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The Harper indictment: Questions & trust

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Friday, March 22, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Friday's federal indictment of former Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper — and his decision to plead guilty to all five charges against him — raise more questions than they answer.

Mr. Harper, 60, ousted by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl a month ago following Hizzoner's eye-opening meeting with the feds, is charged with five criminal counts.

There's one conspiracy count for using nearly $32,000 of more than $70,000 in illicitly diverted fees that businesses paid to the city for off-duty police work.

Prosecutors say Harper and others put that money into secret accounts at the police credit union, which Harper then tapped — via debit cards, and as recently as Dec. 20 — for cash and to buy meals, alcohol, perfume, an oven upgrade, a TV and more.

Then there are four counts of tax evasion for failing to file taxes on four years of income, a total of $470,000.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton says Harper engaged in “puzzling and baffling behavior ... the worst kind of public corruption.” And questions abound.

Why would a well-paid police chief divert and steal money? Why would he not file his taxes, a crime easily detected? And who are the “unknown others” referred to in the 13-page indictment? How much larger is this scandal?

The investigation is ongoing, Mr. Hickton says. But the case against Harper is “not an indictment of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police,” the FBI's Gary Douglas Perdue stresses.

Perhaps not in the legal sense. But it is in the eyes of a public whose trust in this police department now can't help but be shaken.

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