Plea from former Pittsburgh police chief Nate Harper could quicken his trial
March 24, 2013 8:00 AM
Indicted Friday for financial crimes, the former city police chief (shown here in 2010) intends to plead guilty as charged. But the federal prosecutors have not closed their broader investigation.
By Rich Lord Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper was indicted Friday for "the worst kind of public corruption," said U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton -- the theft of money "that belongs to the taxpayers," for his personal use.
The shocking reality of the charges, after weeks of speculation around the case, was quickly matched by another surprise: One of his attorneys, Robert Del Greco Jr., said Mr. Harper will plead guilty "to that indictment, without modification. ... The evidence is overwhelming and unambiguous."
Mr. Harper was indicted by a federal grand jury on one count of conspiracy to use public funds for personal use and four counts of failing to file federal income tax returns (for 2008 through 2011). Prosecutors said Mr. Harper and other unnamed individuals diverted more than $70,000 meant for the city of Pittsburgh to accounts at a credit union and tapped it with debit cards. The former chief spent more than $30,000 on personal items.
At his arraignment Friday, Mr. Harper did plead not guilty, the customary plea at this stage. But at a news conference an hour after the indictment, Mr. Del Greco said, "I would expect that relatively soon we would put in for a change of plea and get on someone's docket to enter a guilty plea."
What are the next steps in Mr. Harper's case?
A guilty plea would start a process that can be over in as little as five months.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell set a May 6 deadline for pretrial motions. Such deadlines are routinely pushed back in federal court, but a quick guilty plea could make that unnecessary.
In mid-November, for instance, another former city employee, Christine Kebr, was charged by a criminal information with conspiracy. Within three weeks, she had pleaded guilty, confirming to a judge that she took $6,000 in bribes to help steer a city contract to an Esplen firm called Alpha Outfitters. She is scheduled to be sentenced April 4.
If Mr. Harper pleads guilty, he'll likely go through a pretrial evaluation aimed at determining whether he has any prior criminal history -- and all indications are that he does not -- and what sentence is suggested by federal guidelines.
For financial crimes, the guidelines depend heavily on the amount of ill-gotten gains. Mr. Harper's attorneys estimated the guidelines at 10 to 16 months in prison. A judge can pronounce a sentence that varies from the guidelines, and the former chief's attorneys said they will ask for house arrest.
"He will end up a convicted felon," Mr. Del Greco said. "He will probably work in a job that is certainly not law enforcement, probably less than what he's qualified for.
"Hopefully, Nate will survive this. We're sure he'll survive it. But it's a great sting to him."
A wildcard: whether the ongoing investigation brings other charges against Mr. Harper or others. Defendants who cooperate with federal investigators are sometimes rewarded with motions that can cut their sentences roughly in half.
The indictment against Mr. Harper said he diverted money collected from private businesses that hired off-duty city officers as security guards. All of the money should have gone directly to city accounts and flowed to the officers. But some checks were shifted into an unauthorized account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union.
The indictment found that the chief "did conspire ... with individuals known and unknown to the grand jury" to commit theft. Mr. Hickton refused to say anything about who those individuals may or may not be.
Mr. Hickton said charges in relation to the Alpha Outfitters contract "are going to be the subject of further discussions."
Federal prosecutors have said Alpha Outfitters was controlled by Art Bedway, a Robinson entrepreneur and former friend of Mr. Harper. They have said a meeting regarding the contract -- and involving Mr. Bedway, Ms. Kebr and an unnamed person -- occurred at the Carnegie office of Victory Security Agency Inc. That company later employed Mr. Harper's wife, Cynthia.
Mr. Harper has said he didn't attend the meetings, and didn't get money from Mr. Bedway.
The city paid Alpha Outfitters around $330,000 to install and maintain police car radios and computers.
"We are committed to follow the evidence wherever it leads us," Mr. Hickton said.