The story of start-up company Gravity Web Media, Greene County Industrial Developments Inc. and $500,000 in taxpayer money is a case study in how government is not supposed to work.
Key players in this tale were James H. Rossell III, founder of Gravity Media, and Donald Chappel, executive director of the economic development nonprofit. Parts also were played by former staff members of state Rep. William H. DeWeese, who is now facing charges in the Bonusgate scandal, but how big a role they had is hard to tell.
The scene was Mr. DeWeese's hometown of Waynesburg, at the EverGreene Technology Park, where Mr. Chappel was looking for tenants back in 2006 when Mr. Rossell was looking to expand his Internet firm, now defunct but then located in Pittsburgh.
The plot device that moved this story forward was a $500,000 state economic development grant, but the tale got pretty tangled and taxpayers are stuck holding the strings.
Mr. Chappel wanted to woo firms to Waynesburg's technology park, and Mr. Rossell had a $470,000 strategic plan for Gravity Web. The fact that he didn't have the MBA from the University of Pittsburgh that he claimed and was behind in both his mortgage and child support payments didn't come up. And Gravity was a for-profit firm even though such grants were restricted to use by nonprofit organizations. Somehow, none of that mattered.
Even though Greene County Industrial's grant application on behalf of Gravity was rejected by the state Department of Community and Economic Development, the agency submitted a second application without mentioning the involvement of the for-profit firm. When that grant came through, Greene County Industrial made a side deal to pass the money on to Gravity. The industrial agency eventually returned half of the money to the state, but Mr. Chappel won't say how much he gave Gravity Web and DCED hasn't pushed very hard for complete answers. Despite promising a "fine-toothed comb" review when Post-Gazette reporter Jonathan Silver raised questions, the department concluded that taxpayers should just kiss off about $84,000, the difference between what it says it paid out and the sums Mr. Chappel accounted for.
The DCED's investigation cannot be the end of this matter. Auditor General Jack Wagner's office should conduct a real audit. State Attorney General Tom Corbett's office should look into all of the permutations that went into this grant, if it isn't already doing so.
Somebody needs to figure out who crafted this screenplay and why.