Secrecy is key in grand jury probes
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It's become common knowledge that a federal grand jury is investigating how a contract for radios and computers in police cars was awarded to a friend of Nate Harper, the city police chief.
But this is how much the public is likely to learn about what's happening behind the doors of the grand jury room on the seventh floor of the U.S. courthouse:
Next to nothing.
That's usually the case with federal investigations, in which prosecutors, agents and the 23 members of five sitting grand juries impaneled for 18 months are under strict secrecy rules.
Witnesses are free to talk, but they almost never do, hence the flurry of "no comments" by their lawyers.
The media can sometimes gain a glimmer of insight by hanging around outside the grand jury room and watching who comes and goes, but there's no way to know what's really going on until an indictment is handed up.
Those on the outside, then, are left to speculate. This much is known regarding the current case:
Art Bedway, a longtime friend of the chief under indictment for bribery and fraud, appeared before the grand jury last Tuesday, along with his wife, Colleen Bedway, and Gordon McDaniel, a police sergeant in charge of the bureau's fleet of cars.
Former city systems analyst Christine Ann Kebr, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, appeared Wednesday.
Prosecutors have said that Mr. Bedway, Ms. Kebr and an unidentified third person met in 2006 to discuss Alpha Outfitters, a company connected to Mr. Bedway that received $327,000 to install police radios and computers.
Mr. Bedway and Ms. Kebr met at the office of another company connected to Mr. Bedway, Victory Security, and outlined Alpha's bid. Prosecutors said Ms. Kebr then made sure Alpha received the contract.
Chief Harper said last week that he has not testified before the grand jury, wasn't involved in the Alpha meetings in 2006 and denied that he took money from Mr. Bedway.
Chief Harper said that he had not received a "target letter," but such letters are only sometimes used. A target letter is a tool in the arsenal of the U.S. attorney's office employed to entice someone to enter plea negotiations.
If the chief hasn't received one, it could mean that he is not a target, or it could mean nothing. He might end up getting one later, or never. Or the case could end with no more charges, and no one outside of the parties involved will ever know all the details.
That last scenario has played out before in high-profile cases here, most notably with the investigation of former Mayor Tom Murphy, handled by the same prosecutor who is conducting the Bedway investigation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Cessar.
The accusation was that the mayor traded millions in fire union contract demands in exchange for the union's votes in the 2001 primary.
After a two-year investigation, the U.S. attorney's office declined to indict. Instead, the two sides struck an unusual deal in which Mr. Murphy would work to identify flaws in the collective bargaining law.
As in the current case, however, it was impossible to know what would happen during the process.
Mr. Cessar spent months presenting documents and witnesses before the grand jury, but he refused to answer questions, as did everyone else.
Five grand juries hear cases in this district. Unlike state or county grand juries, which are convened for specific investigations, federal grand juries are impaneled for a year and a half to hear cases that fall into general categories -- child pornography, drugs, public corruption, organized crime.
Each panel of 16 to 23 jurors meets for one week a month, usually for two or three days, with assistant U.S. attorneys scheduling time to present evidence in a variety of cases.
The grand jury issues subpoenas and is the means of securing documents and locking in testimony. While federal agencies such as the IRS and FBI can issue their own subpoenas in drug and gun investigations, corruption probes require a grand jury subpoena.
Although Chief Harper has apparently not hired an attorney, it would be no surprise if he did, nor would it mean he is going to be charged. All witnesses who appear before a grand jury hire lawyers. The attorney can't be in the grand jury room but can advise a client outside.
Although an old joke holds that grand jurors will indict a ham sandwich if the prosecutor asks them to, ex-prosecutors say that isn't true for investigations involving public figures.
Grand juries, they say, are often independent-minded and will decline to indict if they feel the evidence is not strong enough.
The secrecy of this whole process is sometimes decried by the public and is especially frustrating for the media, but federal officials say it's necessary to protect the innocent.
"In the eyes of some, investigation alone suggests guilt," says the Benchmark for U.S. District Court Judges, a guide published by the Federal Judicial Center. "Thus, a great injury can be done to the good name and standing of anyone, even though they are not indicted, if it becomes known that there was an investigation about them."
The grand jury is designed to serve a dual role. It operates as the government's mechanism for prosecution, but it also is supposed to protect citizens from inappropriate prosecutions.
While it's true that a suspect may waive grand jury proceedings and agree to be prosecuted directly by a written charge called an information, the U.S. attorney's office generally needs the consent of average citizens to charge someone.
The grand jury must have at least 16 members for a quorum, and at least 12 of those must vote to indict. The U.S. attorney then has to sign the indictment for the case to proceed.
"Thus, the government and the grand jury act as checks upon each other," says the handbook for grand jurors serving in the Western District of Pennsylvania. "This assures that neither may arbitrarily wield the awesome power to indict a person of a crime."
First Published January 29, 2013 12:00 am