by Joe Mandak
Associated Press Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Former Pittsburgh police Chief Nathan Harper has agreed to plead guilty next month to federal charges that he conspired to steal city police funds deposited into credit union accounts and willfully failed to file income tax returns.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon has scheduled an Oct. 18 hearing because she has “been advised that defendant wishes to plead guilty,” according to online federal court records.

Harper allegedly conspired with others to divert more than $70,000 from a city account into two unauthorized credit union accounts, then spent nearly $32,000 of that himself. He’s also charged with failing to file federal tax returns from 2008 to 2011, when much of the money was allegedly stolen.

Defense attorney Robert Leight said Harper hasn’t reached an agreement with federal prosecutors.

“We’re still talking to the government, but a plea agreement isn’t going to affect whether he pleads or not,” Leight told The Associated Press.

Although the federal crimes carry a maximum combined penalty of nine years in prison, sentencing guidelines that take into account Harper’s lack of a criminal record dictate a likely sentence of 10 to 16 months. That’s low enough for his attorneys to argue for probation or alternative incarceration, like house arrest, under federal sentencing rules.

The same grand jury that indicted Harper is believed to be investigating Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who has repeatedly denied wrongdoing or even being a target of the inquiry. Ravenstahl has acknowledged two bodyguards, also city officers, used debit cards from the same credit union accounts. The 33-year-old mayor announced three weeks before Harper’s indictment that he wouldn’t run for re-election, citing the toll on his family from the scandal.

Harper joined the city’s police in 1977 and rose through the ranks to be appointed chief in 2006 by Ravenstahl, who insisted Harper resign in February as details of the investigation became public.

The inquiry centers on a $3.85 hourly fee that bars, restaurants and other businesses pay the city when they hire off-duty officers to work security details. The money is collected on top of whatever hourly wage the officers are paid and, by law, must be kept in city-controlled accounts and spent only on certain types of police business.

Instead, Harper helped open the credit union accounts from which he spent $31,987, mostly at restaurants, bars and department stores , federal prosecutors said.

“As I said from the beginning, the chief’s very embarrassed by the whole situation,” Leight said. “He will forever try to make up for the error in judgment he made.” 

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