Smiting Nate Harper's pension is excessive wrath

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You could say that the Policemen's Relief and Pension Fund board got all biblical on Nate Harper last week, but that would be doing a disservice to the Bible.

When that old grump Moses and his wrathful god were laying down the law, they decreed that if a man stole his neighbor's sheep and sold or slaughtered it, he had to repay his neighbor with four sheep. If it was an ox, he had to repay fivefold.

Pittsburgh's pension fund board has decreed that former Chief Nate Harper shall pay for his sins at the ratio of about 19 to 1.

You might want to do a little recalibrating if your sense of justice is tougher than the Old Testament.

I'm using the Old Testament as my standard here because it's always gotten lots of flak for its toughness -- relative to the gentle-hippie Jesus caricature of the New Testament.

But the old eye-for-an-eye rule was -- is -- actually merciful: You can take only the eye of the person who put your eye out, not the eyes of all his relatives, too (a barbaric standard still practiced in places blessedly far from Pittsburgh).

By any of these measures -- sheep, ox or eye -- the police pension board has a stricter standard than God. Here's the lazy layperson's math: Multiply Mr. Harper's pension of $5,260 per month by 12 months (= $63,120 per year), then by 10 years (if he lives to be the biblical "three-score and 10"). By the age of 70, he would have received about $633,000 in pension.

Most of that was stripped from him on Thursday, in punishment for the $32,000 he spent, mostly on himself, diverted from private entities' payments for the services of off-duty police. Mr. Harper's attorney claims the board told him it would hold a hearing and delay voting on the matter until January -- which fits with what it told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

But contrary to that promise, board members chatted amongst themselves, realized they were of one mind (unthinking though it may be) and took a vote. They decided (in an attempt at mercy?) to return to Mr. Harper the $133,000 he had paid into his own pension -- minus $40,000 in benefits already received, and minus $32,000 to restore what he stole.

So he'll end up with a lump sum of about $60,000 -- for 36 years of service, most of it blameless. Again, if he lives to the biblical age of 70, he'll have forfeited at least $570,000 for a theft of $32,000. And he still awaits sentencing from the federal judge.

Before we consider whether the punishment-to-date fits the crime, let's consider the board's false division of Mr. Harper's pension into two segments: the part that belongs to him and the part that does not.

Here's the thing about a pension: It's not a big thank you from the taxpayers for a job (hopefully) well done; it's deferred salary. The entire pension belongs to Mr. Harper.

You can argue that public employees' pensions are ridiculously generous -- I think they are -- but regardless of our opinion, Mr. Harper earned all of it.

That's not to say that Mr. Harper's crime is not serious. It was an astonishing and disappointing betrayal of the public trust, completely out of keeping with his pre-chief reputation. It deserves more than a slap on the wrist, but -- if you have any experience with falling from grace and being restored -- you know it merits some moral imagination.

The law says that for certain crimes, a public employee's pension can be rescinded.

Can be. Doesn't have to be. The board has already conceded this point by deciding to return a portion of it. So why not subtract the restitution from the portion rescinded, rather than from the part Mr. Harper paid in?

There's another important aspect to Old Testament justice: It doesn't treat people differently based on their status.

Would a rank-and-file officer be treated this severely? Hmmm -- we don't know, because no one else has even been charged.

Moses, the big softie, also made allowances for remorse. Anyone who loses 20 pounds in 30 days -- as Mr. Harper did from resignation to indictment -- is feeling gut-wrenching shame.

Given the pension board's double-talk on the hearing, its wrongheadedness on what a pension actually is and its strip-him-bare decision, you gotta wonder if the board was more interested in meting out justice or in just shaving a half-million from its ledger.

If you ask me, now it's Nate Harper who's getting robbed.

Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com.


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