Nate Harper pleads guilty

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Former Pittsburgh police Chief Nathan Harper, right, walks past news photographers as he arrives at Federal Court where he pleaded guilty on federal charges on Friday, Oct. 18, 2013, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
 
by Joe Mandak
Associated Press Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Former city police Chief Nathan Harper pleaded guilty to federal charges that he conspired to steal police funds deposited into unauthorized credit union accounts and willfully failed to file income tax returns.

Harper, 60, will be sentenced Feb. 25. He has since filed belated tax returns from 2008 to 2011, when prosecutors say much of the money was stolen, and paid much of the $22,000 the government was owed for those years.

Harper’s plea punctuated a remarkable fall from grace for a man his attorneys, Robert Leight and Robert DelGreco, called a “sweetheart” who simply succumbed to the “irresistible temptation” of having access to credit accounts that shouldn’t have existed.

Although he pleaded guilty to conspiracy, federal prosecutors and Harper’s attorneys have refused to say who else was involved.

“The grand jury will release that information at the appropriate time, I’m sure,” Leight said, referring to the investigative body that has subpoenaed police bodyguards, top aides and female friends of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in recent months. Harper joined the city’s police in 1977 and rose through its ranks before Ravenstahl appointed Harper to the $105,000-a-year chief’s job after taking office in 2006.

Ravenstahl forced Harper to resign in February, as details of the investigation leaked into the media and after Ravenstahl met with federal investigators. Ravenstahl abruptly dropped his re-election bid in March — three weeks before Harper was indicted — saying speculation about the investigation and his personal life had become too much of a burden for him and his family.

Ravenstahl and his attorney have repeatedly denied wrongdoing, though the mayor has acknowledged his bodyguards had credit cards linked to the same unauthorized accounts. One of the bodyguards has said the investigation centers on whether city money was misspent by having the guards drive the divorced 33-year-old mayor to and from bars after business hours.

On Wednesday, acting police Chief Regina McDonald and Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson testified before the grand jury but declined to say what they were asked.

Leight said Harper has cooperated with the FBI, but has “has no information that’s detrimental to the mayor.”

Harper’s attorneys believe he faces 10 to 18 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, which is a short enough term for them to argue for house arrest or probation as alternatives.

Harper acknowledged diverting more than $70,000 the city collected in fees from businesses that hire its officers to work off-duty security details into two unauthorized credit union accounts, then spending nearly $32,000, mostly for his own benefit.

Leight said the other $38,000 was spent on legitimate police business — including repairing the bullet-riddled vehicle of an officer slain in the line of duty in April 2009, and buying water for extra officers brought in to combat protesters during the Group of 20 economic summit in September 2009. The attorneys will argue that some of the $32,000 that Harper supposedly spent on himself also benefited the police, including a TV that was used at a city police station, Leight said.

DelGreco said Harper is embarrassed and remorseful and that the case resulted from the “irresistible temptation of having the credit card at your disposal, and he succumbed to it. That’s why we’re here today.”

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