Nate Harper: fallen chief, penitent human

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By the time we reach adulthood, we are accustomed to seeing the mighty fall. In fact, one marker of moving into adulthood might be realizing that those we love and admire -- and we ourselves -- have feet of clay.

There are some, though, whose falls we enjoy. Who hasn't felt a surge of satisfaction when an arrogant, powerful public figure tumbles from grace? He got his, we say with glee. He had that coming.

Which is one reason I'm so perplexed and saddened by the recent end to Nate Harper's career with the Pittsburgh police. I never saw it coming. Apparently few did.

Like most Pittsburghers, I don't know the former police chief personally. I know him only from his six years as the primary face of local law enforcement.

He was no spotlight hog, though: He simply stepped forward when circumstances demanded it and spoke in a calm, measured way about crime and public safety. He seemed modest and unassuming, but knowledgeable and reassuring. A good leader and likable man.

It seems many Pittsburghers still feel that way -- even after a federal grand jury indicted Mr. Harper on one count of conspiracy for private use of public funds and four counts of failing to file federal income tax returns.

Prosecutors allege that he and unnamed others diverted more than $70,000 intended for city coffers into secret accounts and spent the money on themselves -- for meals, electronics, alcohol and other private expenses.

"People are not reticent to tell me bad words about my clients," said criminal defense attorney Robert Del Greco Jr. at a Friday news conference. However, "I have not had a bad word said to me about Nate. ...

"He was the chief of police, but nobody ever had the impression he was a bully."

That single assessment makes Nate Harper unique in Pittsburgh's power structure. I can't speak authoritatively about other places, since I've spent most of my adult life here, but I believe this city suffers at the hands of an endless string of bullies. It is beset by a never-ending, asset- and energy-draining war among factions of political thugs.

That Mr. Harper rose to his position without being a bully is something of a marvel. But he was surrounded by a culture in which taxpayers' money is the tool politicians use to take care of their own, to reward communities that play their game and withhold from those that don't.

He certainly crossed a line, but we should also worry about how loosely that line is drawn in the first place. Perhaps U.S. Attorney David Hickton's words were carefully chosen: "These allegations represent the worst kind of corruption." That leaves room for worse corruption yet to be discovered.

Perhaps a saving grace in Mr. Harper's corruption is that he wasn't very slick about it. There's salvation to be had in getting caught and owning it.

The best aspects of his character and the best omens for his future were on display at Friday's news conference -- even though he wasn't there.

He didn't attend, Mr. Del Greco said, because "he is embarrassed and sad and humbled and contrite and all those emotions that accompany a police chief who for 36 years had a distinguished career that is now tarnished by a federal indictment."

It's a good thing -- and I speak from personal experience -- when we are overwhelmed by the shame of our own sins. It means we still have a conscience -- we haven't seared it past the point of feeling remorse.

We've all seen unrepentant scoundrels whose only regret is getting caught. Mr. Harper's embarrassment -- and the palpable sadness of his seen-it-all attorneys -- speaks volumes to his credit.

Another encouraging and surprising sign came via the attorneys: Mr. Harper intends to plead guilty.

Although it may be, as Mr. Del Greco said, that "the unmonitored accessibility of that account proved to be an irresistible temptation for Nate," explaining how a crime unfolded is not the same as justifying it, nor did Mr. Harper try to.

"Nate's behavior with regard to the credit card was unambiguous and overwhelming as far as we were concerned, and indefensible," his lawyer said. "He admitted it."

Since we're all going to stumble somehow, sooner or later, in ways big and small, our character and our very futures depend on how we go about picking ourselves up. Mr. Harper is suffering, but he's starting to set things right.

"He is widely loved by the citizens of Pittsburgh and the police force," Mr. Del Greco said. "My phone rings off the hook from every cop that tells me, 'We wish the best for Nate.' "

I do, too. And I'd tell him, it's strange what can turn out to be "best."


Ruth Ann Dailey:


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