A board's decision to forfeit Nate Harper's pension drew a rebuke Friday from one of the former Pittsburgh police chief's attorneys, who said he was promised a month to prepare a defense and then "double-crossed."
Samuel C. Stretton, a Philadelphia attorney representing Mr. Harper, said he asked the Policemen's Relief and Pension Fund staff for time to research whether the former chief's guilty plea to conspiracy should prompt forfeiture of the $5,260-a-month payment. He claimed that fund secretary-treasurer Paul Dugan said that he "doesn't see any problem" with a delay, and that the matter could be heard by the board on Jan. 9.
But on Thursday, even after its solicitor told the Post-Gazette the decision would be postponed, the board voted to forfeit the former chief's pension. Solicitor James Wymard said the vote was unanimous. Mr. Stretton learned of the vote when a reporter called Friday.
"You can't tell someone there's no hearing, and then have the hearing without them," said Mr. Stretton. Had he known a vote would be taken, he said, "I would've been there."
"I have the right to present evidence of some sort or make argument."
Mr. Dugan could not be reached for comment.
"The board was going to initially put it back another month," Mr. Wymard said. Later, though, members concluded that delay would not alter their decision.
The board decided it had an obligation to return money Mr. Harper paid into the fund and would decide after his Feb. 25 sentencing whether to withhold some of that to cover restitution.
The board of active police and retirees voted previously to suspend Mr. Harper's pension, following his Oct. 18 guilty plea to conspiracy and failure to file tax returns. Mr. Stretton said that because payments were suspended, the fund would not have been harmed by a delay.
The former chief has confirmed in court that he conspired to divert $70,628 in public funds paid to the bureau by private entities for the services of off-duty police, then spent $31,986 on items including meals, alcohol and a satellite radio.
Unlike private pensions, the retirement benefit of public servants can be rescinded if they commit certain crimes -- including theft from a government program but not including conspiracy or tax charges.
Mr. Wymard said conspiracy to commit theft appears to be, in the eyes of pension law, the same as theft.
"The [Commonwealth] court ruled that attempt and conspiracy both involve the same [thought process] as the underlying substantive crime," Mr. Wymard said. "That logically follows that they should also be subject to the same civil consequences."
Loss of pension "is so grossly excessive in terms of the conduct itself, in terms of the length in years of the pension, the public service involved," Mr. Stretton countered.
Mr. Wymard said that during his 36-year career, Mr. Harper paid roughly $133,000 into the fund. He said that from his February resignation to his October guilty plea, Mr. Harper received roughly $40,000 in benefits, which would be subtracted from any repayment due.
If U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon orders restitution equal to the amount Mr. Harper spent, he would be due repayment of about $60,000, which is equivalent to a year's worth of benefit.
Mr. Stretton said he expects to contest the board's decision and could envision a judge ordering a new hearing and vote. He added, however, that his trust in the board was undermined by this week's events and that the members should all recuse themselves.
Rich Lord: email@example.com or 412-263-1542.
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1542. Twitter: @richelord. First Published December 13, 2013 11:23 AM