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Will Ben Woods be a comeback kid?

Ex-city councilman who went to prison now ward chairman

Sunday, October 18, 1998

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

At a time when City Council was a colorful, contentious circus, Ben Woods reveled in his role as ringmaster.

As a Pittsburgh councilman in the late 1980s, he shunned his cramped office and took over City Council's conference room.

He once suggested that Councilwoman Michelle Madoff be fined for frequently disrupting council meetings.

And through it all, Woods, who had risen to council president, made no secret of his mayoral ambitions.

But all that came to an end in 1989. After hearing that he accepted nearly $48,000 in bribes from contractors, sometimes in the form of checks, a jury convicted Woods on 17 counts of racketeering, extortion, income tax evasion and conspiracy.

Ben Woods' political career seemed to be over.

He resigned from council and served three years in minimum-security federal prisons in Cambria County and in West Virginia.

He was released from a halfway house on June 4, 1993, and, since then, has slowly rebuilt his life: He started a sheet metal contracting business and, in May, was elected Democratic chairman of the city's 27th Ward -- the position he held when he entered politics in the 1970s.

That has prompted speculation that Woods might be contemplating a run for a higher office.

While those who know Woods agree he's ambitious, no one's quite sure what he'll do next.

"I think Ben is popular," said Ron Kaiser, president of The Kaiser Group, a Strip District advertising agency that does political consulting work and who has known Woods for more than 20 years.

"There's no question that he'd like to get back in there. Ben, I think, genuinely thinks about it, in terms of what he could offer in the political arena.

"Is he a comer?" Kaiser asked. "Is he going to be back on the scene. Who knows?"

Woods isn't talking.

He turned down requests to be interviewed for this article, saying the timing wasn't right.

"I'm the same guy," he said. "I was absent for 40 months."

Neither the law nor his past would stop Woods from returning.

During the three years after his release from prison, Woods was prohibited from holding public office or serving as an officer in a labor union. But that ban, which Senior U.S. District Judge Alan N. Block imposed in Wood's sentence, expired nearly two years ago.

The state election code, however, would prohibit him from running for the state Legislature.

Kaiser said he has no doubt that Woods wants a chance to somehow atone for his misdeeds, to have a shot at redemption.

"I think Ben learned a hard lesson, and I think he wants to demonstrate to people that he learned that lesson," said Mayor Murphy, who has had breakfast several times with Woods since his release.

Woods, 56, still lives on the North Side. These days, there is a Bill Coyne election sign in front of Woods' red brick home on California Avenue.

Brighton Heights residents are accustomed to seeing Woods, a former sheet metal worker, walking on California Avenue at about 6 o'clock nearly every evening.

At first, some of those who know Woods were surprised when he said he wanted to run for ward chairman.

"I told him I thought he was crazy to do that," Murphy said. "You get a lot of responsibility. You don't have a lot of authority."

But Woods ran for the spot anyway, defeating Edward Ondek, an Allegheny County employee, by a 15-11 vote among the party committee members of the North Side ward.

Woods began contemplating running for ward leader about the same time he was building his business, Woodsmech Inc.

On Feb. 13, Woods and his partner, Nicholas Lalich, got a $100,700 loan from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.

Joe Gariti, general counsel to the URA, said the agency held a mortgage on the Woodsmech building on Woods Run Avenue and had a security interest in the company's equipment.

In addition, Woods and Lalich assigned life insurance policies to the URA as collateral for the loan.

Since becoming ward chairman, Woods has sought the city's help in cleaning up vacant lots in Brighton Heights.

And he keeps in close contact with the mayor.

"We talk fairly regularly," Murphy said. "Ben has demonstrated to me that he wants to work hard to move Pittsburgh forward, and so we'll work with him."

State Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side, said he, too, was glad his longtime friend had returned and was taking a leadership role in Brighton Heights.

Before he became ward chairman, Citizen Woods was active in the neighborhood.

In 1997, for example, when Brighton Heights residents experienced power outages because of trees interfering with Duquesne Light Co. power lines, Woods called Walko, who in turn tried to work out the problem with Duquesne Light.

Woods also played a role in keeping a local bank in the neighborhood after PNC Bank shuttered its branch.

Still, ward chairmen aren't as powerful as they were when Woods entered politics.

In those days, ward chairmen delivered large blocks of votes to candidates, said Sam Tiglio, chairman of the city Democratic Committee.

They also got jobs for many constituents.

Nowadays, Tiglio said, "We're very limited (in) what we can do to help somebody."

If residents have problems with potholes or sewers, "We might be lucky enough to call the mayor's office and have it repaired," Tiglio said.

"At election time, we can put in the vote and get the candidate elected."

And someday, that candidate might be Ben Woods, Tiglio said.

"I think Ben's qualities are very high," Tiglio said. "I would not be surprised if Ben made an attempt to run for some office."

Even Madoff, the former councilwoman Woods suggested fining for disrupting meetings, wouldn't be surprised if Woods made a return.

It was Madoff, who now lives in Naples, Fla., who touched off the probe by contacting the FBI after receiving a complaint about Woods from a constituent.

Woods could easily return to politics, Madoff said,

As she views it, Pittsburgh has a dearth of strong local candidates for leadership positions.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Ben will rise to City Council ... just because he's there."

But Woods does come with baggage, she said.

"I worked with Ben Woods. I don't think he really knows right from wrong. I think people may come to rue the day that they're promoting him in politics."

The rise and fall of Ben Woods

Here is a look at the highlights and lowlights of Ben Woods' political career:

1976 - Woods and Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri become friends while supporting U.S. Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson for president.

1977 - Woods announces his candidacy for Pittsburgh City Council but runs without the Democratic endorsement and loses.

1979 - Woods runs again for City Council with the Democratic endorsement. He loses to Richard Givens by fewer than 200 votes.

1981 - Woods is sworn in to City Council after defeating Maurice T. "Mossie" Murphy in a special election to fill the seat vacated by William Coyne.

1981 - Woods is reelected to council with 46,771 votes.

1987 - Landscape contractor Louis Bilotta cooperates with the FBI's probe into allegations that Woods took kickbacks from Bilotta and Michael Hartman, owner of Ablebuilt Homes Inc., a Pleasant Hills firm. Woods continues his candidacy for the city controller but loses to Tom Flaherty.

1986-89 - Woods serves first as president of City Council, and later as acting president.

1989 - Woods is indicted and goes on trial in federal court, where a jury convicts him of conspiracy, racketeering, extortion, income tax evasion and filing false income tax returns. Just hours before the jury returns its verdict, Woods resigns from city council.

1990 - U.S. District Judge Alan N. Bloch sentences Ben Woods to eight years in prison for taking nearly $48,000 in bribes from two businessmen who did work for the city of Pittsburgh.

1993 - Wood is released from a halfway house.

1998 - Woods is elected chariman of the 27th Ward.

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