Pittsburgh police chief Harper's outside business questioned

City officials say they didn't know of Harper's venture

February 7, 2013 10:00 AM
By Jonathan D. Silver, Liz Navratil and Rich Lord / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Last year, Pittsburgh police Chief Nathan E. Harper became part of a private security consulting firm with a civilian police clerk and three of his officers, including a sergeant he later promoted to commander.

Diverse Public Safety Consultants LLC was organized Feb. 28, 2012, with the chief, then-Sgt. Eric L. Holmes, Sgt. Barry Budd, Officer Tonya Ford and Tamara L. Davis, who works in the police personnel and finance office, all listed as organizers, state documents show.

According to its website, Diverse Public Safety Consultants provides a wide range of services including training security guards, performing background checks, providing executive protection and supplying interim police chiefs.

Chief Harper said Wednesday evening that he did not initiate the formation of the company, it was not active, it was planned for future use upon retirement and that it was organized merely to preserve its corporate name.

"When they asked me about doing consulting work I said, 'Yeah, I agree to do some consulting work,' " the chief said.

Neither Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Mike Huss nor the mayor's office was aware of the company's existence until being informed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"Our official response is that none of the individuals on the incorporated list informed the director of public safety of this business," said Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. "Without having all of the facts, save for what you have informed me of, it is something we will look into. It is not illegal for employees to have other businesses."

Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, however, questioned the arrangement involving officers and their superior and said it was irrelevant whether the business was currently operating.

"I think it's an unethical relationship and I think it's completely inappropriate," she said.

"You have a question about using the accoutrements of your public position for private gain," Ms. Pittinger said. "You have the issue of creating a hostile work environment where you have subordinates, and that's very messy. That's very, very messy. The question of a promotion is based on what? Is there some quid pro quo thing going on here?"

Chief Harper said he did not believe it was a problem to be involved in a private business venture with other officers. He also said the arrangement had nothing to do with Cmdr. Holmes' promotion from sergeant in August.

"With their expertise, their teaching skills I didn't see a reason not to," the chief said. "There's a lot of people in the [police] bureau that already have established consulting and do consulting work. Once again, I didn't see any issue with having them being part of looking at doing consulting work."

The 59-year-old chief said he was unaware that a website was up and running. By early Wednesday evening, the site had been taken down. He also said he did not know why the address listed in state papers for the business -- 100 River Road in McKees Rocks -- was chosen. The phone number listed on the website is disconnected, and a different business is at the address.

Richard Mongiovi, who owns 100 River Road, said he had never heard of the business nor did he know any of its organizers. He said he rents a building there to a lumber and building-supplies firm.

"There's been no earnings basically in this and once again it's basically just nothing there as of yet. Hopefully, in the future, but as far as having clients going out there, customers, there's nothing there," Chief Harper said.

Cmdr. Holmes, who heads the Zone 2 station, said, 'I'm not going to talk to you about that. You need to talk to my attorney about that." He did not go into further detail before ending the conversation.

Efforts to reach the other organizers of the corporation Wednesday evening by phone, email and at their homes were unsuccessful.

Sgt. Budd, 47, is a 23-year veteran who works at headquarters on the North Side in police intelligence. Officer Ford, 43, is a 23-year veteran who works for Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant. Chief Harper said he went to high school with her mother, Kim Montgomery, another civilian who works in the police bureau. Cmdr. Holmes, 43, has been on the job for 15 years. And Ms. Davis, 46, a chief clerk, has worked for the city for 25 years.

Ms. Davis' name appears at the top of the incorporation papers along with her email and her home address in the Hill District.

When the incorporation papers first were sent to the Pennsylvania Department of State, they did not include Chief Harper's name. The state rejected the form because it lacked the signature page, state department spokesman Ronald Ruman said.

The form was resubmitted Feb. 28, this time with Chief Harper's name typed in below the others' names. Ms. Davis' Burrows Street address is crossed out, and the River Road address is written in by hand. Five signatures by the "organizers" appear -- including Chief Harper's. No company titles are attached to the organizers' names.

City Controller Michael Lamb, who is running for mayor, said he knows of nothing forbidding the chief from forming a business, as long as it is disclosed in financial interest forms. The disclosure forms for 2012 are not due until May 1. Mr. Lamb said the chief's involvement in a venture with subordinates, though, was troubling.

"Now you have someone in authority that has a business relationship with city subordinates, and I think it raises a lot of troublesome questions," Mr. Lamb said, regarding "favoritism, real or perceived" to those subordinates.

He said the promotion of Cmdr. Holmes was a good example of the kind of decision that could prompt second-guessing.

"Whether it's related to pay, promotion or even just basic workplace rules, you kind of call all of those things into question when you have this kind of [business relationship] going on in the workplace," he said.

City Councilman Bill Peduto, also a mayoral candidate, declined comment.

"I have never heard of it," said city Councilwoman Teresa Kail-Smith. "I wonder what our policy is on that. If they don't have a policy, maybe they should."

News of the chief's involvement in a private security start-up comes after more than a year during which his relationships with that industry have drawn scrutiny.

In September 2011, the Post-Gazette reported that Cynthia Harper, the chief's wife, for a period of time had worked for Carnegie-based Victory Security, and sometimes cited access to the chief as a marketing point. Mrs. Harper previously worked as a Pittsburgh police officer until 2004.

In late September, some officers' concerns over the chief's relationship to private security firms came into the open when Sgt. Eugene Hlavac became involved in a confrontation with Donald Wilson, owner of Stanton Heights-based Gold Shield Security.

Sgt. Hlavac drafted a special report accusing Gold Shield employees of stepping over the line into law enforcement territory. That draft report said that Cmdr. Holmes told Sgt. Hlavac "to leave them alone, they have a contract."

Mr. Wilson, a former city detective, wrote his own report to the city's Office of Municipal Investigations claiming that Sgt. Hlavac derisively called him "a friend of Nate Harper" while ordering him off Zone 2 station property.

Questions about the chief's relationships came to a head after the November indictment of Arthur Bedway, longtime chairman of Victory Security, who was accused of mail fraud, bribery and conspiracy in relation to a 2007 city contract.

Federal prosecutors have said that Mr. Bedway, 63, of Robinson, and former city systems analyst Christine Kebr, 56, of Castle Shannon, involved an unnamed third person in the creation of the firm Alpha Outfitters.

That firm got a $327,000 contract to install and maintain computers and radios in city police vehicles.

Ms. Kebr has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and admitted to taking $6,000 in bribes in relation to the contract, while Mr. Bedway has pleaded not guilty. Both appeared before the grand jury in late January.

Chief Harper has denied receiving any money from Mr. Bedway or being involved in the formation of Alpha Outfitters.

First Published February 7, 2013 5:00 AM