Former Pittsburgh police chief Nathan Harper was sentenced to 18 months in a federal prison for conspiring to create an unauthorized slush fund from which he spent more than $30,000 on himself.
U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon handed down the sentence Tuesday morning. She also ordered 61-year-old Harper on Tuesday to repay $31,986 from the fund that he spent on himself.
Target 11 investigator Rick Earle was in the courtroom for the sentencing hearing. Earle reported that Harper made an emotional apology moments before the judge handed down his sentence.
“I am a broken man,” Harper said. “I made a mistake.”
“The crime wasn’t a once-instance matter so I think that weighed heavily in her decision,” said Harper’s attorney Bob Del Greco. “This was a small point in Nate Harper’s life and it will regrettably define him.”
As Harper walked out of the Allegheny County Courthouse, he declined to comment on his sentence. He was escorted to his car by Del Greco and other supporters. Harper did exit the car a second time and walked through a crowd of reporters to help his wife into the vehicle. She could be heard crying as she walked to the car.
Del Greco said Harper will likely have to report to a minimum security prison in four to eight weeks. It was not immediately clear at what facility he will be ordered to serve his sentence at. Del Greco did note, however, that it will likely be a minimum security facility.
Harper will also likely be granted protective custody because “former chiefs of police and officers aren’t generally well received in general populations of prisons.”
“I think undeniably he is a man of compassion and caring and as I indicated a great husband, a doting father, a supporting grandfather, a community activist. He attempted to empower people who weren’t empowered,” Del Greco said. “I think everyone in that courtroom, including the judge and prosecutor, would concede that Nate Harper is a real good guy. The question is whether or not this momentary lapse in judgment outweighed that and to some extend the court believed that the guidelines we correct.”
Longtime friend Rashad Byrdsong took the stand as a character witness calling Harper a gentle man full of honesty and integrity.
"He's going to be missed, but like we said, we believe in redemption. People make mistakes, you know, in their lives, and we feel once that Nate gets through this, he's going to come back stronger and be able to make a greater contribution overall to the community,” said Byrdsong.
“All of us recognize that he had a long and distinguished career and did many good things, but there is no basis to give any quarter with respect to stealing public money and the breach of public trust,” said U.S. attorney David Hickton.
“The misuse of public office for personal gain is a violation of the public trust and a felony,” said FBI agent Doug Perdue.
Shortly after Harper was sentenced, Mayor Bill Peduto released a statement saying, "This is a sad day for our city but a chance for rebirth within our police bureau. With the community's support, I am committed to breaking with the past, championing ethics and accountability from top to bottom, and rebuilding a department that all city residents, including rank and file officers, can be proud of."
Harper resigned last February, a few weeks before he was indicted on conspiracy charges and failing to file tax returns between 2008 and 2011, when much of the money was misappropriated.
Harper pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy to commit theft and the tax charges.
Harper joined the department in 1977 and rose through the ranks to become chief in 2006 under the recently departed mayor, Luke Ravenstahl.
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. Authorities have not charged Ravenstahl, though the former mayor has acknowledged his police bodyguards had credit cards linked to the same unauthorized accounts for which Harper was prosecuted.
One of the bodyguards has said the investigation centers on whether city money was misspent by having the guards drive the divorced 34-year-old mayor to and from bars after business hours.
In pleading guilty, Harper acknowledged diverting more than $70,000 in fees the city collected from businesses that hired police officers to work off-duty security details into two unauthorized credit union accounts. Harper then spent nearly $32,000, mostly for his own benefit.
Putting the money into unauthorized accounts is considered theft because funds belonging to an agency that receives federal money -- like the Pittsburgh police bureau -- must be kept in official government accounts.
Though Harper's attorneys acknowledge he directed two underlings to set up the accounts, they claim Harper was only following orders -- though they haven't said from whom. Creating the accounts enabled Harper and the police bureau to spend money that would not be traceable in the same way normally budgeted police funds would have been.
Federal prosecutors haven't charged anyone else in the scheme and have refused to comment on defense claims that Harper was ordered to set up the accounts.
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