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FBI asks Pittsburgh police about seized vehicles

| Thursday, April 4, 2013, 12:14 a.m.

FBI agents asked Pittsburgh police about their use of vehicles seized during criminal investigations, an official said on Wednesday.

Former Chief Nate Harper used one of those vehicles because his city-issued sedan did not work well in the winter, an assistant chief said.

“They were just touching base with us, asking questions to make sure we're adhering to the policy,” narcotics Sgt. Mike Tracy said about a conversation with Pittsburgh FBI agents about a month ago. “As we call it, a ‘knock and talk' to discuss different things, and that was it.”

Tracy, who oversees the department's use of the vehicles, declined to say if the agents asked about Harper.

A federal grand jury on March 22 indicted Harper, 60, of Stanton Heights on charges of failing to file his taxes and spending more than $30,000 from secret Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union accounts on personal expenses.

The FBI declined to comment. U.S. Attorney David Hickton has said the investigation into use of the money continues.

Harper, who resigned on Feb. 20, began using a seized GMC Yukon in December as his take-home vehicle instead of his city-issued Chevrolet Impala, Assistant Chief George Trosky said.

Harper could not be reached for comment. Robert Del Greco, an attorney representing Harper, said he was not authorized to speak on his behalf.

Tracy said Pittsburgh police take part in the Department of Justice equitable sharing program, which distributes forfeited property to state and local agencies that participate in an investigation or prosecution that leads to federal forfeiture. A DOJ spokesperson did not return messages seeking comment.

Trosky would not say how many vehicles the city obtained through the program. Commanders and chiefs are allowed city-issued take-home vehicles, not the confiscated cars, he said.

“You would normally use your assigned vehicle, but (Harper) was having trouble with his assigned vehicle,” Trosky said.

Narcotics and vice detectives use the vehicles for undercover operations, but other detectives may use them for investigations with permission, Trosky said.

“The way I understand it is we can use these vehicles for anything that's police-related,” Trosky said. “If (Harper) was bringing it from home to work, it's fine.”

The chief's use of the Yukon was for law enforcement purposes, Tracy said. It has since been reassigned in the unit, he said.

“He worked 24/7,” Tracy said. “With any chief, they're on-call all the time.”

City Public Safety Director Mike Huss referred questions to acting Chief Regina McDonald.

McDonald said questions arose after City Controller Michael Lamb released an audit of the confiscated narcotics proceeds fund this year, but “the FBI had nothing to do with it.”

“We were following the federal guidelines,” McDonald said.

Trosky said Harper planned to begin using a new city-owned vehicle when it was ready for him, but he never got the chance. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl forced Harper to resign, citing the FBI's investigation into the department's use of money from a $3.85-per-hour fee it collects from businesses that hire officers who work off-duty details.

Federal authorities say Harper diverted $70,000 of that money into secret accounts at the credit union and spent $31,000 of it on himself. His attorneys say he will plead guilty to that and to failing to file tax returns for four years.

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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