Former chief Harper pleads guilty in federal court



Nate Harper, a respected city of Pittsburgh police officer and the chief of the bureau from 2006 through March, pleaded guilty today to conspiracy and failure to file tax returns, completing an eight-month transition from lawman to convict.

Mr. Harper, 60, of Stanton Heights, now enters the sentencing process, which involves a careful evaluation of his crime, history and character. After that months-long process, U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon will sentence him on Feb. 25.

While federal sentencing guidelines could put Mr. Harper in prison for a year or more, his attorneys are expected to argue that he should get house arrest. Non-prison sentences are common for former law enforcement professionals, who often argue that they would be susceptible in prison to retribution from criminals.

Attorneys hope to keep 'contrite' Harper out of jail

The attorneys representing Nate Harper described the former Pittsburgh police chief as "contrite" when he appeared in federal court today to plead guilty to charges of conspiracy and failure to file tax returns. (Video by Nate Guidry; 10/18/2013)

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, speaking Thursday about his former chief's impending plea, called it "a dark day. It's a sad day."

He praised the remaining command staff and rank-and-file for persevering under tough circumstances during the federal investigation. "The men and women of the Police Bureau have done a good job," he said.

Mr. Harper was indicted in March for conspiring with unnamed others 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 unauthorized accounts at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union.

Mr. Harper then spent $31,986 on personal uses, ranging from meals and alcohol to an XM satellite radio, oven and television, according to the indictment against him.

Mr. Harper said little other than, "Yes, your honor," at his plea hearing, and afterward declined comment.

Assistant U.S. attorney Robert Cessar told Judge Bissoon that in June 2008, when Mr. Harper was the chief, he "instructed an employee of the police department to open an account" at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union.

Eight people, including Mr. Harper, received debit cards tied to the so-called I.P.F account. The then-chief later ordered up two debit cards tied to the Special Events Account, also at the credit union.

Mr. Cessar also said that Mr. Harper had an accountant prepare a 2008 tax return for him, but then never filed it. Nor did he file for subsequent years.

Mr. Cessar said that from 2008 through 2011, Mr. Harper's income -- including the diverted funds -- ranged from $110,000 to $123,000. Taxes were withheld from his paychecks, but the failure to file resulted in $22,427 in tax losses to the government.

Robert Leight, one of Mr. Harper's attorneys, said that some of the $31,986 was spent on legitimate police business. For instance, he said, the TV was purchased for a police station, and some of the meals were for official business.

He said that prosecutors offered Mr. Harper a plea deal, but it included enhancements to sentencing guidelines. The defense team thinks the guidelines will indicate a sentence somewhere in the 10 to 18 month range, and enhancements would increase that. They plan to argue for home detention.

Mr. Harper's other attorney, Robert Del Greco, said that the former chief "has a sporting chance of not going to jail and not losing his pension. Under most federal indictments, people do not have those opportunities."

In a press release, U.S. Attorney David Hickton said the case "is about greed and the theft of taxpayer money for private gain. Public officials, especially those who serve in law enforcement, have a responsibility to make governmental decisions in the best interests of the citizens, not themselves."

"We will continue to pursue public officials who violate federal law," added FBI Special Agent in Charge Gary Douglas Perdue.

No conspirator to Mr. Harper was identified. "The grand jury will release that information at the appropriate time," predicted Mr. Leight.

The grand jury that indicted Mr. Harper heard testimony from Sandra Ganster, who oversaw the bureau's personnel and finance office and from Karen Palmer, an employee who worked there.

In an internal memo obtained earlier this year by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Officer Christie A. Gasiorowski wrote that Ms. Palmer told her Ms. Ganster and her second-in-command, Tamara L. Davis, were taking checks meant to pay for officer moonlighting "and instead are depositing them in a separate account at the Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union."

No one else has been charged in relation to the diversion. Ms. Ganster and Ms. Davis remain on administrative leave, as do two other bureau employees with ties to Mr. Harper.

Mr. Harper resigned in February, at Mr. Ravenstahl's request after federal agents met with the mayor.

The former chief is represented by attorneys Robert Del Greco and Robert Leight. The prosecutors handling the case are Robert Cessar and Lee Karl.

Since the indictment, Mr. Harper has met repeatedly with those prosecutors and federal agents probing the city.

Mr. Harper's plea follows those of former city systems analyst Christine Kebr, 56, of Castle Shannon, who is set to be sentenced in a week for conspiracy; and entrepreneur Art Bedway, 64, of Robinson, who faces sentencing Nov. 20 for conspiracy, bribery and mail fraud. The two admitted to conspiring to steer a contract to outfit city police cars to Alpha Outfitters, an Esplen firm secretly controlled by Mr. Bedway.

Mr. Bedway's attorney, Marty Dietz, has said that Mr. Harper was the third conspirator in that scheme, but the former chief was not charged in relation to that contract.

A federal grand jury on Wednesday heard testimony from acting police Chief Regina McDonald and Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson. That grand jury has also heard from city Chief of Staff Yarone Zober, former Pittsburgh Stadium Authority board chair Debbie Lestitian, three police veterans who have served on Mr. Ravenstahl's security detail, two of the mayor's female acquaintances and others.

Mr. Harper graduated from Schenley High School in 1971 and joined the bureau in 1977. His career path took him from the traffic unit to narcotics, then to a post as sergeant. He made the rare jump from sergeant straight to commander in 1995, then became an assistant chief the following year.

Mr. Ravenstahl picked him to replace Dom Costa, now a state House member, as chief.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord First Published October 18, 2013 10:45 AM


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