Former Pittsburgh chief Harper gets 18-month prison sentence



The prosecution of former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper ended Tuesday with a prison sentence, but an investigation of city government dealings continues, according to the region's top federal prosecutor.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon sentenced Harper to 18 months in prison, a year of post-release probation and payment of $31,987 in restitution. The former chief and his supporters, visibly shocked, huddled in the courtroom for some time. When he emerged from the courtroom surrounded by family, his wife, retired Pittsburgh Officer Cynthia Harper, shooed reporters away.

"He's a good man. I was hoping for something better for him," said Bobby Hassain, a friend of Harper's since high school. "I was hoping he would get probation because he helped so many people over the years."

Harper's attorney reacts to sentence

Robert Del Greco, attorney for former Pittsburgh police chief Nate Harper, talks about the 18-month prison sentence given his client today by U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon. (Video by Nate Guidry; 2/25/2014)

U.S. attorney weighs in on Harper sentencing

U.S. Attorney David Hickton, in a news conference this afternoon, said the prosecution of Harper is over, but the investigation of the city is not. (Video by Nate Guidry; 2/25/2014)

"He had a long and distinguished career and did many good things," said U.S. attorney David Hickton, at a news conference following the sentencing. "But there is no basis in giving any quarter" when the public trust is violated, he said.

Harper, 61, of Stanton Heights, was indicted 11 months ago for failing to file tax returns for four years and diverting $70,629 in public funds into an unauthorized credit union account, from which he spent $31,987 on himself. In October, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit theft from a federally funded program, and failure to file tax returns.

"I made a mistake," Harper told the judge before he was sentenced. "It has been devastating. I have tarnished the law enforcement community.

"God doesn't put too much on your plate you can't handle. I put too much on my plate. I spread myself too thin," Harper said. He said he tapped the funds after the 2008 death of his father and the 2009 fatal shooting of three Pittsburgh officers in Stanton Heights, which he called "the darkest day in law enforcement besides the day when I made the mistake that I did.

"I can't tell you why I made the mistake," he said. "It was a lapse of judgment."

Asking for leniency were Mrs. Harper, daughter Crystal Harper, former law enforcement officers Louis Gentile and Daniel Cuneen, community leaders the Rev. John Welch, William Thompkins and Rashad Byrdsong, and friends Mr. Hassain and Marvin B. Prentice. Harper's attorneys said he had a job lined up at the towing firm McGann and Chester.

"No amount of kind words can erase the seriousness of his crimes or the resulting breach of trust," Judge Bissoon said.

She overruled a defense argument that Harper was not a leader of the conspiracy, and declined to go below the 18-to-24-month prison term suggested by federal guidelines.

"This is a quintessential case of government corruption and betrayal of the public trust to the point it seems more like a work of fiction than reality," the judge said, adding that Harper treated an unauthorized credit union account as "a personal ATM."

A lenient sentence, she said, would "send a dangerous message to the public and the officials operating on its behalf.

"I believe that deep down in your heart, you are still a lawman," she told Harper. "I think you understand what happened today, and why."

Assistant U.S. attorney Robert Cessar described interviewing Harper after investigating the diversion of funds. "Part way through the interview, he looked at me and said, 'I really dropped the ball on this one.' "

Mr. Hickton said that Harper cooperated with the investigation but would not say why the government did not file any motion for leniency in return.

In a statement, Mayor Bill Peduto said it was "a sad day for our city but a chance for rebirth within our police bureau." He said he was committed to "championing ethics and accountability from top to bottom, and rebuilding a department that all city residents, including rank and file officers, can be proud of."

The money diverted to the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union was paid to the city by entities ranging from the University of Pittsburgh to Giant Eagle in return for the services of off-duty city police.

After the sentencing, Robert Leight, one of Harper's attorneys, said the idea for the unauthorized account came from former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

"Mr. Harper told the FBI in the presence of [co-defense counsel] Bob Del Greco and myself it was Luke Ravenstahl that directed him to open those accounts," Mr. Leight said.

That accusation drew a quick denial from Mr. Ravenstahl's attorney, Charles Porter Jr., who said the then-mayor "had no involvement with the account being opened. He didn't tell him to open the account.

"I'm not prepared to credit much of what [Harper] said with a whole lot of credibility at this point," he added.

Harper used the account for cash and to pay for food, alcohol, an XM radio, a TV, an oven, perfume and other things.

Also tapping the fund, according to Mr. Cessar, was Tamara Davis, a civilian working in the police Office of Personnel and Finance until she was placed on paid leave a year ago.

Mr. Hickton's office released a document titled "summary of funds misapplied by Davis," indicating $7,165 in cash withdrawals "from diverted checks," $929 in ATM withdrawals and $1,197 in "questionable debit card expenses." It listed $9,291 in "total misapplied funds."

Mr. Cessar said that Ms. Davis and former police Office of Personnel and Finance manager Sandra Ganster, who is also on paid leave, had "some criminal culpability," though they have not been charged.

"For the life of me I'm not seeing any criminal culpability whatsoever" for Ms. Ganster, said her attorney, William Difenderfer. "When she confirmed the money was spent improperly she blew the whistle on it."

Mr. Hickton said that investigators are still looking at the use of the credit union accounts, and at other lines of inquiry that emerged since Harper's indictment.

"I am not able, nor would it be appropriate for me to comment on any of the specifics of that investigation," Mr. Hickton said. "We hope to wrap [the evidence gathering phase] up as efficiently as we can," and then decide whether others will be charged, he said.

Mr. Porter said he had received no word from investigators as to the direction of the probe.

While a federal grand jury heard testimony from people involved with Pittsburgh government or with Mr. Ravenstahl for about six months last year, no one has been indicted in relation to city business since Harper was charged March 22.

Harper resigned from the bureau he served for 36 years a month prior to his indictment. Mr. Ravenstahl dropped his re-election bid three weeks before Harper was indicted.

A prior grand jury indicted a Robinson man, Art Bedway, 64, for conspiracy, bribery and mail fraud in relation to a contract won by Esplen-based Alpha Outfitters to install and maintain computers and radios in police cars. Prosecutors also charged former city systems analyst Christine Kebr, 57, with conspiracy in relation to the contract.

Bedway and Kebr, before being sentenced to probation, accused Harper of driving the bid rigging. The former chief's attorneys denied that.

Mr. Hickton said Tuesday that he decided not to charge Harper in that matter based on "reservations about the quality of the evidence" and due to the former chief's willingness to plead guilty to theft conspiracy.

In December, the Policemen's Relief and Pension Fund voted to forfeit Harper's $5,260-a-month pension and to return the balance of his payments into the fund, without interest. Harper has appealed that decision.

"The life has been sucked out of us, and it's destroyed him," Mrs. Harper said.

Harper was allowed to go home and will be instructed when and where to report to begin serving his prison sentence.


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter @richelord. Liz Navratil, Jonathan D. Silver and Moriah Balingit contributed. First Published February 25, 2014 10:36 AM

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