Ex-Pittsburgh police chief Nate Harper appeals pension cancellation

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Former Pittsburgh police chief Nate Harper today appealed a board's decision to cancel his $5,260-a-month pension in light of his guilty plea to conspiracy charges.

Attorney Samuel Stretton, representing Mr. Harper, wrote in his appeal to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas that the city's Policemen's Relief and Pension Fund essentially denied the former chief the right to a hearing.

The board in November suspended pension payments after Mr. Harper's Oct. 18 guilty plea to conspiracy and failure to file tax returns.

On Thursday, the fund board met, and initially its solicitor planned to postpone for a second month a vote on whether to forfeit Mr. Harper's pension.

Because he didn't expect a vote, Mr. Stretton did not attend.

The board decided anyway during that meeting to go ahead with its vote, opting unanimously to forfeit the pension.

"As a result, a record was not made," Mr. Stretton wrote.

Thus the court should either fully review the forfeiture, or send it back to the board for reconsideration, he wrote.

Mr. Stretton noted in the appeal that neither conspiracy nor tax charges are listed in the Public Employees' Pension and Forfeiture Act. He added that forfeiture "is extremely punitive and excessive in nature" given the former chief's 36 years in law enforcement.

If forfeiture is warranted, he wrote, it should be limited to the time during which the misconduct took place -- in Mr. Harper's case, since 2008. He also questioned whether the act violates the Constitution's due process clause and ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Fund secretary-treasurer Paul Dugan said the board was merely discharging its duty under the act.

"It’s certainly a tough decision any time you have to take a police officer’s pension," he said. "Many of us on the board worked alongside Nate for many years. He was our chief, and he was a friend."

Legally, conspiracy to commit theft is the same as theft, he said.

"I think we’re bound by the pension forfeiture act," he said. "It’s not something that’s very popular, and it’s not something that the guys like to do."

He said he could not recall a prior appeal of a board decision.

The board has decided it has an obligation to return money Mr. Harper paid into the fund and await any judicial order following his Feb. 25 sentencing on whether to withhold some of that to cover restitution.

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.

Mr. Harper paid roughly $133,000 into the pension fund. From his February resignation to his October guilty plea, he 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, equivalent to a year's worth of benefit.

Unlike private pensions, the retirement benefit of public servants can be rescinded if they commit certain crimes -- including theft from a government program.

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. Twitter: @richelord. First Published December 17, 2013 2:25 PM

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