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Lawyers: Ex-Pittsburgh Chief Harper 'depressed' but ready to move on

| Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, 10:11 p.m.
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl swears in Nate Harper as chief of police on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2006, in the City County Building, Downtown.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
U.S. Attorney David Hickton announces a five-count indictment against former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper on Friday, March 22, 2013, in the federal courthouse, Downtown.
A federal grand jury indicted ousted Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper for conspiracy to take public money and failure to file tax returns. Prosecutors charged Harper, 60, of Stanton Heights with four counts of failure to pay taxes on his $110,000 salary and one count of conspiracy.
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl addresses the media in his office on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013. Ravenstahl asked police Chief Nate Harper to resign.
Jasmine Goldband
Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper (center), Cmdr. Eric Holmes (left) and Det. Bill Churilla hold a news conference in police headquarters to announce arrests in vehicle break-ins on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012.

Nate Harper, a former motorcycle officer and narcotics detective who in 2006 climbed the ranks to become Pittsburgh's first black police chief in more than a decade, is poised to become a convicted felon on Friday.

Harper, 60, of Stanton Heights intends to plead guilty in federal court to conspiring to divert public money for personal use and failing to file income tax returns for four years. A judge could send him to prison for as long as five years on the conspiracy charge and one year each for the tax filing charges.

Indicted in March, Harper has met with FBI agents several times, though his attorney, Robert Del Greco, won't divulge what he told investigators. Harper has not testified before a grand jury looking into city matters, Del Greco said.

Harper resigned in February at Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's request as the investigation into control of several police-related bank accounts developed. Ravenstahl met with the FBI and said investigators told him he's not a target, though in recent months the grand jury summoned the mayor's police bodyguards, personal secretary and a former girlfriend.

The approaching plea and its unflattering publicity have filled Harper with apprehension and a desire to get it over with, Del Greco said. Harper, who has avoided public appearances, “understands that the right thing to do is to plead guilty and accept responsibility.”

Robert Leight, Harper's other attorney, said Harper is “saddened by his actions and he's depressed. He hopes the sentencing court would take into account a lifetime of service.”

Del Greco doesn't anticipate that prosecutors will file other charges against Harper, whose prospects for staying out of prison don't appear good, if recent history is a guide. Federal judges in the past decade sent two Western Pennsylvania police chiefs to prison.

Sentencing guidelines, which are based on the details of Harper's offense, his lack of a criminal record and other factors, likely will recommend a year in prison, his attorneys said.

In the police bureau, many officers want to put the scandal behind the department, said Sgt. Michael LaPorte, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1.

“It's dragged on for such a long period of time,” LaPorte said. “I know people will be happy for it to come to some type of closure.”

LaPorte thinks others led Harper astray, though he did not say who.

“He came from the Hill District, and he made something of himself,” LaPorte said. “That's part of the tragedy. He was someone the youth could look up to and say, ‘If I do the right things, I could be chief.'”

U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon will order a pre-sentencing report when Harper pleads guilty.

His attorneys hope to persuade Bissoon to sentence him to probation with home confinement or other conditions.

The investigation started with a bid-rigging scheme on a police department contract by a longtime friend of Harper, though the ex-chief isn't charged with any crimes connected to the scheme. Harper's wife, Cynthia, a former police officer, consulted for Victory Security, owned by their one-time friend Art Bedway.

Bedway, 63, of Robinson pleaded guilty to paying a city employee $6,000 to help him fraudulently win a bid.

Harper joined the force in 1977 and worked as a motorcycle officer, plainclothes detective and in the narcotics unit, becoming the commander of that squad from 1995 to 1996. He was assistant chief of investigations when promoted to chief in October 2006.

Two significant events occurred under Harper's administration. A gunman shot to death three police officers in April 2009, the first lawmen to die on duty in 18 years. That September, Pittsburgh hosted the G-20 economic summit, requiring an enormous police presence that essentially shut down portions of Downtown.

Ravenstahl this year acknowledged that thousands of dollars from the police credit union accounts paid for hotel rooms, food, trips, and, separately, condominium or condo furniture rentals for him and others during the G-20. Ravenstahl has said he did not know the source of money.

If a judge sentences Harper to prison, he likely will go to a minimum-security camp far from Pittsburgh, said federal prison expert Alan Ellis.

A fenceless camp might seem easy to take, but any inmate who strays off grounds ends up in a higher security prison for the rest of his sentence, he said.

“It's not a cakewalk at all,” Ellis, an attorney in California, said about low-security facilities. “These are not ‘Club Feds.' There's no golf courses or swimming pools.”

Staff writers David Conti and Margaret Harding contributed. Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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