PITTSBURGH – The city’s former police chief was sentenced to 18 months in prison for conspiring to create an unauthorized slush fund, with a federal judge saying she was sending a message that the seriousness of his crimes outweighed his supporters’ calls for leniency.
Nathan Harper, 61, also was ordered to repay $31,986 that he spent on himself, including meals and drink tabs at various restaurants and bars.
Harper resigned last February and in March was charged with conspiracy to commit theft and failing to file tax returns between 2008 and 2011, when much of the money was misappropriated.
Harper never denied wrongdoing, though his attorneys say the chief was ordered to start the slush fund by someone they refused to name. Eight family members and friends testified to his character Tuesday, each of them asking to keep Harper out of prison because of his otherwise spotless record and gentle demeanor.
Even Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Cessar, who argued for the prison term, lauded Harper’s law enforcement work.
“If I were not here as an assistant U.S. attorney, I may well have been one of those people writing letters of support for Mr. Harper,” Cessar said, referencing more than 30 letters received by the court.
But U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon said a “slap on the wrist” would “send a dangerous message to the public.” She added, “Unfortunately, no amount of kind words can erase the seriousness of his crimes and the breach of public trust.”
Her sentence left the courtroom in stunned silence and Harper’s wife, Cynthia, and other relatives in tears.
The sentencing marked a striking fall for Harper, whose rise from motorcycle cop to chief was nearly as remarkable. Harper joined the department in 1977 and was appointed chief in 2006 by the recently departed mayor, Luke Ravenstahl.
Ravenstahl abruptly dropped his re-election bid in March – three weeks before Harper was indicted – saying speculation about the investigation had become too much of a burden for him and his family.
Defense attorney Robert Leight told the Associated Press that Harper maintains Ravenstahl was involved in the slush fund, but he stopped short of saying Ravenstahl ordered Harper to create it.
“We’ll let the U.S. attorney’s office address that,” Leight said.
U.S. Attorney David Hickton declined to discuss Ravenstahl or the investigation, other than to say it was ongoing.
Hickton also announced he won’t charge Harper in an unrelated scheme that helped his former friend land a $327,000 contract to install radios and computers in city police cars. The friend and a former city computer worker are serving probation for the 2007 bid-rigging scam. Both claim it was Harper’s idea and that his cut was $9,000, all of which Harper denies.
Hickton said “the facts, the evidence and good sense” led him to not charge Harper, saying the bid-rigging evidence would have been contested and likely would not have brought a longer prison term than the slush fund crimes Harper readily admitted.
Ravenstahl’s attorney, Charles Porter, denied the former mayor ordered Harper to create the slush fund.
Authorities have not charged Ravenstahl, though he acknowledged his police bodyguards had credit cards linked to the unauthorized slush fund accounts.
Harper acknowledged diverting more than $70,000 in fees the city collected from businesses that hired police officers to work off-duty security details into two unauthorized credit union accounts. Harper then spent nearly half the money for his own benefit.
The accounts enabled Harper and others in the police bureau to spend money that could not be traced the same way normally budgeted police funds would have been.
“I made a mistake that has been devastating and that has tarnished the law enforcement community. I’m a broken man,” Harper told Bissoon, later adding, “I will carry this to my grave.”
Harper, who will report to prison in a few weeks, declined to comment outside court.
“I believe that deep down in your heart you are still a lawman,” Bissoon told Harper. “You are a lawman who may not like what happened today, but I think you understand what happened today, and why.”