After the term of Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein concluded on the county sewer board, political allies took action that could have kept him there, even though he said he was “fine” with moving on.
“I was proud of my work on there for 10 years in cleaning up the rivers,” he told the Union Progress on Thursday. “My turn was up, and I didn’t lobby [the county executive] to stay back on or anything like that.”
County Council, in an unusual admonishment of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, voted last March to reject both Weinstein’s replacement as well as the reappointment of a long-serving board member. The vote meant Weinstein could continue serving in the interim, though Fitzgerald’s second pick received approval at the following meeting.
Around the same time as the vote, a councilor allegedly approached a state legislator with a potential deal to head off a primary challenge she was facing while also getting Weinstein back on the sewer board, after having lunch with him and another local politician.
Fitzgerald, who will soon depart office after completing his third and final term as county executive, told the Union Progress that several Allegheny County Sanitary Authority board members and employees told him they had been contacted by the FBI in late 2021 regarding Weinstein’s time there with potential concerns around contracts. He decided at that point not to renominate Weinstein to the board.
Sylvia Wilson, who has served on the Alcosan board since 2000 and is currently the chair, confirmed to the Union Progress that the FBI has spoken with her. She declined to say when she talked with the FBI or provide any additional information regarding her contact with the agency.
Weinstein denied any wrongdoing during his time as an Alcosan board member and said federal authorities haven’t reached out to him.
“The federal government has always been looking at all authorities — not just Alcosan, every authority, every entity — as they should, to make sure everything is done right,” he said.
Alcosan and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania declined to comment, and an FBI spokesperson said she couldn’t confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
In an interview while walking around the county courthouse, Weinstein said he thought it was politically motivated for people who have been contacted by the FBI to speak with the media. He has not been charged with any wrongdoing or identified publicly as the subject of an investigation.
Weinstein, a Democrat who has served as county treasurer since 1999, is now one of seven candidates competing in the May 16 primary for county executive. He is a presumed frontrunner, winning the county party committee’s endorsement earlier this month, and has raised significantly more in campaign contributions than his competitors.
“It’s all politically based, by people that are very, very desperate in their campaign,” he said. “I have a fantastic amount of support all over this county, and clearly people were worried, for some reason, that they don’t want me to win.”
Alcosan contracts are approved by a professional services committee, a trio of Alcosan board members who recommend to the full board whether to approve a given bid. Weinstein was once a member of the committee.
County Controller Corey O’Connor, who chaired the Alcosan board during 2020 and 2021, said Weinstein approached him about rejoining the committee. O’Connor turned down the request, telling the Union Progress that he thought the committee was “moving in the right direction” and “saw no reason to agree to a change.”
Fitzgerald decided to replace Weinstein on the Alcosan board with state Rep. Nick Pisciottano, D-West Mifflin. He also renominated two sitting board members, Wilson and former state Rep. Harry Readshaw.
The three Alcosan nominations seemed to be on track for approval, given that they got the nod from County Council’s appointment review committee.
But several councilors suddenly flipped and voted against the nominees when it came time for the final vote on March 22, 2022. Among those to change their vote was Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, D-Plum, who chairs the appointment review committee.
Council ultimately sank the Pisciottano and Wilson nominations in an 8-7 vote, while Readshaw got unanimous approval — a move that allowed Weinstein to temporarily continue serving on the board. The councilors to vote against the nominations were Naccarati-Chapkis, Olivia Bennett, Jack Betkowski, Pat Catena, Bethany Hallam, John Palmiere, Bob Palmosina and Anita Prizio.
The same eight councilors, with the addition of their colleague Paul Klein, defeated another nomination the same day: that of William Stickman III to the Jail Oversight Board. Hallam has used her position on that board to advocate for criminal justice reform and was against the longtime corrections industry official joining the board.
Hallam helped bring together the coalition of eight councilors, telling the Union Progress that “whatever I need to do to protect people in the jail, that’s what we’re going to do.”
“We made a compromise, strategic decision to vote down the Alcosan board appointments in exchange for folks voting down the Jail Oversight Board appointment,” she said.
Hallam said a primary concern over Pisciottano’s nomination was that he doesn’t live within the Alcosan service territory. His residence in West Mifflin is a few streets beyond the boundary, and a section of his state House district is served by the authority.
None of the other councilors who voted down the Pisciottano, Wilson and Stickman nominations responded to a request for comment.
In the days leading up to the nomination votes, Weinstein and his father, Mel, the longtime treasurer of Kennedy, had worked to collect petition signatures for Hallam so she would appear on the ballot for a seat on the Democratic State Committee. A review by the Union Progress found the two Weinsteins collected about a third of Hallam’s petition signatures, and she later won the committee seat.
Hallam said she didn’t “think there was ever a conversation” with the Weinsteins regarding their collecting petition signatures for her. She said she has known John Weinstein since her first run for public office, while adding, “I don’t know that I’d say [we’re] friends or allies.”
