Former Pittsburgh police chief seeks delay on pension hearing

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Lawyers for former Pittsburgh police chief Nate Harper today asked the city's police pension board for a one-month postponement on a hearing on the fate of his pension.

The pension board was scheduled to make a determination today on whether to rescind Mr. Harper's $5,260-a-month pension, which he began collecting in March. Lawyers asked for the delay to give them time to prepare a defense.

Unlike private pensions, the retirement benefit of a public servant can be rescinded if he or she commits certain crimes -- of which conspiracy is not one, though theft is.

Mr. Harper pleaded guilty Oct. 18 to conspiracy and tax evasion charges. 

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

Prosecutors have 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.

Conspiracy is something of a gray area in pension forfeiture law. Most pension attorneys interviewed previously have said  they think Mr. Harper stands to lose his benefit.

Mr. Harper resigned in February at the request of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, and was indicted in March for conspiracy to divert funds from a federally funded agency, plus four counts of failure to file tax returns.

State law lists 21 crimes that, if committed by a public employee, result in automatic pension forfeiture.

The monthly benefit goes away, but those former employees get back the dollars they paid into the fund, without interest, minus the restitution they must pay for their crime. Mr. Harper, over his 36-year career, paid around $133,600 into the city police pension fund, so even if the benefit is forfeited and he is ordered to pay restitution, he might get a lump sum of around $100,000.

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