County Councilor with ties to UPMC says she did not try to obstruct hearing on company’s tax-exempt status

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During Wednesday night's pubic hearing regarding the tax-exempt status of UPMC, Republican Allegheny County Councilor Heather Heidelbaugh interjected twice — once because she wanted to question executives from UPMC and once because she says UPMC employees talking about ongoing unionization efforts were going "off-topic."

But each time, Heidelbaugh was met with jeers and comments from the nearly 200 spectators in attendance because aside from being a a county councilor, Heidelbaugh serves as outside counsel for UPMC.

"She works for UPMC!" shouted at least one audience member as Heidelbaugh spoke.

Earlier today, Heidelbaugh told City Paper that she was not trying to obstruct Wednesday night’s public hearing, nor does she believe that her participation in the hearing was a conflict of interest because she serves as outside legal counsel for the regional healthcare giant.

The hearing was called by Allegheny County Council to let citizens air their grievances regarding UPMC’s status as a tax-exempt non-profit charity. But that wasn’t the only topic of conversation. More than 90 people signed up to speak — five on behalf of UPMC — and a majority of those were employees of the healthcare chain who are trying to unionize under the flag of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

While many of the comments did focus on UPMC’s tax-exempt status, a great many also talked about working conditions at UPMC including low wages, unaffordable benefits and the need by many UPMC employees to also be on public assistance to support their families.

Heidelbaugh first interjected following public comments from UPMC officials by asking council President John DeFazio, who also chaired the hearing, if she could ask questions of UPMC. DeFazio told her council’s only function at the hearing was to listen to the public.

Then after several more speakers, including those who talked about the need to unionize at UPMC, Heidelbaugh told DeFazio that the hearing wasn’t called to discuss whether or not there should be unions at UPMC, but to hear public comments about UPMC’s tax-exempt status.

DeFazio took issue with Heidelbaugh and said the council did not “censor” people’s comments and would allow them to continue. He also pointed out Heidelbaugh’s ties to UPMC and she in turn called out the fact that DeFazio has long been employed by a union — United Steelworkers.

Heidelbaugh was heckled by members of the audience as she asked her questions and when she left about 90 minutes in to the three-hour hearing. Some in attendance questioned whether Heidelbaugh’s participation was in itself a conflict of interest given her connection to UPMC. They booed her and tried to shout her down when she spoke. And when she left, the crowd heckled her and sent her off with choruses of "Bye Heather!" (To be fair, Heidelbaugh far outlasted UPMC’s officials who left the hearing to a large chorus of boos after just the fourth speaker).

Heidelbaugh told City Paper that she was not trying to disrupt the process. "I wasn’t trying to be an obstructionist; I said two things," Heidelbaugh said. "I wanted to ask UPMC some questions and I wanted people to stay on topic."

She said "unionization efforts" at UPMC were not on topic at a hearing about UPMC’s tax-exempt status.

Heidelbaugh also said her attendance and participation in Wednesday’s hearing was not a conflict of interest because no vote was taken. Because Allegheny County Council is a part-time "citizen legislature," all county councilors have outside jobs and interests. For example, Heidelbaugh says she was not present and did not vote on whether or not to hold a public hearing on the UPMC issue.

But the process of challenging UPMC’s tax-exempt status will be a long one that could eventually lead to a vote. Heidelbaugh didn’t directly answer if she would vote on such a matter but instead she said that she wished that council members "would not vote on a particular matter" that directly affects them.

She pointed to the recent vote on the county budget by members of council who work for or are connected to the Community College of Allegheny County, which receives funding directly from the county. Councilor Bill Robinson, for example, serves on CCAC’s board of trustees, Councilor Barbara Daly Danko is an adjunct professor at CCAC and Councilor Chuck Martoni serves as president of CCAC’s Boyce Campus.

"These are people who collect a paycheck from CCAC," Heidelbaugh says. "I’m not at all tied to the county’s budget."

According to the Allegheny County ethics code, a conflict of interest is defined as:

"Use by a public official or public employee of the authority of his office or employment or any confidential information received through his or her holding public office or employment for the benefit of himself or herself, a member of his or her immediate family or a business or organization with which he/she or a member of his or her immediate family is associated. The term does not include an action having a de minimis economic impact or which affects to the same degree a class consisting of the general public or a subclass consisting of an industry, occupation or other group which includes the public official or public employee, a member of his immediate family or a business with which he/she or a member of his immediate family is associated."

Additionally, the ethics code states:

"No Covered Person shall attempt to influence the course of proposed County Council legislation in which he/she, or a family member or business associate has a present or potential conflict of interest or private interest, direct or indirect."

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