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Allegheny County District Attorney Zappala offers plan for off-duty officers

| Tuesday, March 12, 2013, 11:57 p.m.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Tuesday that Pittsburgh police should dedicate supervisors to oversee large off-duty details, such as weekend security at South Side bars, and pay for those positions from money the city collects from businesses for the moonlighting jobs. File photo

Pittsburgh police should dedicate supervisors to oversee large off-duty details, such as weekend security at South Side bars, and pay for those positions from money the city collects from businesses for the moonlighting jobs, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said on Tuesday.

Zappala, who acknowledged his office began investigating a police contract last summer, said he will send City Council a letter on Wednesday with his recommendation.

A police supervisor to coordinate dozens of officers who provide security in busy areas might avoid situations like one in January in which off-duty officers fired shots at a speeding car on crowded Carson Street as bars emptied for the night. A bullet grazed a pedestrian, and one officer fired at the wrong car.

“As a legal and practical matter, when you have a large number of off-duty officers, there's no reason they should not be working as a squad,” Zappala said. “In order to be effective, they need supervision.

“There's nobody on the streets giving directives as to what these guys are supposed to be doing. That money should be used to ensure they work as a squad.”

Sgt. Michael LaPorte, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said sergeants in police zones supervise officers working off-duty details.

“As a supervisor, you probably want to stop by and see what's going on,” LaPorte said. That can be difficult if the police stations are not staffed with enough supervisors, he said.

LaPorte said he's interested in possibly turning the South Side weekend saturation, begun seven weeks ago, into a squad that could move elsewhere.

What happens to the $3.85 hourly surcharge the city imposes on businesses that employ uniformed off-duty officers is at the center of a federal investigation involving the police department and former Chief Nate Harper.

Some of the nearly $800,000 the city collected last year was diverted to an account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union. The FBI seized boxes of records last month from the police Special Events Office, which collects the money, and the Personnel and Finance Office.

Eight police officials had debit cards linked to the account, including Harper and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's bodyguards. The FBI examined records at the credit union, officials have said.

Zappala said his office was not part of any investigation of the credit union accounts. He confirmed that a Pittsburgh police officer tipped off his office to examine the awarding of a city contract to Alpha Outfitters, a shell company set up by Harper's one-time friend Art Bedway. Zappala said his office began a grand jury investigation “in late summer” of issues involved with the contract but turned the case over to federal prosecutors.

“A city police officer brought (the contract) to our attention,” Zappala said. “We work together with the FBI, and a decision was made to turn it over. As a matter of protocol, we have a partnership with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office. They can afford to spend a lot of time on an investigation like this.”

That federal investigation became publicly linked to Harper when the Tribune-Review in January revealed that federal prosecutors were looking at whether the chief played a role in awarding the contract.

Federal authorities in November accused Bedway, 63, of Robinson of conspiring with former city employee Christine Kebr, 56, of Castle Shannon and unidentified others to set up Alpha Outfitters. The city paid more than $327,000 to Alpha Outfitters between 2007 and 2009 to install computers and electronic equipment in police vehicles, according to federal prosecutors.

Harper has said the police bureau “had no involvement in securing this contract or making any payments.” Harper's attorney, Robert Del Greco, has said the FBI questioned Harper, who has not been charged with any crime. Ravenstahl asked for his resignation last month.

Bedway, Kebr and Sgt. Gordon McDaniel, who oversees the police vehicle fleet, appeared before a federal grand jury this year.

Kebr pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy. She is scheduled to be sentenced April 4. Bedway and federal prosecutors have said in court documents they are discussing a plea agreement.

Bobby Kerlik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7886 or Staff writer Margaret Harding contributed.

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