“I just hand out petitions anytime I’m running to whoever is offering to help get signatures,” she said. “I’ll take them from anybody.”
Fitzgerald said he thinks Weinstein and Hallam could have been “connected together” on the council votes, but Weinstein said he never spoke with any councilors about them. Hallam’s boyfriend, George Nahay, began working for Alcosan in late 2021, and Fitzgerald said he thinks Weinstein might have pressed for Nahay’s employment there as a favor to Hallam.
Hallam said her boyfriend applied to work at Alcosan “probably a year” before getting hired, noting the authority’s lengthy hiring process, which includes a test.
“He was just going through it like a normal person,” she said. “I didn’t even have him put me down as a reference or anything, because I didn’t want to influence it.”
An Alcosan spokesperson declined to comment. Weinstein said he didn’t write a letter in support of Nahay, adding that “board members don’t do the hiring.”
Pisciottano told the Union Progress that Fitzgerald approached him about the board position, and he was eager to put his skills as an accountant and auditor to use. He said it was “definitely surprising” for council to vote him down, and no councilors had raised concerns about his nomination.
“I didn’t appreciate being rejected like that publicly without a chance to answer any kind of questions or concerns that there may have been by councilmembers,” he said. “I just think that there was a key piece of transparency missing from this whole process.”
Pisciottano’s nomination was ultimately abandoned by Fitzgerald. He picked Klein — a county councilor who represents parts of Pittsburgh’s East End and is running for reelection this year — as a possible consensus candidate to fill Weinstein’s seat.
Klein’s nomination sailed through council, receiving a 15-0 vote.
One potential avenue for Weinstein to rejoin the Alcosan board was discussed last spring at Girasole, an Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood, according to Hallam.
At the time, state Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-North Side, was facing both a redrawn district and a challenge in the Democratic primary from businessman Nick Mastros.
He received the endorsement of the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council and quickly raised tens of thousands of dollars from some of Weinstein’s biggest donors, including political committees for Steamfitters Local 449 and the Laborers’ District Council of Western Pennsylvania. These transactions appear on the donors’ campaign finance reports but aren’t listed by Mastros.
Weinstein said he didn’t do anything to help Mastros, adding, “Nick’s a friend, but it’s not my district.”
Hallam joined Weinstein and city councilor Bobby Wilson for the lunch at Girasole, and what was discussed depends on who you talk to.
Weinstein said he never brought up the fact that Kinkead holds an Alcosan board seat, and “we never discussed that at detail.”
“I think [Hallam] was asking me a question about, something about sewer rates, if I recall,” he said. “I mean it’s so long ago, I honestly don’t remember.”
Wilson said a potential deal for Kinkead’s Alcosan board seat didn’t come up during lunch.
“There was nothing of the sort discussed,” he said.
But Hallam said Weinstein mentioned “he wanted to be on the Alcosan board,” and she later had conversations on April 11, 2022, both with Kinkead and Schuyler Sheaffer, a local political consultant who was running Kinkead’s reelection campaign.
According to Sheaffer and Kinkead, Hallam said there could be a way to get rid of the headache of facing a primary challenger. The catch was Kinkead would have to resign from her city-appointed seat on the Alcosan board and make way for Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey to appoint Weinstein in her stead.
Hallam said she hadn’t interpreted what she conveyed to Sheaffer and Kinkead as a potential deal to be struck.
“I don’t think it was necessarily, like, in exchange for it — that’s at least not how I took it or how I presented it,” she said. “I was mainly reporting back to them about, ‘Here’s how our lunch went,’ and that’s what I said.”
Kinkead told the Union Progress that she approached Efrem Grail, who leads the law firm where she works, and asked for advice. She eventually spoke with Hallam and declined the offer.
“I really felt like I had stumbled into an episode of ‘The Sopranos,’” Kinkead said. “It’s things that you hear about where you’re like, ‘Oh that doesn’t happen, that’s just what you see on TV, these kinds of things don’t get offered.’ And then it did, and I was like, ‘I don’t even really know how to react to this.’”
Sam DeMarco III, who chairs the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, called Friday for a “close examination” of what may have happened.
Kinkead sent an unusual memo to both her campaign and state office staff, dated April 27, 2022, describing laws governing conduct of elected officials. She wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Union Progress, that “minimal observance of the laws governing public officials and campaigns is not enough,” and her team “must act with the highest level of ethics and honesty at all times.”
“I did not run for office — and I do not serve as a legislator — to take part in ‘back room’ political deals,” she wrote. “None of you would work for me or vote for me if I did. That is not the person our voters elected.”
Mastros did not respond to a request for comment. A Gainey spokesperson told WESA-FM that the mayor would “never consider” filling one of the three seats designated for Pittsburgh with someone who lived outside the city.
Kinkead ended up beating Mastros by 31 percentage points in last year’s primary. She remained on the Alcosan board and is now the board secretary.
Jon, a copy editor and reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and working as a co-editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Reach him at email@example.com.