All you need to know about the investigation of Pittsburgh police and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration
February 26, 2014 11:28 AM
Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and police Chief Nathan Harper in September 2012.
Reporting by Moriah Balingit, Rich Lord, Liz Navratil and Jonathan D. Silver
In 2013, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette exposed numerous systemic problems in the city of Pittsburgh's 900-member police bureau, focusing on a lack of oversight of its personnel and finances.
As the year progressed, coverage broadened into an examination of the Pittsburgh mayor and his administration — as a parallel federal investigation that began with the police bureau did the same.
By year's end, the police chief had been forced out and indicted, the mayor had decided not to run for re-election, and the bureau was left trying to repair its tarnished image. Meanwhile, the federal investigation and the Post-Gazette's coverage remain ongoing.
Editors note: Explore the story in reverse chronological order. The most recent news is first, and this page will be updated until the story concludes.
The conversations started with his family. He told them he was tired, that he didn't know if he could face another campaign cycle that would inevitably involve mud-slinging and dredging up of past mistakes. And he worried more about the toll it would take on those closest to him.
The Policemen's Relief and Pension Fund board decided it had an obligation to return money Nate Harper paid into the fund and would decide after his sentencing whether to withhold some of that to cover restitution. Unlike private pensions, the retirement benefit of public servants can be rescinded if they commit certain crimes -- including theft from a government program but not including conspiracy or tax charges.
When former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper helped organize a private security firm with his subordinates, he did so in a “largely unregulated” environment governed by a handful of outdated and “unclear” policies, according to report by a consultant. Acting police Chief Regina McDonald said she hopes to present a new policy to the public safety director within a month.
Robinson entrepreneur Art Bedway pleaded guilty to helping to rig a contract for installing and maintaining police radios and computers. His attorney claimed that former police Chief Nate Harper masterminded the plot, roiling the waters of the federal probe into city dealings. Mr. Harper’s attorneys shot back -- saying he had nothing to do with the company that received the contract and never took money from Mr. Bedway.
Yarone Zober, longtime chief of staff for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, appeared before the federal grand jury, as does a KDKA-TV employee who dated Mr. Ravenstahl. An attorney for Mr. Ravenstahl said, “I don’t think the government is going to find any criminality.”
Even the Pittsburgh Steelers receive a subpoena in connection with the federal probe into city dealings. The team turned over to investigators cancelled checks from the mayor covering the costs of his coveted seats.
Various agencies, including the FBI and Pittsburgh’s Office of Municipal Investigations, decided to review hundreds of overtime slips filed by Pittsburgh police officers who guarded the mayor. Acting police Chief Regina McDonald said six instances in which former bodyguard Fred Crawford submitted two time slips for the same day were brought to her attention recently. An attorney for Mr. Crawford questioned the time of the investigations.
Acting Pittsburgh police Chief Regina McDonald and deputy Chief Paul Donaldson testify before the federal grand jury. Chief Donaldson said his appearance “was requested in order to assist them in ‘tying up some loose ends’ and clarify some issues of concern.”
The attorney representing Mayor Luke Ravenstahl acknowledges that federal investigators have obtained documents tracing a contractor’s renovation to his client’s Fineview home. Charlers Porter Jr. said, “Rumors of work being done for free are not true.”
They hauled boxes out of Pittsburgh police headquarters, summoned mayoral bodyguards and a secretary before a grand jury, pored over city parking variances and gathered paperwork on private renovation work at the mayor’s house. A former police chief has been indicted and the mayor has virtually disappeared from public view. So just what are federal investigators up to?
Federal agents asked to speak to Erin Lynn Feith, the ex-wife of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, and she declined, according to her attorney. Agents’ attempts to reach her offer another, rare glimpse into the expanding efforts of investigators.
A former district attorney hired to examine the Pittsburgh police bureau’s policies on officers’ outside employment said he was nearly done with his report. That turned out to be a red herring as the report was released six months later.
Former mayoral bodyguard Fred Crawford, who earlier in the year told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the mayor and public safety director knew of the off-the-books accounts and encouraged their use, appears before the federal grand jury. Mr. Crawford’s attorney said the testimony focused on the mayor and on overtime abuse.
Federal investigators asked questions about Urban Redevelopment Authority parking lot leasese that were issued through a controversial process to a firm run by a supporter of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. One person told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the FBI asked questions about the leases as early as 2008.
