Email, bank statement can touch off federal investigation
Allegations of local police misusing local money might not sound like a federal crime, but if a check or document went through the mail or crossed state lines electronically, the U.S. Attorney's Office has a way to prosecute it, legal experts say.
“It's relatively easy to get federal jurisdiction,” said Thomas J. Farrell, a private lawyer who served as both a federal public defender and a federal prosecutor. As an assistant U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh, he prosecuted financial crimes and public corruption cases.
Federal officials won't say what they're looking at in their investigation of Pittsburgh police that prompted this week's ouster of Chief Nate Harper. But Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said the FBI's search of police headquarters last week targeted the personnel and finance and special events offices, focusing on how officials spent money the city collects from businesses that hire off-duty officers.
Authorities are looking at whether city money improperly went to at least two accounts at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union, and spending from those accounts.
Farrell said although he doesn't know details of the FBI's investigation, a check or bank statement connected to a fraud opens the door for federal investigation if either of those items were sent through the mail. Wire fraud is a tougher connection to make since the communication then has to cross state lines, but emails often pass through servers in other states, even when they're sent between locations in the same state, Farrell said.
Top police officials said they did not know that debit cards from the credit union accounts were issued in their names. Credit union officials said the chief's office opened the accounts.
Harper denied wrongdoing through his attorney.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he spoke with FBI agents and the U.S. Attorney's Office, and they told him he's not a target of the investigation.
Donaldson, acting Chief Regina McDonald and City Controller Michael Lamb also said they spoke with federal authorities.
Investigators are following the money, Lamb said.
Businesses employing off-duty police officers pay the officers' wages, which amount to about $40 per hour, plus a $3.85-per-hour administration fee. McDonald has said wages totaled about $6 million annually, and the administration fee has averaged about $700,000 since it was created in 2007.
McDonald said the fee was created to pay for such things as legal fees, equipment damage and medical bills for situations occurring during off-duty details.
Lamb said businesses send checks to the police department, which forwards them to the finance department. The finance department, he said, deposits them in an authorized account and sends deposit slips and copies of the checks to his office.
Lamb said the finance department directed his office to list the money as reimbursement for officer overtime, when the $3.85 fee should have been listed as revenue to the city.
“What we know is that for the last six years they have been misrepresenting that revenue to us and telling us it was premium pay when in fact it was general city revenue,” Lamb said. “I have reported that to the federal authorities.”
University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said that if there was some kind of fraud committed, either with the accounts or the debit cards, it's likely the fraud included the use of the Internet or the mail and apparently involved accounts at a federal credit union.
“The bottom line is that the most likely way it gets into federal court is through these (mail and wire) fraud statutes,” Harris said. “That's how virtually all local fraud cases end up in federal court.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Allegheny County adoption event joins 40 children with families
- Man’s death by runaway wheel on Route 28 ruled accident
- Emergency personnel contain fire at Whitehall apartment complex
- Newsmaker: Christopher W. Robinson
- WVU frat brothers charged with hazing pledges
- Youngsters embrace technology that combines art, software in 3D printing
- Nude photos of Penn Hills High School students spur investigation
- Former youth volunteer facing federal child pornography charges
- Crash site to remain without crossing guard in Penn Hills
- Allegheny County 911 call center opinions diverge
- Portion of Parkway West will be closed for weekend work