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SEIU Healthcare union asked about influence on Gainey administration

SEIU Healthcare union asked about influence on Gainey administration
SEIU Healthcare union asked about influence on Gainey administration 04:45

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Does the SEIU Healthcare union exert too much influence on the administration of Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey? They chaired his election campaign, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions and have taken key positions on his staff. SEIU has enlisted the mayor in its campaign to unionize UPMC.

KDKA-TV investigator Andy Sheehan found the union's political director supplied the mayor talking points in the city's negotiations with the health care system.

Is he the man behind the curtain? If you voted for Ed Gainey to be mayor, you may have never heard of Silas Russell but he and SEIU Healthcare have a big voice in the mayor's administration, orchestrating a campaign against UPMC in hopes of unionizing its employees, including a roundtable Monday attended by the mayor.

"Quality health care begins when the people that are doing the job every single day feel like they're appreciated and rewarded for the work that they put in," Gainey said. 

Russell, the political director of SEIU Healthcare, served as co-chair of the mayor's election campaign, co-chaired his transition committee and his union contributed $350,000 in so-called "independent expenditures" to elect the mayor -- more than all other contributions combined.

Sheehan: "You've given $350,000 to the mayor. Do you believe this union has undue influence on the administration?"

Russell: "Nobody gave $350,000 to the mayor."

Sheehan: "There were $350,000 independent expenditures that were contributed by SEIU Healthcare to his campaign."

Russell: "We are here today on International Workers' Day to talk about the fact that our health care workers need support, need staffing, need a voice."

The city has strict campaign finance rules, limiting contributions to $5,000. But there are no limits on committees that make so-called "independent expenditures" as long as there is no coordination with a candidate's campaign. SEIU contributed the $350,000 even though Russell and Lisa Frank, the former SEIU vice president, served as co-chairs of Gainey for Mayor. 

KDKA-TV's Andy Sheehan questioned Russell on whether this violates campaign finance laws.

Russell: "What's the question?"

Sheehan: "The question is how could you not coordinate if you two were the co-chairs of the campaign and you're the political director of SEIU Healthcare? ... Did you not coordinate that campaign activity? How could you not?"

Russell: "No, there are strict walls between independent expenditures as a standard practice and anybody who communicates or works with candidates on the coordinated side of the campaign."

But did that financial support buy influence? When Gainey took office, he appointed Lisa Frank his chief administrative officer. And Maria Montaño, the former SEIU Healthcare communications director, as his press secretary. And according to emails obtained by KDKA-TV, Russell supplied talking points to the mayor prior to his meeting with UPMC CEO Leslie Davis -- demanding a union or saying the city would have no relationship with UPMC.

Negotiations have broken down, the mayor refuses to attend UPMC events and the city even turned down a partnership with UPMC to teach city employees CPR, but the mayor says he makes his own policy decisions.

"Listen, everybody gets donations. If you look at my opponents, they got a lot too, I'm sure you checked that out too, correct?" Gainey said. "So at the end of the day, we know that that's just part of campaigning. But we make our own decisions -- let me finish -- we make our own decisions and we do it the correct way."

Sheehan: "I'm questioning hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions from unnamed people who give talking points to the mayor in discussions with the largest employer in the city."

Russell: "We are here today, Andy, to talk about the fact that we have a health care worker crisis."

The Gainey administration recently tried to appoint Silas Russell to the city Planning Commission. But after KDKA-TV's reports, Council President Theresa Kail-Smith has put that appointment on hold. She said she has referred the matter to the State Ethics Commission for an opinion. 

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