Was Pittsburgh Hoodwinked?

If it were up to you, would you hire the permanent housing authority maintenance staff to mow trim, mulch and remove debris from the city landscapes, or a former agency employee who quit after his trouble with the law was made known publicly? They made the latter choice in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Housing Authority Board of the city of Pittsburgh voted to hire Pittsburgh Property Maintenance to handle its landscaping, replacing the long-standing practice of having housing authority maintenance staff. The $1.6 million contract, to improve the landscape of public housing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was awarded to the former employee, Gabriel S. Fontana.

Fontana is a former Housing Authority employee who left the agency ten years ago, after a local paper published a story detailing his past federal convictions for cocaine dealing.

The Housing Authority denies that Fontana was attached to the project when it hired the company to do the job. Housing Authority procurement director Kim Detrick said the bidding process was fair and open. "Our contract is with Pittsburgh Property Maintenance, not with Fontana. Fontana is on nothing that is in the contract."

Pittsburgh Property Maintenance was formally created just nine days before it first bid on the job. The majority partner is Phillip Alan Scott. Scott’s stepson and sometime business associate is Fontana. Documents indicated that Fontana, not Scott, signed up to receive updates and online access to bidding materials from the authority during the bidding process.

The kicker about the contract is that the firm would hire around ten housing authority residents and train them in landscaping. It's unclear whether the company has any track record in training.

Laborers Local 373, which represents around 34 authority employees who do maintenance work and used to cut the grass, has filed a grievance regarding the contract, which is going to arbitration."I believe it is the work of the laborers at the Housing Authority of the city of Pittsburgh to cut the grass," said William Brooks, business manager for Local 373 and also the president of the Pittsburgh Regional Building and Construction Trades Council.

Pittsburgh Property Maintenance took over the landscaping and was paid $77,835 last year, just a fraction of the roughly $500,000 it is slated to get for a full lawn care season.