Harper’s lawyers urging leniency

Seeking probation for former chief

Former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper did not come up with the idea of diverting city money into unauthorized accounts, nor did he lead two civilian underlings astray, his attorneys claimed in court filings Tuesday.

Prosecutors, though, promptly countered that the former chief was the leader of the scheme, and for the first time named alleged co-conspirators.

The dueling memorandums lead up to Mr. Harper's sentencing on conspiracy and tax charges next Tuesday. They foreshadow a hearing at which the prosecution will push for at least a year and a half in jail, while the defense tries to avoid prison for the former lawman in part by tugging at the heartstrings of U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon.

"I can honestly say my granddad is my best friend and I love him more [than] he'll ever know," wrote Darcel Harper, who indicated in one of 15 letters to the judge that the former chief taught him how to shave, drive, tie a tie and treat a lady. "I don't know what I would do without him."

Mr. Harper pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy to commit theft from a federally funded program, and to four counts of failure to file tax returns.

"He breached that [public] trust when he used his position to divert $70,628.92 of funds destined for city coffers, of which he spent $31,986.99 on personal expenditures, including cash withdrawals, meals, alcohol and home appliances," wrote assistant U.S. attorney Robert Cessar, the chief prosecutor on the case. The funds flowed through the unauthorized IPF account at the Greater Pittsburgh Federal Credit Union, he wrote.

Mr. Cessar wrote that federal sentencing guidelines suggest 18 months to two years in jail, and requested a sentence in that range.

Mr. Harper's attorneys countered that such a sentence depends on a finding that the former chief was the leader of a conspiracy. They wrote that the IPF account was not the chief's idea, though they did not credit anyone else by name with the concept.

"Mr. Harper did not mastermind the scheme to divert the secondary employment funds into a 'secret' bank account," wrote defense attorneys Robert Leight and Robert Del Greco. "He was doing [what] he had been instructed. Although it was not his idea to create this fund, he readily admits he misused it."

Mr. Del Greco declined to comment beyond what was in the court filings. Mr. Leight could not be reached for comment.

Attorney Charles Porter Jr., representing former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, said that his client had no insight on the question of who ordered the creation of the account.

"If someone ordered the chief to open the account, we don't know who it is," Mr. Porter said. "The mayor did not order him to open the account. The mayor did not authorize him to open the account."

He said Mr. Ravenstahl became aware of the account through newspaper reports and then learned more from federal prosecutors.

Mr. Harper's other superior during the time in question, Public Safety Director Michael Huss, declined comment.

Mr. Cessar wrote that Mr. Harper told police personnel and finance manager Sandra Ganster and her number two, Tamara Davis, to open the account and receive balance statements.

He attached to his pre-sentencing filings a June 27, 2008, letter from Mr. Harper to the credit union, asking for the establishment of the account, listing Ms. Ganster and Ms. Davis as the contact people on it, and seeking eight debit cards. The cards were to bear the names of Mr. Harper, Ms. Ganster, Ms. Davis, three police detectives who were serving as Mr. Ravenstahl's bodyguards, Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson and Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant.

Mr. Cessar also attached a June 29, 2009, letter from Mr. Harper to the credit union seeking the removal of Ms. Ganster from the account.

"This account was open for the Mayor's Body Guards to travel on short notice," according to that letter. "Sandy has returned the debit card with her name on it and would like to be removed from the account."

Mr. Harper's attorneys contested any characterization of Ms. Ganster and Ms. Davis as "unindicted co-conspirators" led by Mr. Harper. The former chief's attorneys argued that the two were not involved, and that the scheme "lacked any other participants."

The two women have been on paid leave from the city for nearly a year.

Asked whether Ms. Ganster should be considered a co-conspirator, her attorney, William Difenderfer, said the term wasn't appropriate.

"In the big picture of the whole case, for an employee to do what she's ordered to do, I think you're stretching" to call her a co-conspirator, he said.

Ms. Davis' spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Among the 15 missives in support of Mr. Harper that accompanied the former chief's filings was one from Paul and Julia Sciullo, whose son, Officer Paul J. Sciullo, was killed in the April 4, 2009, shootings in Stanton Heights. "Mr. Harper's compassion, kindness and constant concern was what helped us live through some of our darkest days," they wrote.

Former city police officers, religious and community leaders and family members also urged the judge to consider leniency, characterizing him as a good man who slipped up.

The former chief is expected to ask for probation. His attorneys wrote that he should get some credit for his service to the community, acceptance of responsibility, low chance of re-offending and 36 years as a police officer.

They also wrote that he has suffered public ridicule, lost any chance of employment and has forfeited a pension worth around $1.5 million over the course of his expected lifetime. Mr. Harper has challenged the pension forfeiture.

"Despite his positive contributions," Mr. Cessar wrote, "the defendant's legacy will be a federal criminal conviction."

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter: @richelord. Moriah Balingit contributed. First Published February 18, 2014 3:28 PM

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