jr, D-Forest Hills, led a rising chorus of calls in Harrisburg for Sciortino’s removal.

Both lawmakers have drafted changes to the 2004 legislation sponsored by state Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, that created the ICA, adding what they believe are fixes that will shore up questionable record keeping at the agency and make it more accountable to the taxpayers who fund its annual appropriation of about $230,000.

“It was the right decision,” said Costa of the decision to end Sciortino’s contract.

Although Costa, the Senate minority leader, told the Trib he favors ending the ICA, he said now is not the time to do it: “The last thing that we want is to be seen as trying to sweep all of this under the carpet, which is how people would interpret it if we eliminated the ICA now. We’re committed to transparency here, which means that this must be done in the open for all citizens to see.”

More than 80 percent of the agency’s annual spending has gone to pay Sciortino’s salary and benefits. According to the work agreement ICA and Sciortino inked in 2014, he is paid $12,000 per month in wages.

The contract does not spell out his benefits, and audited figures for his entire compensation package have not been updated since mid-2014.

His peak year for compensation likely was in 2012, when he received $305,401, making him one of the state’s highest paid employees.

ICA board members say part of that steep figure was because of an agency policy that allowed Sciortino to sell back his annual vacation days, a practice the board has discontinued at the one-employee agency.

ICA works alongside a similar state body organized under Act 47 authority to scrutinize Pittsburgh’s annual budgets. Unlike the Act 47 overseers, ICA’s board is able to withhold Rivers Casino gambling revenue earmarked for Pittsburgh’s coffers.

The city filed a lawsuit in July seeking release of what soon will rise to $20 million in gambling funds, litigation that helped to drain ICA’s bank account. With Sciortino gone, the ICA board might have to dip into the gambling revenues owed to Pittsburgh to pay their ex-director’s severance package and the legal costs spent on his dismissal.

On Wednesday, the Trib learned that the ICA records might be in even worse disarray than originally imagined.

Downtown public relations firm Veritas Communications received nearly $135,000 in ICA business from 2010 through early 2016, but the company’s few surviving invoices found by ICA did not add up. For example, six Veritas invoices for early 2015 seemed to indicate an ICA math error that paid the firm $1,203 more than it charged. Last week, Veritas informed the Trib that ICA likely had provided the newspaper with uncorrected, “voided” receipts.

Corrected Veritas records reveal a $1,203 credit that made up the difference, showing that the firm was reimbursed accurately. ICA attorneys are investigating.

Carl Prine is a reporter with the Tribune-Review investigations team.

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