- Associated Press - Thursday, October 16, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The Allegheny County district attorney’s office has gotten search warrants for the bank records of a debt-ridden cultural center which was charged last week with stealing more than $30,000 in wages and benefits owed to a stagehand’s union.

District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. contends the August Wilson Center for African American Culture was paid for the work through rental fees, but never relayed the funds to the union.

The warrants obtained Wednesday come as a coalition of local foundations hopes to close next week on an $8.85 million deal to buy the center, keep it open and avoid a Dollar Bank mortgage foreclosure.

But that deal could be endangered if Zappala’s office asks the county judge overseeing that deal to freeze the center’s assets during the ongoing criminal investigation.

The 5-year-old center is named for the late, black Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Pittsburgh native. But it’s been plagued by financial and attendance problems.

Judith Fitzgerald, a former bankruptcy judge acting as the court-appointed receiver of the center, said she would have turned over the bank records if asked. But Zappala spokesman Mike Manko said it’s standard procedure to get search warrants because banks records are governed by privacy and other laws “and can’t just be given out.”

The theft charges filed last week are against the center itself. It’s not clear whether Zappala might eventually try to charge officials who were running the center, too.

The sale of the center has been a contentious issue with the city’s black community.

A New York developer, 980 Liberty Partners, had bid $9.5 million for a 10-story hotel project that would have called for space-sharing and revenue-generating efforts with the center.

But Allegheny County Judge Lawrence O’Toole instead approved the less lucrative deal backed by the city, county and several charitable foundations, which also had the backing of black community leaders, to buy the center outright and to keep it under control of a local nonprofit.

The Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority helped coordinate that deal, and argued the sale to a private developer would violate deed covenants requiring the building be used exclusively as a black cultural center.

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