A Banksville-based parking operator has begun to emerge as a central figure in some aspects of the federal investigation. Robert Gigliotti’s first glimpses into the city’s inner workings came as a child, when his father worked alongside Nate Harper and an assistant chief as members of the police bureau’s motorcycle units. Over the years, he grew to become a strong supporter of the mayor and to build a parking enterprise that stretched across the area.
A federal grand jury hearing testimony in a probe into city dealings receives visits from a former Stadium Authority board member and a woman who had a social relationship with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Prosecutors maintain their customary silence.
When Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl traveled to Chicago in December 2012 to speak at a forum at the University of Illinois, he took along government affairs manager Paul McKrell for a trip that would also include another, purely political leg. When it came time to book flights and hotel rooms, the question arose: How should this be paid?
Pittsburgh City Council gives preliminary approval to legislation that codifies the fee the city collects every time an off-duty officer works. The legislation also creates a trust aimed at giving the city more oversight of the money collection.
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s city hall secretary was involved in arranging travel that was paid for by his political committee, according to receipts his campaign provided to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Other elected officials said they keep their campaign offices more clearly separated from their public offices.
A federal probe into city dealings reaches the mayor’s office when his secretary and two current bodyguards are called to appear before the grand jury. Their appearances indicate that the range of a federal probe into city affairs seems to be growing in scope.
After weeks of no noticeable activity, a months-long probe into Pittsburgh police affairs broadened as officials confirmed that documents concerning parking variances were subpoenaed by a grand jury and turned over to prosecutors. A supporter of the mayor, Robert Gigliotti, received more variances than most other valet parking business owners in the city.
Former police Chief Nate Harper is indicted on four counts of failure to file income taxes and one count of conspiracy after federal investigators said he and others in the bureau swiped checks, which he used to eat at restaurants and to buy an appliance and movies from a store that sells porn. In a rare move, Mr. Harper’s attorneys announce immediately that he plans to plead guilty and found the “lure” of the off-the-books account “irresistible.”
Disclosures filed in U.S. District Court after the indictment show federal agents began their communication with the former police chief in 2011, ceased for 18 months and then began a flurry of interviews.
In response to issues brought up by the Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh's legal department says a fee for the private use of off-duty police was properly implemented, but observers say problems remain. The department also recommended that rules governing a police narcotics forfeiture fund should be relaxed to align with federal standards.
The attorney representing Sandy Ganster, the head of police bureau’s personnel and finance office, tells the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Nate Harper told her to divert the funds into off-the-books accounts. Mr. Harper’s camp remains silent.
In a memo obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Officer Christie Gasiorowski raises concerns that $31,000 in checks were taken from the bureau from the highest and second-highest ranking employees in the bureau’s personnel and finance office. Officer Gasiorowski suggests that Regina McDonald -- who became acting chief after Mr. Harper’s resignation -- knew about one off-the-books account as early as 2009.
A Pittsburgh city councilwoman confirms that Cmdr. Eric Holmes -- who formed a company with the former police chief -- is under internal investigation for holding a second full-time job as an interim head for a college police department. That investigation remained open nearly a year later.
A fee that the city of Pittsburgh collected each time an officer worked off-duty -- and that flowed through the office where investigators say the diversion occurred -- had not been written into law. Still, some businesses say they are OK with paying it.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reveals that a police bureau fund meant to be used for narcotics investigations was tapped to buy Gatorade during the G-20 Summit, training for the former police chief and another involved in his side business and tolls and a car wash for the bureau spokeswoman, among other expenses. The commander who oversaw the unit said she warned the acting chief she thought the spending was improper.
Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant, who signed off on many of the expenses tied to the narcotics fund in questioned, said she thought the account could be tapped for wider law enforcement purchases, although a portion of the city code more closely restricted then. “I watch carefully anything dealing with money because I don’t want nobody saying that I misused something, took something, did anything,” she said.
Questions about Pittsburgh Bureau of Police financial procedures led some city officials to renew concerns raised in 2012 about the purchase for more than $60,000 of uniforms from a Kentucky company with no city contract, despite the existence of a competitively bid pack with a local firm. The former police chief previously said that Tammy Davis, who created a side business with him and who has been placed on administrative leave, was integral to the selection of a vendor.
