Pittsburgh police chief and her top deputy finish testifying before grand jury

Pittsburgh's two top police officials appeared before a federal grand jury Wednesday, a sign that an investigation that implicated the former chief is still seeking information on the city's police bureau.

Acting police Chief Regina McDonald and Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson entered the grand jury suite at the federal courthouse, Downtown, without attorneys and remained there for about one hour and 45 minutes. Their testimony came two days before Friday's scheduled guilty plea hearing for former Chief Nate Harper.

"My appearance at the grand jury was requested in order to assist them in 'tying up some loose ends' and clarify some issues of concern," Deputy Chief Donaldson said in an email Wednesday night. "I am not the subject of their investigation."

It's possible that Mr. Harper is "cooperating in exchange for leniency, and that that cooperation is opening up a new phase of the investigation" or prompting investigators to revisit issues touched on earlier in their lengthy probe, said Wesley Oliver, an associate professor and the Criminal Justice Program director at the Duquesne University School of Law.

The bureau now led by Chief McDonald and Deputy Chief Donaldson has been central to the probe, which has touched on the use of unauthorized debit cards funded with private payments for moonlighting officers, the issuance of parking variances to valet firms and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's security detail.

The witnesses were followed into the grand jury room by assistant U.S. attorneys Robert Cessar and Lee Karl, the chief prosecutors handling the investigation.

Afterward, Chief McDonald declined to comment. Chief Donaldson said that the two were subpoenaed to appear.

"We were just here to assist them with the investigation," he said., adding that he and the chief could not talk about their testimony.

Mr. Ravenstahl, in his first public appearance in weeks at a groundbreaking for a South Side development, said he did not know why the pair was testifying in front of the grand jury.

"I have nothing new to update from my perspective in regards to the grand jury investigation," he said.

City solicitor Daniel Regan said he became aware late last week that the chief and deputy chief had been subpoenaed. He said the chiefs did not ask the Law Department to be present.

"The city has cooperated, is still cooperating and will continue to cooperate," he said.

There was no sign that Chief McDonald or Deputy Chief Donaldson were targets of the probe.

"If you had somebody who was the target of an investigation, they would very likely show up with counsel," said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor. "When you have people with administrative responsibilities who we assume are not targets of the investigation, then it's often the case that they get called in to explain systems, to explain administrative procedures, to explain how things do work or should work."

Prosecutors might then contrast the proper procedures with actual events in an effort to show criminality, he said.

The appearance of the chiefs doesn't necessarily mean that the probe's turn toward Mr. Ravenstahl is over, both professors said. Since early May, the mayor's senior secretary, his chief of staff, two female acquaintances and three sometime members of his security detail have appeared before the grand jury.

Mr. Ravenstahl elevated Chief McDonald to acting chief Feb. 20, the day he asked Mr. Harper to step down following a meeting among the mayor, the FBI and prosecutors. She had served as an assistant chief since 2004.

A day after her appointment, Chief McDonald said she had met with the FBI. She said she was not the target of the investigation and said agents were looking instead at the Office of Personnel and Finance, which she oversaw for a time in her capacity as assistant chief of administration.

The personnel and finance office handled checks from businesses that paid officers for moonlighting work.

Chief Harper is accused of diverting roughly $70,000 in moonlighting payments into an unauthorized account, then using around $30,000 to cover personal expenses. He is expected to plead guilty to conspiracy and failure to file tax returns.

Four members of the police bureau -- three civilians and one officer -- remain on paid administrative leave. They are former personnel and finance manager Sandra Ganster; two of her subordinates, Kim Montgomery and Tammy Davis; and Ms. Montgomery's daughter, Officer Tonya Montgomery-Ford.

Ms. Ganster's attorney, Bill Difenderfer, said she had not been contacted recently by federal agents. Attorneys for the other three women who are on leave could not be reached.

In March, Deputy Chief Donaldson confirmed that he had also met with the FBI and was cooperating. He also said he had ordered the shutdown of the unauthorized account from which Mr. Harper's debit card drew, after learning of its existence from then-Assistant Chief McDonald in January.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. Moriah Balingit contributed. First Published October 16, 2013 5:13 AM


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