Tony Norman: Allow Harper the chance to tell cautionary tale

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Very few people enter public life with the intention of betraying the public's trust.

In the days before winning an election or cinching the interview that leads to a coveted appointed position, the last thing a civic-minded person is thinking about is how to rob the public.

Today, as former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper stands before U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon to await sentencing for his role in a conspiracy to divert public funds to an unauthorized credit union account, there's no reason to believe he was some nefarious exception to the rule.

By all accounts, Mr. Harper, the first African-American appointed to lead the police bureau since 1995, was an effective patrolman and smooth bureaucratic insider on a force that has generated a mixed record -- especially along racial lines.

The perception of Mr. Harper as street smart, competent and loyal to a fault to his fellow officers probably vaulted him to the top of former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's list of potential police chiefs when he began his search for a replacement for Dominic J. Costa in 2006.

In the run-up to Mr. Harper's appointment, it was widely reported that Allegheny County had filed liens against his Stanton Heights home 11 times since 1996 for late property tax and sewage bill payments. Mr. Harper managed to pay most of the $5,521 he owed by the time the stories that he was a chronic scofflaw began to appear.

In 2006, Mr. Harper owed $2,274 to the city and Pittsburgh Public Schools and $394 to the county in overdue property taxes, penalties and fees. Since it was the only obstacle standing between him and his $92,285 salary as Pittsburgh police chief, it was the easiest check he ever wrote.

But it will not be the Nathan E. Harper who existed before taking the oath of office as police chief in October 2006 that Judge Bissoon will sentence today. The broken man looking to the federal judge for a larger measure of mercy than justice is now a felon who has been forced to forfeit the pension he steadily accrued after joining the Pittsburgh police in 1977.

The Nate Harper who will bow his head abjectly in court today has admitted to not filing taxes for four years. He also admits in his guilty plea that he diverted $70,629 of the public's scarce money to an unauthorized credit union account he and his cronies controlled and which he used for $31,987 in miscellaneous silly expenses.

Though Mr. Harper spared the government the expense of putting him on trial by cooperating with federal investigators and admitting his guilt early on, his justifiable fear of landing hard time in federal prison compelled him to hire smart and experienced legal counsel. Their expertise isn't cheap, but it could spare him the indignity -- and danger -- of serving a day in prison if he's lucky.

Despite his betrayal of the public trust, it is difficult not to feel a sense of empathy for Mr. Harper and his family. His irresponsibility has left his loved ones without his once sizeable income and the expectation of a pension. The punishment handed down to him today will effectively be levied against them, as well, whether they deserve it or not.

Legal bills will keep whatever financial resources Mr. Harper still has either tied up for years or quickly diminished. Assuming he's given probation instead of jail time, because of his age and the aggregate weight of decades of public service, he isn't likely to have much earning power in Pittsburgh as a high-profile felon.

While it is hard to argue with the belief that Mr. Harper's contempt for the law deserves punishment, I've always considered the mob mentality that justifies stuffing criminals -- especially nonviolent felons like Mr. Harper -- into the maw of the prison-industrial complex a sadistic act of societal revenge, not justice.

I agree with those who have suggested that instead of prison, Mr. Harper be given an opportunity to turn his fall from grace into a cautionary tale for the next generation of Pittsburgh police. Who knows better than Nate Harper how corruption takes root in an otherwise good cop's heart?

Put Mr. Harper on probation. Sentence him to lecture police academy cadets across the state on how to spot the insidious seductions of the job. Keep him busy for the next decade redeeming his reputation. No one will work harder to be a good citizen.

And as an added benefit, he'll probably pay his taxes on time and in full when due.

Tony Norman:, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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