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Indictment of ousted Pittsburgh police Chief Harper likely as grand jury meets

| Friday, March 22, 2013, 12:39 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper, pictured here on Feb. 15, 2013, when he was still chief, pleaded guilty to diverting about $70,000 from the police department's special events office into a private credit union account. He was released from federal prison on Friday, May 29, 2015.

A federal indictment appears imminent against ousted Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper, the Tribune-Review has learned.

A grand jury met Friday. Sandy Ganster, manager of the police bureau's Office of Personnel and Finance, entered the grand jury room at about 8:30 a.m. She left without commenting about 10:15.

Karen Palmer, an accountant in Ganster's office, left the room about 20 minutes later. She declined to comment.

As many as six charges are being considered against Harper, 60, of Stanton Heights, sources tell the Trib. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl removed Harper in February amid a growing police scandal.

Harper's attorneys and federal authorities declined to comment. Harper would not discuss the investigation when asked this week during his appearance at an unrelated federal civil trial in U.S. District Court, Downtown.

Two top supervisors in the U.S. Attorney's Office joined Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Cessar in the grand jury room about 11:20, and left without commenting less than 10 minutes later. Cessar is overseeing the investigation.

He, staff members and jurors left shortly before noon.

The grand jury is investigating Harper's role in the city's contracting with a shell company formed by Art Bedway, 63, of Robinson to install equipment in police cars. Bedway and Harper were friends.

Bedway and prosecutors are discussing a plea deal on a charge of defrauding the government, court records show. His lawyer, Martin Dietz, declined to comment. Prosecutors say Bedway operated Victory Security of Carnegie, which once employed Harper's wife, Cynthia, a former police officer.

Bedway and city police Sgt. Gordon McDaniel, who oversaw the police vehicle fleet, appeared before the grand jury on Jan. 22. The next day, former city information systems employee Christine Kebr testified.

Kebr, 56, of Castle Shannon pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy in federal court for rigging the city's bid with Bedway. Bedway set up Alpha Outfitters, claiming it was a female-owned business, to win the federally funded police contract.

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.

Kebr is scheduled to be sentenced on April 4. Her attorney, Gary Gerson, did not return a call for comment.

Harper has said the police bureau “had no involvement in securing this contract or making any payments.” One of Harper's attorneys, Robert Del Greco, said the FBI questioned Harper.

Since the Trib reported the grand jury investigation in January, a federal investigation expanded into spending by police officials and employees close to Ravenstahl. The mayor and others have spoken to FBI agents and federal prosecutors.

Ganster, under a grant of immunity, told authorities she diverted $25,000 to $35,000 in public money over three to four years into a secret account Harper ordered her to open at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union, her attorney, Bill Difenderfer has 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 ordered debit cards from the credit union account, issued in the names of eight people, including Ravenstahl's bodyguards, city officials say. City officials said they were investigating spending from the cards, and the FBI made copies of account records at the credit union.

It's unclear whether an indictment would involve spending from the credit union.

The FBI interviewed civilian police clerk Tamara Davis, one of Harper's former subordinates who started a private security firm with him called Diverse Public Safety Consultants LLC.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. last month sent a cease-and-desist letter to company owners Harper, Cmdr. Eric Holmes, Sgt. Barry Budd, Officer Tonya Montgomery-Ford and Davis because they didn't have a private detective license.

Zappala said his office was not part of any investigation of the credit union accounts. He confirmed that a city police officer tipped off his office to examine the Alpha Outfitters contract. 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.

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