By Christiaan Hart-Nibbrig
The Lancaster convention center conflict was waged on several fronts in 2006.
The PKF feasibility study showed that not only were there very serious questions about the project’s viability as designed, but that project opponents had gained traction in staunching its construction.
In addition to the PKF study, ordered by Lancaster County Commissioners Shellenberger and Henderson, the two Commissioners were also challenging the project in court and in the court of public opinion.
In February, the Commissioners petitioned the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, asking it to order the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) to evaluate whether the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Lancaster had complied with the requirements for Act 23 funding.
“I believe the Commonwealth Court should require DCED to do its job and review the documents and transactions it approves,” said Commissioner Molly Henderson.
The two Commissioners also held a series of night-time public meetings outside the city, in the suburbs, to hear from the Lancaster County citizenry on the topic of the $140 million downtown project. The meetings were filled with standing-room only crowds. Person after person waited for their turn at the microphone to tell the Commissioners why they opposed the project.
At one of the meetings, the idea of whether the geographic size of the area in which the hotel room tax was collected should be reduced was mentioned.
But like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, the meetings and the voices of dissent made hardly a sound on the pages of Lancaster Newspapers.
The citizen opposition – and that is what it was at this point — was not an organized campaign. Randy Carney, April Koppenhaver, Robert Field, Ron Harper, Jr. and others critical of the project were not holding organized strategy sessions. They did not have a working budget. No one was paid.
It was Field, on his own time, who discovered the absence of a genuine feasibility study for the project. He also personally subsidized the PKF study in the amount of $65,000. (Of course, whoever sent copies of the earlier studies to Field may have also known.)
But with the study completed, the critics now turned their attention to another aspect of the project: LCCCA spending.
In a May 14, 2006 radio interview, a few days after the PKF report was completed, Field commented:
“I have said that whatever the [PKF] report showed, I would go along with. I would be delighted if it was positive or even lukewarm. But now that it’s negative there’s no way I could support it [the project]. But there’s another aspect here, … and that is how the $17 million has been spent by the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority. I mean, even three of their board members have expressed great concern…”
By 2006, the Stevens & Lee law firm – the firm that wrote the Third Class Counties Convention Center Authorities Act, enabling the hotel room tax — had billed (and been paid by) the LCCCA more than six million dollars.
Every single one of the 228 Stevens & Lee invoices had an absence of any detail regarding the work performed. Each invoice simply read:
“For professional services rendered on behalf of the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority.”
Leading the questioning of the Stevens & Lee invoices were the three county-appointed members of the LCCCA board of directors: Laura Douglas, Deb Hall, and Jack Craver.
Douglas, Hall, and Craver had already established their skepticism of the project by the time they began asking about the attorneys’ fees.
At the June, 2006, LCCCA board meeting, Deb Hall, a former paralegal, tried to introduce a resolution to hire an independent legal auditor to review the Stevens & Lee bills. Chairman Ted Darcus would not allow the item to be discussed, because, he said, Hall had not put the item on the meeting agenda in time.
Darcus refused to place Hall’s resolution on the agenda for the July and August LCCCA board meetings, as well.
After being blocked by chairman Darcus, the three county board members wrote a letter to District Attorney Donald Totaro, asking him to investigate the “Suspicious expenditures of the LCCCA.”
The letter, written by Hall, and signed by all three county-appointed board members, closes:
“I want to emphasize that, at this juncture, the issue is the unwillingness of Chairman Darcus to permit a discussion of the matter, not whether the current procedures are correct. Since Chairman Darcus and the other board members cannot possibly know what questions and constructive suggestions we may have based upon information so far at our disposal, there can be no possible justification for, but only suspicions about, the gagging of our legitimate requests.
“Therefore, we ask that you expand any investigation of billings by Stevens & Lee pertaining to Conestoga View to billings of Stevens & Lee pertaining to the LCCCA and, if no investigation is currently taking place, that you initiate one.”
District Attorney Totaro declined to investigate because, he wrote to Douglas, Craver and Hall, they made no specific charges of criminality. Totaro claimed “the FBI in Harrisburg has looked into this situation, and they have not found any evidence of criminal activity.”
