‘Embarrassed’ ex-Pittsburgh chief to plead guilty

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PITTSBURGH – Former city police Chief Nate Harper will plead guilty to charges that he conspired to steal city police funds deposited into unauthorized police credit union accounts and failed to file federal tax returns from 2008 to 2011, his attorneys said Friday.


Harper’s lawyers made the announcement at a news conference on a day of fast-moving developments in the federal investigation after prosecutors announced the grand jury indictment, Harper pleaded not guilty to the charges at an arraignment, and the judge said the former chief could remain free.


U.S. Attorney David Hickton called Harper’s actions “the worst kind of public corruption,” and said it was “a sad day” for authorities who had worked closely with the soft-spoken, generally well-liked and seemingly humble man on issues ranging from gang violence and security for the G-20 economic summit in 2009.


“This is puzzling and baffling behavior,” Hickton said.


Later, Harper begged off appearing at the news conference at the last minute because he was “embarrassed and distraught,” defense attorney Robert DelGreco said. The 36-year police veteran has lost 20 pounds since Mayor Luke Ravenstahl demanded his resignation Feb. 20 after meeting with the FBI about the investigation, Harper’s attorneys said.


But the former chief, who came up through the ranks of Pittsburgh’s roughly 800-officer force and was chief since 2006, takes “full responsibility” for his actions, said Robert Leight, another Harper attorney.


“I think we’re prepared to plead to that indictment without modification,” DelGreco said.


The indictment alleges the 60-year-old Harper conspired with unnamed others to divert more than $70,000 from a city account into two unauthorized credit union accounts, then spent nearly $32,000 of that himself. It includes a single charge of conspiracy and four counts of willfully failing to file income tax returns.


Although the federal crimes carry a maximum combined penalty of nine years in prison, Harper’s attorneys said guidelines dictate a likely sentence of 10 to 16 months – low enough for them to argue for probation or alternative incarceration, like house arrest.


Hickton wouldn’t comment Friday on a likely sentence. He said the investigation is continuing, although he wouldn’t say whether the mayor or other city personnel are targeted.


Ravenstahl denies any wrongdoing or being a target of the probe, although he’s acknowledged two bodyguards, also city officers, used debit cards from the same credit union accounts. The 33-year-old mayor has decided not to run for re-election, citing the toll on his family from the scandal.


In statements Friday, Ravenstahl and interim police Chief Regina McDonald said the indictment against Harper was “sad.” They said they are working to bolster confidence in the police bureau.


The investigation centers on a $3.85 hourly fee that bars, restaurants and other businesses pay the city when they hire off-duty officers to work security details. The money is collected on top of whatever hourly wage the officers are paid and, by law, must be kept in city-controlled accounts and spent only on certain types of police business.


Instead, Harper helped open the credit union accounts from which he spent $31,987 – mostly at restaurants, bars and department stores – using two Visa debit cards to make automatic teller machine withdrawals and purchases, Hickton said.


Harper’s attorneys said the former chief was somewhat “naive” and may have believed at first that it was OK to open the unauthorized accounts because the money was still being spent on police-related business, including a massive Gatorade purchase to quench the thirst of officers brought in to handle the G-20 protests, for example.


At some point, however, Harper began spending the money on himself, which DelGreco said Harper understands was “unambiguously and indefensibly” wrong.


The attorneys hinted that Harper, who has three daughters and five grandchildren, exhausted his wages on his family and became tempted by the credit union funds.


“I think the lure of the unmonitored accessibility of that account proved to be an irresistible temptation,” DelGreco said.


The attorneys said Harper didn’t fail to file his tax returns to hide the money, but simply because of “procrastination” and “personal issues” that took precedence. Among other things, three city police officers were fatally gunned down in April 2009 – when the first of Harper’s delinquent tax returns would have been due – and Harper never got back on track in handling his personal affairs, the attorneys said.


The indictment grew out of another federal investigation in which a former city employee has already pleaded guilty to taking $6,000 in bribes to help a business owned by a man Harper has described as a former friend land a $327,000 contract to install computers and radios in squad cars in 2007.


Harper continues to deny taking bribes or making money from that contract, Leight said. But as investigators poked into Harper’s finances to see if he had any unexplained income from that scheme, Harper told investigators about money he stole from the police fees fund, Leight said.


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