Judge sentences Harper to 18 months in prison on corruption charges
By Brian Bowling and Bobby Kerlik
Published: Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, 9:21 a.m.
Former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper's 18-month prison sentence doesn't end a federal probe into the city's operations, U.S. Attorney David Hickton said on Tuesday.
Harper won't face more charges, and the government has closed the investigation of a bid-rigging scheme that included Harper, he said. But the FBI and Internal Revenue Service are still looking into credit union accounts that led to Harper's conviction and investigating leads raised during the wide-ranging inquiry, he said.
Hickton refused to say whether investigators are looking at former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in the investigation, even though one of Harper's attorneys said the ex-mayor told Harper to open the accounts at the police credit union.
“We are still in the evidence gathering phase,” Hickton said. “We have not begun, internally, to deliberate on the evidence.”
Harper's attorney, Bob Leight, said Harper “told the FBI in our presence that he was directed by Ravenstahl to open those accounts.”
Charles Porter, Ravenstahl's attorney, denied that. “The mayor had nothing to do with it. If the chief said that, he was wrong.”
Ravenstahl posted on his Twitter that Leight only mentioned the mayor's involvement after his client was sentenced. He added the hashtags “pathetic” and “no credibility.” Ravenstahl did not return a call for comment but emailed the Tribune-Review that “the tweets tell the story. Nothing more to add.”
Hickton declined to say what investigators are pursuing or who they might charge. He said he would let the public know when the investigation ends.
Harper, 61, of Stanton Heights remains free on a $100,000 bond until he reports to prison, likely within two months. His wife, Cynthia, and family members accompanied him.
He pleaded guilty in October to conspiring to divert more than $70,000 from the police bureau's Special Events Office into two private accounts and spending about $32,000 on personal items. He pleaded guilty to failing to file income tax returns for four years.
U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon ordered him to repay the money he diverted and serve a year of probation after the prison sentence.
“I made a mistake, and it has been devastating. It has tarnished the law enforcement community. I'm a broken man,” Harper told the judge. Gaunt and emotional, he said God has carried him through. “I will carry this to my grave. I'm ashamed of what I did.” A weeping Harper apologized to Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Cessar, the FBI, his family and the community. He sought leniency because of his three decades of public service and the loss of his career, pension and reputation.
In December, the Policemen's Relief and Pension Fund voted to forfeit Harper's $5,260-a-month pension and to return the balance of his payments into the fund, without interest. Harper has appealed that decision.
Harper's pension attorney, Sam Stretton, said the sentencing will not affect the pension appeal.
Although 33 people wrote letters and eight character witnesses spoke on Harper's behalf, Bissoon said his service can't excuse his “quintessential government corruption.”
Harper was a “powerful and relatively affluent” official who treated public money “like his personal ATM” and “lavished himself with tens of thousands of dollars,” she said. Showing leniency would send a dangerous message to the public and public officials, the judge said.
“I believe that, deep down in your heart, you're still a lawman,” Bissoon said, adding he may not like the prison sentence, but “as a lawman, I think you understand it.”
The government introduced documents showing that Harper made more than 170 transactions on one of the debit cards between 2008 and 2012, spending more than $23,000 at restaurants and hotels or withdrawing money from ATMs.
Harper told Bissoon that he can't explain why he committed the crimes, other than a lapse of judgment.
“God still has something for me,” he said. “If it was left up to me, I would not be standing here.”
Cessar asked Bissoon to send Harper to prison but agreed he was fundamentally a good person.
“In many ways, I'm conflicted by being here,” he said. “If I was not an assistant U.S. attorney, I may have been one of the people who wrote a letter in support of Mr. Harper, because I've worked with him.”
Hickton said he decided not to prosecute Harper for his role in a bid-rigging investigation that led to convictions of his former friend, Arthur Bedway, 64, of Robinson and former city employee Christine Kebr, 57, of Castle Shannon. He said evidence that Harper took $9,000 from Bedway was questionable, and a conviction would not have changed the sentence he received.
Although Harper has denied it, “Nate Harper was the third person when we looked at the (bid-rigging) case,” Hickton confirmed.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said the former chief's sentencing was “a sad day” for the city.
“I am committed to breaking with the past, championing ethics and accountability from top to bottom, and rebuilding a department that all city residents, including rank and file officers, can be proud of,” Peduto said in a statement.
Staff writer Margaret Harding contributed. Brian Bowling and Bobby Kerlik are Trib Total Media staff writers.
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