Nate Harper out as Pittsburgh police chief

After meeting with FBI, mayor says he's compelled to ask for resignation

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This story was written by Rich Lord of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, based on his reporting and that of Jonathan D. Silver, Liz Navratil, Lexi Belculfine, Moriah Balingit and James O'Toole.

A two-hour meeting with federal investigators changed Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's mind about his embattled police chief.

Mr. Ravenstahl said at a news conference Wednesday evening that he had asked Chief Nate Harper, 60, to resign after a meeting with the FBI and U.S. attorney's office a few hours before. He said the bureau called for the meeting and gave him information that made him decide to force the chief out, just a day after he'd stood by him publicly and cautioned against being "judge and jury" regarding allegations about the chief.

Over the last week federal investigators serving subpoenas have taken paperwork from both police headquarters on the North Side and the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union in the West End as part of what appears to be a probe of the bureau's special events and personnel and finance offices.

Neither the FBI nor the IRS has publicly explained what is being investigated, although Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson has said he believes the inquiry is in response to internal allegations of misappropriation of funds from the offices.

The mayor said he was told during his meeting with the federal investigators that he wasn't a target of their investigation. He also said he did not speak to the investigators under any grant of immunity.

FBI spokeswoman Kelly Kochamba declined comment on the investigation.

"At this point, it gave me enough, and I learned enough to know that it was time to ask Chief Harper to resign," the mayor said, adding that Mr. Harper resigned and "is no longer a city employee."

Later in the evening, attorney Robert G. Del Greco Jr. released a statement on behalf of Mr. Harper:

"It is apparent to me that the ongoing distractions and investigations make it no longer possible for Nate Harper to dedicate the time and energy necessary to faithfully discharge his duties as Police Chief. Consequently, it is with a heavy heart that he has decided to retire as Police Chief for the City of Pittsburgh effective immediately. He has asked me to convey that God has blessed him and that he is truly appreciative to have been able to serve as a police officer for 36 years and as the Chief of Police for the last 6 1/2 years. Chief Harper wants to thank Mayor Ravenstahl for putting his trust in him, his fellow police officers whose friendship and service he has always valued and the citizens of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County for their support and cooperation during his tenure."

In a brief interview later Wednesday, Mr. Del Greco said that Mr. Harper had been interviewed twice by FBI agents, but said it was not recently.

"It wasn't a couple of weeks ago," Mr. Del Greco said. He declined to provide details of the conversation but said he did not think Mr. Harper had received a target letter or had appeared before a federal grand jury. He said he did not think Mr. Harper received any offer of immunity for speaking with the agents.

"I'm certainly not privy to what occurred today, and so the volume and the quality and the corroboration of the totality of it -- I don't have those specifics," Mr. Del Greco said Wednesday night. "I do know that through the whole of this, Nate has contended that he did not engage in any criminality and has always expressed a resolve to clear his good name."

Mr. Del Greco said he met with Mr. Harper as recently as Wednesday afternoon to discuss putting out a news release to announce his retirement effective at 5 p.m. Friday. Mr. Del Greco said they settled on that time because Mr. Del Greco will be attending a funeral today and Mr. Harper wanted him to be available to handle calls from the media.

"Nate had contemplated retirement even in advance of this investigation and during the whole of it on more than one occasion had contemplated retiring," Mr. Del Greco said. "That being said, this was immediate. It's disconcerting to him. I know he's distraught and upset."

Mr. Ravenstahl said Assistant Chief Regina McDonald, 63, will be the acting chief "as of now."

Asked why Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson won't be elevated to the role, Mr. Ravenstahl said the deputy chief is on vacation, but it wasn't clear Wednesday whether he would become acting chief when he returns.

Assistant Chief McDonald, a 35-year veteran and one-time school teacher with two master's degrees, was promoted to the chief's rank in 2004 and has been in charge of the investigations branch and, most recently, police administration. Directly under her control is the special events office, one of the subjects of FBI interest.

Sgt. Michael LaPorte, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1, the union representing Pittsburgh police officers, said he was "dumbfounded" by the selection of Chief McDonald.

"She's responsible for the oversight of the department where all of this trouble originated," Sgt. LaPorte said. "I'm shocked. Bewildered. How do you come to this decision?"

He also said he and union vice president Michael Benner met with city public safety director Michael Huss on Wednesday afternoon, and he gave them no indication that the chief would be leaving. He said he learned of the chief's resignation on the radio.

Mr. Ravenstahl said he had both a city and personal attorney with him at his meeting with investigators.

Pressed for details of the meeting with the FBI and U.S. attorney's office, he said, "there were questions asked, yes. They didn't present me with anything.

"I'm not going to jeopardize their investigation. It was pertaining to the investigation that is ongoing. I'm not a target. ... We've been extremely cooperative with authorities and will continue to be so."

He said a search for a permanent replacement will "begin immediately. ... We would like to have a permanent replacement as quickly as possible." He said he wants to be "diligent and thorough and get the right person for the job."

The mayor said he expected that the police rank-and-file would continue to serve the residents well. "My belief is that -- as they always do -- they will continue to rise up and do great work."

He called it a day of sadness.

"There are a lot of people in this city who have a tremendous amount of respect for him, including me.

"The chief is somebody, as I mentioned, who dedicated his life to this city, and to public service."

At Mr. Harper's Stanton Heights home, two SUVS were parked in the driveway. A woman answered the door before the start of the news conference and said the chief was not home.

A blue light, showing support for fallen officers, lit the front yard of the residence.

Former Pittsburgh police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr., who is head of the Elizabeth Township police, said the resignation was disappointing but praised Mr. Harper's police work.

"It's always disappointing when a career ends before someone planned for it to end. But it appeared that with the mounting information that was coming out, that it would be inevitable."

Chief McNeilly said that "he did a good job as a sergeant when he worked for me, and as an assistant chief he did everything that I expected of him."

Chief McNeilly described his former colleague as someone who tried to appease his peers and subordinates.

"Just a lot of things -- assignments, changes in uniform, the disciplinary cases," Chief McNeilly said.

Mayoral candidates City Controller Michael Lamb and Councilman Bill Peduto wasted no time in criticizing the mayor.

"Mayor Luke fires Chief Harper. Yesterday, said he had full confidence and refused to be 'judge & jury.' What changed in 24 hours?" Mr. Peduto tweeted.

Mr. Lamb also criticized the mayor for asking for the resignation only a day after he'd said he was standing by the chief, and said there are more questions that Mr. Ravenstahl needs to answer.

"The ongoing issues and investigations into the Police Department go much further than just Chief Harper and his dismissal does not solve the issue at hand," Mr. Lamb said in the statement. He said the mayor needed to address the issues being raised by investigators.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said she had been briefed on some of what the mayor learned Wednesday, but declined to elaborate. "It's very sad," she said. "It's very disappointing ... but a very necessary decision was made."

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First Published February 21, 2013 5:00 AM


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