Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl standing by chief, officers
Investigations, audits drawing attention to city police force
February 14, 2013 8:00 PM
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl during an interview regarding issues with the police bureau.
By Liz Navratil and Jonathan D. Silver / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Some are calling the current state of affairs at the Pittsburgh police bureau a disgrace. Others say this week's FBI seizure of documents from police headquarters and other assorted internal problems are an embarrassment.
Despite the pall hanging over Chief Nate Harper's North Side office, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl repeatedly said Wednesday that he continues to stand by his chief because the crime rate is low and he is confident that officers are still able to "fulfill their mission" of protecting residents.
The mayor also said he believes the roughly 900-member bureau is under control, despite an increasing number of investigations and audits involving the bureau's finances, a federal grand jury investigation involving a company founded by a former friend of Chief Harper, and revelations that the chief organized a side business with four of his subordinates.
"At this point, I still do believe that the bureau is functioning in a way that I am satisfied," Mr. Ravenstahl said during a 20-minute interview in his city hall office. "From my perspective, I believe that the chief and his command staff are in control."
The FBI has investigated various police departments in the region but most of those situations have focused on possible civil rights violations. In contrast, the federal grand jury investigation that led to the FBI's seizure Tuesday of records from police headquarters is apparently targeting public corruption -- in this case, according to Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson, allegations of misappropriated funds.
During comments made later to assembled media outside the City-County Building, the mayor addressed questions about rumors that a slush fund exists at the police bureau.
"I don't think that money is being spent improperly as we speak. It may have been in the past. That's obviously the questions that are being answered, and we have very clear guidelines on what you can and can't spend money on and if those things are true, that's a big problem," Mr. Ravenstahl said.
The mayor also said that Chief Harper has reassured him -- as recently as earlier that day -- that his behavior has been above board.
"He has pledged to me that nothing was done improper and wrong and at this point I'm taking him at his word," the mayor said. "If at any point that changes, of course, we will act accordingly."
Mr. Ravenstahl said he has not asked his chief to resign or retire, and the chief has not offered to do so.
The mayor's comments came on the same day that auditors from the city controller's office met with workers in the special events office at the police bureau. Controller Michael Lamb, who is running for mayor, hopes to examine the accounts documenting the money coming in from private businesses that hire officers to moonlight for them.
"It's still not clear to us if the records we need to do our jobs have been seized or not [by the FBI]," Mr. Lamb said.
Sgt. Michael LaPorte -- president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1, the union representing Pittsburgh police officers -- said the rank-and-file welcomes an outside investigation by the FBI because "we owe it to the public to be transparent."
"It's embarrassing when the organization you work for is in the media every day, being cited with possibly inappropriate behavior," he said.
Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, said the increasing number of investigations and controversial business transactions involving high-ranking members of the police department is "a disgrace, and it's unfair to the hundreds of police officers out there doing their jobs properly every single day. How do you expect accountability, integrity and respect from the rank-and-file officers when that is all flowing around the top?"
Mr. Ravenstahl said he was not sure what specifically FBI agents were looking for when they took documents from the bureau's special events office, which coordinates officers' moonlighting, and personnel and finance office, which handles payroll information.
He said he thought the visit was tied to a federal grand jury that is investigating how a city contract to install radios and computers in police cars was awarded in 2007 to Alpha Outfitters, a company prosecutors say was formed by Arthur Bedway, the chief's one-time friend.
Mr. Bedway, 63, of Robinson, who has been indicted, has pleaded not guilty to mail fraud, bribery and conspiracy, and the court docket indicates discussions about a possible plea deal.
A former city systems analyst, Christine Kebr, 56, of Castle Shannon, who worked in the police bureau's fleet services division, has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and admitted to accepting $6,000 in bribes connected to the awarding of the $327,000 police radio installation contract.
Chief Harper said he was not involved in the meetings to set up Alpha Outfitters and accepted no money from Mr. Bedway.
Mr. Ravenstahl said neither he nor anyone holding high positions in his administration has received a subpoena or been asked to testify before the grand jury.
"Until I am told otherwise, or until we are made aware of the fact that something was done illegal, I don't plan to make any changes," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "I don't believe that at this point we'd be justified in doing that and the chief has given me no reason to believe that he's not capable of continuing to do his job. The game changes if an indictment were to come down."
Chief Harper, a 35-year police veteran, who turned 60 on the same day FBI agents came to headquarters and removed at least nine boxes of documents, has not personally commented about the FBI visit.
The FBI and U.S. attorney's office have declined comment.
Both community groups and officers have raised questions about why Chief Harper went into business with four of his subordinates.
State records show that Chief Harper, then sergeant-now-commander Eric Holmes, Sgt. Barry Budd, Officer Tonya Montgomery-Ford and clerk Tamara L. Davis organized Diverse Public Safety Consultants LLC last February.
Mr. Ravenstahl said he was disappointed by the chief's involvement in the enterprise and he hopes to have chosen by the end of the week which outside expert will advise the city on ways to revamp policies on secondary employment.
"You should never be in business with your subordinates. To me that goes without saying, whether it's written or not," the mayor said. "I want police officers and chiefs and leaders whose No. 1 priority is the Bureau of Police."
He was also critical of the decision to allow Cmdr. Holmes to serve as interim police chief in 2007 and 2008 for Slippery Rock University while he was also on the payroll as a full-time Pittsburgh police officer.
"In no way, shape or form, in my opinion, can an individual work 40 hours for us and 40 hours a week for somebody else and be focused on their job," Mr. Ravenstahl said.
"Again, these are policies and procedures that have been in place for a long time. Unfortunately, in this case and some others they've been stretched. I'm not happy about that, and that's going to change."
Mr. Ravenstahl said his office has cooperated with the federal investigation and that he hopes city residents will reserve judgment until it concludes.
"When you deal with 900 officers, or in my case 3,000 employees, it's inevitable that you're going to have personnel issues that you're going to have to deal with. It's inevitable that you're going to be criticized for decisions you make and accused of favoritism in some cases, and that's just the nature of what we do," the mayor said.
Ms. Pittinger questioned why those associated with Diverse Public Safety Consultants, starting with Chief Harper, and other corporations run by Officer Ford and police bureau clerk Kim Montgomery, remained working in their normal capacity while the bureau was under investigation.
"Wouldn't you expect that at this point people would have been moved aside? At least suspended with pay pending an investigation? Or fired? The public ends up wondering what's going on," Ms. Pittinger said.
"It's with a very heavy heart to be critical and to be condemning Nate Harper, but the betrayal of public trust now is what's at issue and the honorable thing would be to step aside and let this play itself out and let there be a determination whether the chief was involved in anything unethical."