Federal grand jury that investigated city, Luke Ravenstahl comes to close

A federal grand jury that last year transfixed the Pittsburgh political establishment with its probe of then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s official and personal life expired Tuesday without filing any known city-related charges.

Behind closed doors, from May through October of last year, the 23-person panel heard from acting police Chief Regina McDonald, Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson, city chief of staff Yarone Zober, former Stadium Authority board chair Debbie Lestitian, and a gallery of police bodyguards, female friends and secretaries. At one point, the grand jury even subpoenaed the Steelers, exploring the mayor’s payment for tickets.

“They’ve looked at [Mr. Ravenstahl’s] personal finances, every aspect of his personal life,” said defense attorney Robert Leight, who represented former police Chief Nate Harper, now serving an 18-month federal prison sentence for conspiracy to commit theft and failure to file tax returns. “What drove it, I believe, is the government’s desire to see if there was any additional criminal activity by others besides Nate Harper. It appears at this point in time that the government has concluded that there has not been.”

Harper was indicted in March 2013, on the final day of a prior grand jury’s 18-month tenure. The FBI-led probe then seemed to veer toward Mr. Ravenstahl and his office, with testimony and documents flowing to another grand jury that met behind closed doors approximately every five weeks at the U.S. Courthouse.

That grand jury also heard unrelated cases, ranging from immigration to child pornography. On Tuesday, it handed up three indictments, none of which appeared to be city-related.

The federal prosecutors who questioned city witnesses last year were not seen to enter the grand jury room Tuesday.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy confirmed with the forewoman that the grand jury’s service was over, and thanked her.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton, whose office brings matters to the grand jury, declined comment. He has, on several occasions, confirmed that publicly known investigations ended without indictments.

Mr. Ravenstahl, who attended the funeral Tuesday of former Mayor Sophie Masloff, declined comment. His attorney, Charles Porter Jr., also declined to talk about the grand jury’s expiration.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Bill Peduto declined comment, other than saying that the city is “turning the page; everyone’s moving forward.”

The grand jury’s expiration “means there’s a good chance that unless some new information breaks, we’re done with indictments in this case,” said Wesley Oliver, the Criminal Justice Program director at the Duquesne University School of Law.

Mr. Oliver said that if prosecutors believed they were close to an indictment, they could ask the court to keep the grand jury in session beyond its usual 18-month term. That does not appear to be occurring.

Prosecutors could still take information presented to the expired grand jury and present it to a new panel, he said, but that can be cumbersome.

“I think Ravenstahl can breathe a slight sigh of relief, because it would be some real work to bring the new grand jury up to speed,” Mr. Oliver said.

Since October, no known city-related witnesses have come before the expired grand jury. “That is not the usual course for an investigation that is on a front burner,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a former assistant U.S. attorney and now a law professor at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.

Though Department of Justice rules require approval from Washington for some indictments of public officials, that process would not normally take 10 months, Mr. Antkowiak said.

Mr. Leight, a former FBI agent and then federal prosecutor, said it is not unusual or wrong for a grand jury to hear extensive evidence, and then not indict. The only thing unusual about this grand jury was the level of public interest, he said.

And if he were Mr. Ravenstahl? “I’d have mixed emotions,” said Mr. Leight. “I’d be glad that no charges have been brought against me. But I would be upset … that everybody has looked through every aspect of my life with a fine-toothed comb” without a clear conclusion.

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. Twitter: @richelord. First Published August 19, 2014 12:06 PM

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