Accusations that Nate Harper, when he was Pittsburgh police chief, helped to rig a contract and took payments, made at a former friend's guilty plea hearing Tuesday, roiled the waters of the federal probe of city dealings but may not result in new charges.
Attorneys for Mr. Harper denied claims, made by the attorney for Robinson entrepreneur Art Bedway, that the former chief masterminded the plot that resulted in $327,729 in city payments to Esplen-based Alpha Outfitters. They also countered accusations that Mr. Harper got around $10,000 for his involvement.
Attorney Marty Dietz, representing Mr. Bedway, made the accusations as his client pleaded guilty to conspiracy, bribery and mail fraud. Mr. Dietz said federal investigators have had the information about Mr. Harper since early this year.
Federal prosecutors, as usual at this stage of a case, said nothing in response.
"You can be sure that the feds have looked very carefully at the accusations and have followed and will continue to follow the evidence," said former U.S. attorney Harry Litman. "The most likely reason not to have brought the [bribery] charges [against Mr. Harper] is that you don't have the evidence. You have to conclude that a conviction is probable and that you can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt" before indicting someone.
Mr. Bedway, 63, once chairman of the Carnegie guard firm Victory Security and a close friend of Mr. Harper for decades, confirmed his role in Alpha Outfitters. That firm won the job of installing and maintaining radios and computers in city patrol cars, with the help of Christine Kebr, 56, of Castle Shannon, who was then a systems analyst for the city.
Mr. Bedway confirmed that he paid Ms. Kebr $6,000, in two equal payments. She has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, admitting to helping Alpha Outfitters to prepare its bid, recommending that her city supervisors accept it and helping to secure payment of invoices that prosecutors have described as "inflated." She awaits sentencing, now set for Oct. 25.
Since Mr. Bedway's November indictment, prosecutors have repeatedly referred to a third person who attended two meetings about Alpha. Assistant U.S. attorney Lee Karl reiterated that detail Tuesday, but did not name the person.
"The idea of Alpha Outfitters came from Nate Harper," Mr. Dietz said at the hearing before U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon. "Nate Harper approached Mr. Bedway about this idea. Nate Harper brought in Christine Kebr."
Outside of the courtroom, Mr. Dietz described conversations he said occurred between Mr. Bedway and his wife. "Art would say, listen, Nate needs cash. Christine needs cash," Mr. Dietz said. The Bedways provided several payments, of around $2,000 to $3,000 each, to Mr. Harper, totaling around $10,000, the attorney said.
Attorney Robert Del Greco said that his client, Mr. Harper, had nothing to do with Alpha Outfitters and never took money from Mr. Bedway.
Mr. Del Greco said he believes that the federal government has thoroughly investigated Mr. Bedway's claims but did not file conspiracy charges against Mr. Harper because there was no evidence supporting allegations that he was involved with rigging the Alpha bid.
"The best that I can determine is that Art Bedway attempted to promote that version of matters and the government obviously rejected his version of matters and accepted Nate's version of matters as evidenced by the fact that there is no prosecution for conspiracy," Mr. Del Greco said.
"It is not true that [Mr. Harper] was the third organizer or had anything to do with it," he added.
Why would Mr. Dietz take the unusual step of complicating his client's plea with an accusation against another?
"The only thing I can think of is it may be part of an effort to persuade the government and the court that Mr. Bedway gave useful information and so should have his sentence reduced," said Mr. Litman. "It doesn't seem like, to date, the government has agreed."
Mr. Del Greco said that Mr. Harper will likely still plead guilty to separate charges that he conspired to divert some $30,000 in public funds to his private uses and failed to file tax returns for four years.
Those charges won't jeopardize Mr. Harper's police pension. A bribery conviction would result in forfeiture of his public pension.
Prosecutors are "going to deal with charges that they believe they could prove," said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor of law at Saint Vincent College. "If there's nothing to corroborate [Mr. Bedway's account], and you have a one-on-one situation, that generally leaves the federal government in a very difficult position to bring a charge."
Mr. Harper has met repeatedly with FBI and IRS investigators, and his attorneys have characterized him as a cooperator with the federal probe that has circled the mayor's office for months. The accusations by Mr. Dietz could affect the former chief's value as a prosecution witness.
"It would [damage Mr. Harper's credibility] if [prosecutors] would conclude that he has not told them the truth about this," said Mr. Antkowiak. "They will probably need, in one way or another, to resolve this issue."
Mr. Bedway pleaded guilty pursuant to a plea agreement dated Jan. 22, the details of which were not revealed in court. On that same date, Mr. Bedway went before a grand jury.
Judge Bissoon scheduled sentencing for Nov. 20. While the maximum sentence for mail fraud is 20 years in prison, federal sentences are usually built around the defendant's criminal history and the amount lost by the victim.
Mr. Dietz said that the city wasn't harmed by the Alpha Outfitters contract.
"This was a legit business," he said. "They did the work. ... Art Bedway never received a penny out of Alpha Outfitters."
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 and on Twitter: @richelord. First Published August 6, 2013 3:15 PM