Pittsburgh's ex-chief pleads guilty in federal court

Nate Harper admits to conspiracy, failing to file tax returns; sentencing set Feb. 25

Former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy at a hearing that left a question unanswered.

Who did he conspire with?

Assistant U.S. attorney Robert Cessar said that in June 2008, Mr. Harper told an unnamed police employee to create an account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union, from which eight debit cards would draw. Then in January 2010 he instructed an employee to order creation of two debit cards, tied to a second credit union account.

Attorneys hope to keep 'contrite' Harper out of jail

The attorneys representing Nate Harper described the former Pittsburgh police chief as "contrite" when he appeared in federal court today to plead guilty to charges of conspiracy and failure to file tax returns. (Video by Nate Guidry; 10/18/2013)

Mr. Cessar's description of the charge noted that a conspiracy takes two or more people, joining to knowingly defraud the government. However, nearly seven months after the former chief's indictment, nobody else has been charged or named.

"The grand jury will release that information at the appropriate time," predicted Robert Leight, one of Mr. Harper's defense attorneys. He pointed to Wednesday's events, in which acting police Chief Regina McDonald and Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson went before the grand jury.

Asked why Mr. Harper told subordinates to open unauthorized accounts, Mr. Leight said, "I think the grand jury is investigating that right now."

Mr. Harper, 60, of Stanton Heights, said little other than, "Yes, your honor," at his plea hearing, and afterward declined comment.

He was accused of conspiring to divert $70,628 in public funds paid to the bureau by private entities for the services of off-duty police. Instead of flowing to the city coffers, the money was shunted to the credit union.

Mr. Harper then spent $31,986 on what prosecutors characterized as personal uses, ranging from meals and alcohol to a satellite radio.

Mr. Harper's attorneys said some of the remainder of the diverted money was spent on legitimate police business, including riot shields for the G-20 Summit and expenses relating to the personal vehicle of slain officer Eric Kelly after the April 2009 Stanton Heights shooting.

A TV was purchased for a police station, and some of the meals were for official business, Mr. Leight said.

Mr. Harper also pleaded guilty to four counts of failure to file tax returns.

Mr. Cessar said that from 2008 through 2011, Mr. Harper's income -- including the diverted funds -- ranged from $110,000 to $123,000, and though taxes were withheld from his pay, he shorted the government by $22,427.

Mr. Leight said that Mr. Harper had since resolved the tax issues.

"The evidence was overwhelming, as embarrassing and problematic as that is," said Robert Del Greco, Mr. Harper's other attorney. "He was in a position where he couldn't legitimately defend the charges and so he's accepted responsibility."

Mr. Harper resigned in February, at Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's request, after federal agents met with the mayor.

Mr. Ravenstahl, who picked Mr. Harper to be chief in 2006, earlier this week called the plea date "a dark day for the city and the police bureau."

"It'll be a tough day for him and for all of us," the mayor continued. "I had a lot of respect for his work as a police officer and as a police chief and still do. He obviously made mistakes and he'll pay for those and I think he's prepared to do that."

In a news release, U.S. attorney David Hickton said the case against Mr. Harper "is about greed and the theft of taxpayer money for private gain. Public officials, especially those who serve in law enforcement, have a responsibility to make governmental decisions in the best interests of the citizens, not themselves."

Prosecutors have no obligation to charge every member of a conspiracy, said defense attorney Stanton Levenson.

"There are often a lot of unindicted co-conspirators, and they don't have to name them," Mr. Levenson said. The defendant has the right to know who they are, but Mr. Harper's case will never get to the stage at which such disclosures are made.

"The likelihood is you aren't going to know who the co-conspirators are unless someone else gets charged."

The grand jury that indicted Mr. Harper heard testimony from Sandra Ganster, who oversaw the bureau's personnel and finance office, and from Karen Palmer, an employee who worked there.

In an internal memo obtained earlier this year by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Officer Christie A. Gasiorowski wrote that Ms. Palmer told her Ms. Ganster and her second-in-command, Tamara L. Davis, were taking checks meant to pay for officer moonlighting "and instead are depositing them in a separate account at the Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union."

Ms. Ganster's attorney said that she was operating under Mr. Harper's direction.

No one else has been charged in relation to the diversion.

Ms. Ganster and Ms. Davis remain on administrative leave, as do two other bureau employees with ties to Mr. Harper. None of the four employees has received any recent contact from federal agents, according to attorneys and a spokesperson for them.

Mr. Ravenstahl's attorney couldn't be reached for comment.

Also unnamed is the alleged third conspirator in a scheme that appeared to spur federal interest in city dealings.

Former city systems analyst Christine Kebr, 56, of Castle Shannon, and entrepreneur Art Bedway, 64, of Robinson, admitted to conspiring to steer a contract to outfit city police cars to Alpha Outfitters, an Esplen firm secretly controlled by Mr. Bedway. Ms. Kebr is set to be sentenced Feb. 11 for conspiracy, and Mr. Bedway faces sentencing Nov. 20 for conspiracy, bribery and mail fraud.

Prosecutors said there was a third conspirator but wouldn't provide the name. Mr. Bedway's attorney, Marty Dietz, has said it was Mr. Harper. The former chief was not charged in relation to that contract.

Mr. Harper remains on bond pending sentencing Feb. 25.

Mr. Leight said prosecutors offered Mr. Harper a plea deal to the conspiracy and tax charges, but it included enhancements to sentencing guidelines. The defense team thinks the guidelines will indicate a sentence somewhere in the 10- to 18-month range, and enhancements could increase that. They plan to argue for home detention.

Since the indictment, Mr. Harper has met repeatedly with those prosecutors and federal agents probing the city. Mr. Leight didn't rule out the possibility that the defense team would ask prosecutors to file a motion to reduce the sentence based on extraordinary cooperation.

Mr. Harper's other attorney, Mr. Del Greco, said the former chief "has a sporting chance of not going to jail and not losing his pension. Under most federal indictments, people do not have those opportunities.

"I think Nate's fabric is he is cop, husband, father, grandfather," Mr. Del Greco said. "And so the cop component is gone."


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542. Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438. Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1962. Moriah Balingit contributed. First Published October 18, 2013 8:00 PM


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