Mayor Ravenstahl gets police Chief Nate Harper's resignation
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on Wednesday asked for and received police Chief Nate Harper's resignation because of what federal authorities told him about an investigation of the chief.
“I have learned enough to ask the chief for his resignation. He has agreed to resign immediately,” Ravenstahl said during a 7 p.m. news conference. “It's not appropriate for me to go into specifics.”
Harper, 60, of Stanton Heights, who has led the department since 2006, could not be reached. A woman who answered the door at his house said he was not home.
Attorney Robert G. Del Greco Jr. said Harper planned to retire on Friday but resigned “with a heavy heart.” He said Harper was distraught and denies being involved in anything illegal.
“He has asked me to convey that God has blessed him and that he is truly appreciative to have been able to serve as a police officer for 36 years and as the chief of police for the last six-and-a-half years,” Del Greco said.
“Chief Harper wants to thank Mayor Ravenstahl for putting his trust in him, his fellow police officers whose friendship and service he has always valued and the citizens of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County for their support and cooperation during his tenure.”
Ravenstahl, 33, said authorities told him that he was not the target of an investigation during a two-hour meeting with the FBI. Two attorneys, one employed by the city and one hired by Ravenstahl, accompanied him. He would not identify them or discuss what was said.
“This was a difficult day for a lot of reasons,” he said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment. Harper has not been charged with any wrongdoing. Del Greco said Harper spoke with the FBI but not recently.
The mayor emphasized that he did not fire Harper. He said he asked Harper to resign during a phone call. Ravenstahl said he hasn't asked anyone else to resign, but he might make more personnel changes soon.
He declined to provide information on Harper's pension. Harper's salary was $105,981, records show.
Ravenstahl named Assistant Chief Regina McDonald the acting head of the police bureau. McDonald's salary as assistant chief is $94,241.
McDonald oversaw the payroll and special events offices that FBI agents visited last week.
“The membership is stunned and numbed by that appointment,” said Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 President Michael LaPorte.
McDonald could not be reached. Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson is on vacation.
“The mayor obviously knew the evidence was mounting against the chief,” said Councilman Corey O'Connor of Swisshelm Park. “I know (Harper) is a good guy, but good guys make mistakes sometimes. You need stability in the (police department), and I think there were just too many questions coming out right now.”
Ravenstahl this week acknowledged that thousands of dollars from at least two police credit union accounts opened by the chief's office paid for hotel rooms, food and trips. The city is investigating whether anyone funneled public money, possibly from a fee collected from businesses that hire off-duty officers, into the credit union accounts.
“It became a money-making enterprise,” said District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. “It's bad for the image of the city.”
A federal investigation of Harper became public in January centering on whether the chief was involved in awarding a contract to a shell company set up by his one-time friend Art Bedway, 63, of Robinson, owner of Carnegie-based Victory Security.
The investigation blossomed when agents last week seized files from police headquarters in the North Side and records from the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union. The searches centered on accounts that Harper's office opened and money from the special events office, which coordinates moonlighting by officers.
Ravenstahl called for a review of the bureau on Feb. 8 upon learning Harper partnered with four subordinates in creating the private security firm Diverse Public Safety Consultants LLC.
Ravenstahl faces re-election this year. His opponents in the Democratic primary, City Controller Michael Lamb and City Councilman Bill Peduto, criticized the mayor's handling of the controversy.
“Just yesterday the mayor was standing by the police chief he appointed, defending him of any wrongdoing,” Lamb said in a campaign release on Wednesday. “We still need answers from the mayor as to what exactly his role in the investigated bank account was, what he knew about the account and when he learned of it.”
“This matter was mishandled by the mayor's office from the very beginning, and the people of this city deserve an explanation,” Peduto said.
Ravenstahl said he does not make decisions based on what will make him look good politically and he needed more information.
“This is a political loser either way,” the mayor said.
Lamb said he planned to audit spending of $700,000 collected in fees annually from companies that hire uniformed officers for off-duty jobs.
“It's interesting that he has never audited the police department,” said Ravenstahl spokeswoman Joanna Doven.
Reaction to decision
Zappala said Harper was easy to work with.
“On a personal note, Nate has been a friend and a colleague, and he's played a role in the Pittsburgh Police Department making the city the most livable in the country. That being said, this has been a distraction, and the mayor made a difficult decision,” Zappala said.
Members of City Council learned of the decision through the media.
“I believe it's unfortunate as the jury is still out, but I believe the mayor did what he believes is the best interest in the city at large,” said Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle of the Hill District.
“When the mayor is convinced that he can no longer support the chief, then it is necessary to make a decision,” said Councilman Ricky Burgess of North Point Breeze.
Harper became chief in October 2006, the first black police chief in more than a decade. The department has faced claims of racism from the public and officers, and it struggles to recruit minority officers.
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. Before becoming chief, he worked as assistant chief of investigations.
“It's always sad to see a career come to an end before it's planned, but it appeared so many things were going on that it was inevitable,” said Elizabeth Township police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr., who served as city chief from 1996 to 2006.
McNeilly said he was supposed to meet with the FBI on Wednesday, but investigators canceled the interview.
One of the credit union accounts was opened in 2004. McNeilly said he did not open it.
Record as chief
Harper implemented the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime in 2010, attempting to reduce homicides by mapping out relationships between gang members and sending extra officers to neighborhoods.
He promised to strengthen bonds between the department and faith-based organizations. In 2008, he dismissed two police chaplains accused of lying about their credentials, one of whom was arrested and accused of keeping money meant for a homicide victim's family. He appointed the Rev. John Welch to oversee and rebuild the program.
“Being a clergy person, I am keeping him in my prayers, as well as the city, because it is devastating when something like this happens, especially to the African-American community,” said the Rev. Brenda J. Gregg, pastor at Destiny of Faith in the North Side.
She said Harper challenged faith leaders to connect the community with police.
When asked if Ravenstahl would lose votes in the black community, Burgess said, “I think the important part is the mayor did not act quickly. He treated the chief with a great amount of respect and due diligence.”
Harper described Bedway, the head of Victory Security, as a former friend and said his wife, Cynthia Harper, 58, once worked as a consultant with Kathleen Bowman, co-owner of Victory Security.
Federal authorities in November accused Bedway of conspiring with former city employee Christine Kebr and unidentified others to set up Alpha Outfitters to win a $327,000 contract to install computers in police vehicles.
Bedway, Kebr and Sgt. Gordon McDaniel, who oversees the police vehicle fleet, appeared before the grand jury last month.
Jeremy Boren, Bob Bauder and Margaret Harding are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Staff writers Bobby Kerlik and Michael Hasch contributed to this report.