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Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Huss steered FBI to police, attorney says

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
In this Oct. 29, 2012, file photo, City of Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss talks about what area residents should do to prepare for Hurricane Sandy as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl looks on during a press briefing in the City County Building Downtown. An attorney for longtime Sandra Ganster, the longtime manager of the police Office of Personnel and Finance, believes Huss tipped off the FBI to a scandal surrounding secret expense accounts at the police credit union that cost police Chief Nate Harper his job.

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Pension awaits

Former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper will collect $5,260.14 monthly — $63,121.66 annually — in payments when his pension is approved this month, the secretary-treasurer of the police pension fund said on Friday.

The board is scheduled to vote on Harper's pension on Thursday. If approved, he would receive his first check on April 3.

Harper contributed $133,000 over his 36-year career into the fund, said Paul Dugan, secretary-treasurer.

Friday, March 8, 2013, 11:14 p.m.

Did Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss tip off the FBI to secret expense accounts at the police credit union?

“He must have called the feds,” said William H. Difenderfer, attorney for Sandra Ganster, longtime manager of the police Office of Personnel and Finance.

“Let him say that,” Huss said on Friday. “I can't comment.”

Difenderfer said Ganster spoke briefly with Huss on Feb. 9, a Saturday, to report her concerns about police spending from an unauthorized account at the Greater Pittsburgh Federal Credit Union. Huss did not tell Ganster to call authorities, Difenderfer said.

On Feb. 11, federal investigators began questioning Ganster, 57, of Overbrook, he said.

The next day, FBI agents seized documents from the Personnel and Finance and the Special Events offices at police headquarters, which coordinate moonlighting jobs by officers.

The FBI raid, captured by newspaper and television reporters, was the first public inkling of a scandal that cost police Chief Nate Harper his job and contributed to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's decision to abandon well-laid plans to seek re-election.

Huss' potential role in the investigation would mark the earliest known involvement of top administration officials in the ongoing scandal.

Ravenstahl met with the FBI on Feb. 20, hours before forcing the retirement of Harper.

During two subsequent meetings with investigators and the U.S. Attorney's Office, Ganster told them that she diverted $25,000 to $35,000 in public money over three to four years into a credit union account labeled “I.P.F” that she opened under orders from Harper, Difenderfer said.

The money came from payments that businesses, including bars, restaurants, strip clubs, construction firms and sports teams, made to hire off-duty police officers, often to provide security.

Harper had Ganster maintain a balance of $2,000 to $3,000 in the credit union account, her lawyer said.

“If the chief was purchasing some items, or they needed money, he would tell her how much he'd need, and she would pull checks that would total about that amount,” Difenderfer said. “It was from businesses' checks that were meant to be going into the premium account.”

Harper's attorney Robert Del Greco quibbled with Ganster's allegations but would not be specific.

“The Nate Harper camp won't comment on all that,” said Del Greco. “We've chosen not to litigate this in the newspapers.”

Charles Porter, Ravenstahl's attorney, said he did not know whether Huss or Ganster informed the FBI, or if Ravenstahl knew about any communication between Huss and Ganster. Porter said federal prosecutors told him that Ravenstahl is nothing more than a witness.

Harper ordered eight debit cards from the credit union account and, according to city officials and Difenderfer, distributed them to Ravenstahl's police bodyguards, a few police leaders and key staffers.

Difenderfer said Harper once was so eager to gain access to one of the cards that he called Ganster while she was vacationing to ask where she kept the key to open a safe in her office that contained the cards. Ganster had the key with her in Florida, so Harper hired a locksmith to open the safe, Difenderfer said.

“She found out about that later. It bothered her,” Difenderfer said. He could not say when that happened.

He said federal investigators asked her about the safe. He said it did not contain other valuables.

“Keep in mind, this guy's the chief of police, for God's sake, and her boss, and she has been there for 30 years. She does what she's told, and I don't think she has the duty to really overthink the thing,” Difenderfer said. “And ultimately, she did the right thing.”

Ganster's call to Huss came a day after someone from Controller Michael Lamb's office called the finance office to announce an audit of the department's handling of secondary details and to schedule an interview with personnel for the following week.

Ganster came forward because, she said, money in the credit union account paid for a Sept. 19 party at Olive or Twist, a Downtown bar and restaurant, to celebrate the promotion of Cmdr. Eric Holmes, a friend and business partner of Harper's.

“That really didn't pass the smell test with her,” Difenderfer said. “She got scared and thought, ‘I don't want to get caught up in this.'”

Patrick Thomassey, who represents Holmes, said his client attended the party that served hors d'oeuvres. He said he thinks attendees paid for their drinks.

“I don't think Eric knew who paid for it. I think he knows his fellow officers paid for it, but he had no idea about the source of the funds,” Thomassey said. “If someone throws you a party, you assume other people are paying for it.”

Ganster met twice with investigators for two hours at a time with a grant of partial immunity from prosecution, Difenderfer said. He considers her a whistle-blower.

He spoke publicly because Ganster, on vacation since going to the feds, learned this week that acting police Chief Regina McDonald put her on paid suspension with no explanation.

“She's devastated by this. She's really upset,” he said.

Difenderfer described Ganster's work with the credit union account as a small part of her duties in minding the department's finances.

She did not receive monthly statements from the credit union accounts, he said. Investigators showed her debit statements laden with charges from restaurants.

“She never used it to buy anything for herself,” Difenderfer said.

Ganster, an employee since 1978 who earned $70,166, told investigators that Harper used money from the account to buy riot shields for police to use during the Group of 20 economic summit in 2009, and outdoor furniture and ashtrays for a deck at police headquarters. Difenderfer likened the credit union to a “petty cash” drawer that Harper used at his discretion.

“Most of the expenditures were really, I think, a way of the chief just getting things without having to go through the red tape,” Difenderfer said.

Jeremy Boren is a Trib Total Media staff writer.Reach him at 412-320-7935 or writers Carl Prine, Bobby Kerlik andMargaret Harding contributed to this report.

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