Douglas, in an interview with NewsLanc.com, responded at the time:
“Until Chairman Darcus will permit board discussion of means to verify the legitimacy of the over $6 million in Stevens & Lee billings to date, there is no way to generate specific allegations of criminal misconduct, even if that is the case.
“We have no reason to believe that the FBI has sought and reviewed the Stevens & Lee billings. So I hope that Mr. Totaro is not using the FBI as an excuse for inaction.”
It seemed the entire opposition was stuck in the fog of the Stevens & Lee invoices.
Field analyzed the amounts paid in legal fees to date and concluded that Stevens & Lee would have had to have multiple personnel working full-time on the project to come up with the amounts being charged, which he believed was inconceivable.
Former Lancaster city councilman, Luis Mendoza, appeared at LCCCA board meetings also demanding the full release of the invoices.
In a letter published in the Lancaster New Era, September 16th, 2006, Mendoza wrote:
“As a former Lancaster City councilman, I find it insupportable that Chairman Ted Darcus of the Convention Center Authority would refuse to place on the authority’s agenda the legitimate request for discussion of the propriety of over $6 million of invoices from the law firm of Stevens & Lee.”
Ron Harper, Jr., inimitably, was also calling for the release of the Stevens & Lee bills. Harper appeared at LCCCA meetings with a life-sized cardboard cutout of solicitor (and Stevens & Lee partner) John Espenshade. Harper spoke from the microphone with his arm around “Flat John,” urging ‘him’ to release the bills.
“C’mon,” Harper cooed to the cardboard replica. “You can do it.”
The three-dimensional Espenshade sat, stonefaced, a few feet away.
It was hilarious. Even the dour Darcus had to stifle a smile.
The lack of spending oversight on the LCCCA board even caught the attention of the Pennsylvania office of Common Cause, the ‘good government’ organization.
Barry Kauffman, Executive Director of Common Cause/PA, wrote a letter to then-Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell, urging Rendell to direct the Auditor General to investigate several aspects of the LCCCA, including the Stevens & Lee invoices.
Regarding the legal bills, Common Cause wrote:
“We have been informed that the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority (LCCCA) has paid more than $6 million dollars for ‘professional services,’ despite receiving invoices that are devoid of any itemization whatever. When Board members or the public ask to review itemized time sheets which might explain or justify such large expenditures of public monies, they are ignored.”
Kauffman’s letter merited only a single sentence in a Lancaster Newspapers article, buried in the fifteenth paragraph in an article on another subject.
What the dissident LCCCA board members and others did not know at the time, but subsequently learned, was that the Stevens & Lee law firm did have personnel working full-time on the project, and were its de facto developers and managers.
The time and energy opponents to the convention center project devoted to the Stevens & Lee invoices was misplaced. During this period, the year 2006, important contracts were being drafted between the LCCCA and Penn Square Partners, and between the LCCCA and the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Lancaster, and these agreements were being ratified without scrutiny.
Key covenants concerning bond financing; architectural design; shared space between the hotel and convention center; naming rights; permit waivers; consultant contracts; demolition of historic property and others were rammed through by Darcus with the votes of the other three city appointees over the pleas for more time to review by the county appointed minority.
Thereafter, the agreements were overlooked as the opposition focused its limited resources on the Stevens & Lee invoices.
Field, with a well-earned reputation for unsparing and often harsh criticism of others, is equally blunt with self-appraisal.
He said after the project was built:
“The big mistake was that we did not voice objections at the very next meeting after having thoroughly reviewed the one-sided agreements. Instead, we took the Stevens & Lee invoices bait.
“The Stevens & Lee invoices issue seemed to suggest ongoing corruption, as did the almost million dollars paid to [consultant] Daniel Logan for services that remain obscure. It took until the end of litigation and the obtaining of the data behind the invoices before we recognized that Stevens & Lee with other high priced consultants were actually running the show on a daily basis. It helped explain why Ted Darcus and David Hixson would not allow discussions at the meetings. They were but bystanders!”
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