Public Safety Director Michael Huss proposed changes in how the city collects and manages money that businesses pay when hiring off-duty officers, paramedics and firefighters. The plan would remove some financial control from the bureaus and give the city more oversight.
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election, 11 days after he formally announced his run. The mayor said the FBI investigation and “nasty and vicious” allegations made him rethink running again.
The two Pittsburgh police sergeants tasked with guarding Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said that they billed only for time worked and didn't misuse debit cards tied to a controversial credit union account. The two men until this story stood by silently as their work hours and -- in the case of one sergeant -- expenses were scrutinized.
At least one FBI agent returned to the police bureau’s personnel and finance office on the same day that the mayor’s office released documents pertaining to debit cards held by two mayoral bodyguards and connected to accounts maintained at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union.
When Nate Harper became chief he created a CTIPS, a group of officers meant to serve as a troubleshooting squad for the chief but who some criticized as performing a light workload because they were friends with the chief. Acting police Chief Regina McDonald disbanded the unit shortly after she made remarks that no unit should report directly to the chief to maintain the chain of command.
Former mayoral bodyguard Fred Crawford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he believes Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Public Safety Director Michael Huss knew of the off-the-books accounts. Mr. Crawford claimed both accounts at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union were created to help avoid media scrutiny about certain expenditures. Both Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Huss strongly denied his statements.
On her first day in her new position, acting Pittsburgh police Chief Regina McDonald placed three employees on paid administrative leave pending the end of the federal investigation. Her appointment to the temporary position shocked the police union, which pointed out that Chief McDonald oversaw one of the offices from which the FBI seized records.
Chief McDonald added a layer of oversight for the personnel and finance office; meanwhile, the mayor said documents in the hands of federal investigators showed no improper spending by his security team.
The federal investigation into the Pittsburgh police bureau continues to have ripple effects, with the FBI interviewing another employee and a federal court judge commenting on the former chief's recent notoriety.
Concerned about allegations about misappropriation in the bureau, City Council members seek to have the city -- and not police bureau workers -- oversee the flow of checks paying for officers who off-duty at private locations. At least one check that was diverted from the bureau to off-the-books accounts was meant to pay for off-duty officers, the Post-Gazette has revealed.
FBI agents remove boxes of documents from the police bureau’s personnel and finance and special events offices. Deputy police Chief Paul Donaldson said he believed the seizure was linked to allegations that money had been misappropriated within the police bureau.
News broke that federal investigators have also been seizing documents from an account said to be set up by the police chief’s office at the independent Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union. City officials said they could not explain the account’s existence.
Giant Eagle expenses, airline fees, hotel rooms and restaurant bills in numerous cities were paid for out of at least two accounts maintained through Pittsburgh police headquarters. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed that at least one check meant for the city was deposited into an account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union. The check was one of many used to pay for off-duty officers working at private locations.
The city hired former Washington County district attorney Steven Toprani to review Pittsburgh police policies governing officers’ outside work in light of revelations the chief formed a business with his subordinates. That results of that review had not been released as of the end of 2013.
The mystery surrounding credit union funds linked to the Pittsburgh police chief's office deepened with the mayor revealing there could be five or more such accounts, the FBI starting to contact merchants and the deputy police chief saying a credit card was issued in his name without his knowledge.
Each year, millions of dollars flow from private companies to the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police to pay officers who work private security details arranged through the bureau’s Special Events Office. But scour the city’s budget and annual financial report and you won’t find a line item with the $7 million or so in payments, nor a record of the nearly $800, 000 in city surcharges to businesses that employ police officers through the Special Events Office.
Speculation about who might be the third person in a conspiracy to rig a bid for a police radio contract rises as two charged in the scheme appear before a federal grand jury. Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper said he didn’t get any money from an entrepreneur at the helm of the business.
Pittsburgh leaders said they did not know the police chief had created a side business, Diverse Public Safety Consultants, with several of his subordinates. Two of the people Nate Harper began the business with were later put on leave pending the end of a federal investigation into misappropriation.
In 2007, Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper apparently approved allowing Eric Holmes -- the sergeant whom he would later promote and go into private business with -- to work a second full-time job as interim head of Slippery Rock University's police force.
Pittsburgh police Chief Nathan E. Harper did nothing illegal in 2012 by joining with three Pittsburgh police officers to organize a public safety consulting corporation, the Allegheny County district attorney found. But a wide-ranging review remained underway by the city’s Law Department.
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