Pittsburgh police chief Harper resigns amid investigation; Acting chief named

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PITTSBURGH —

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said Wednesday that he has asked Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper to resign immediately as an investigation into several police-related bank accounts, including who controlled them and how the money was spent, continues to develop.

Ravenstahl said he spoke to Harper Wednesday afternoon, but declined to go into specifics about their conversation.

“As of today I have learned enough to ask Chief Harper for his resignation and he has effective immediately,” Ravenstahl said Wednesday night.

Harper, 60, of Stanton Heights, has led the department since 2006.

Ravenstahl named Assistant Chief Regina McDonald the acting head of the police bureau.

Ravenstahl said he met with the FBI Wednesday afternoon. He said authorities told him he was not the target of an investigation.

“Today I met with them they asked me to come down and I did. We spent a couple of hours together,” he said.

When asked about the chief's pension, Ravenstahl said: “I believe that's a decision of the pension board. He has resigned so therefore he is no longer a city of Pittsburgh employee.”

The mayor emphasized that he did not fire Harper. “He resigned.”

Ravenstahl this week acknowledged that thousands of dollars from several police credit union accounts opened by the chief's office paid for hotel rooms, food and trips. He said money from the accounts might have paid for condominium rentals for him and others during the Group of 20 economic summit in 2009.

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 credit union board president said investigators looked at an account Harper's office opened. Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said the headquarters search centered on 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. One of his opponents in the Democratic primary, City Controller Michael Lamb, today criticized the mayor's handling of the controversy. Lamb and another opponent, City Council President Bill Peduto, later questioned the timing of Harper's departure.

“Just yesterday the mayor was standing by the police chief he appointed, defending him of any wrongdoing,” Lamb said in a campaign release. “The ongoing issues and investigations into the police department go much further than just Chief Harper and his dismissal does not solve the issue at hand.

“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. We need to know who was ultimately behind the account and who had access to it. We need to know where the money came from for it and what it was used to purchase.”

A statement from the Peduto campaign asked what changed to reverse Ravenstahl's support for Harper.

“Luke owes the people of Pittsburgh a full and truthful explanation,” he said. “As I suggested several weeks ago, Chief Harper should have been placed on an administrative leave of absence pending the result of the grand jury investigation. This matter was mishandled by the mayor's office from the very beginning, and the people of this city deserve an explanation.”

Lamb said he planned to audit spending of money collected in fees from companies that hire officers for off-duty jobs in uniform. The city collects about $700,000 a year in those fees.

Before Harper resigned, Ravenstahl spokeswoman Joanna Doven accused Lamb of playing politics with the investigation.

“It's interesting that he has never audited the police department. The only time he does audits is for a headline,” she said.

Members of City Council learned of the decision through media calls and reports. They said the news caught them by surprise.

“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. “I'll be interested in hearing the reasoning for his firing.”

He said he's also anxious to hear about any changes in the police department.

“I think the mayor obviously knew the evidence was mounting against the chief,” said Councilman Corey O'Connor of Swisshelm Park. “I know (Harper) as 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.”

Harper began his tenure as chief in October 2006, becoming the first black police chief in more than a decade. He joined the force in 1977, and worked as a motorcycle officer, plainclothes detective and in the narcotics unit, eventually becoming the commander of that squad from 1995 to 1996. Before becoming chief, he worked as assistant chief of investigations. He was set to make $105,000 this year, according to city records.

Harper implemented the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime, or PIRC, in 2010. Based on a Boston program, PIRC attempts to reduce the homicide rate by mapping out relationships between city gang members and flooding neighborhoods with officers in response to gang-related violence.

When he was sworn in as chief, he promised to strengthen the relationship between the department and faith-based organizations. In 2008, after dismissing 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, Harper appointed the Rev. John Welch to oversee and rebuild the program. The chief honored the 15-member corps in a special ceremony three years later.

Harper pledged to include community members in the hiring process for new officers at the request of activists in November 2011, but removed civilians from the interview panels when he discovered one of those selected was on probation. He said the process was rushed and a miscommunication allowed people onto the panels without proper background checks.

The Rev. Brenda J. Gregg said the news of Harper's resignation shocked her.

“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 Gregg, pastor at the Destiny of Faith in the North Side. She credited Harper with challenging faith leaders to connect the community with the police bureau.

“His expectations were high of the church and pastor,” Gregg said. “He challenged us every step of the way.”

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 a former city employee and unidentified others to set up Alpha Outfitters to win a contract to install computers in police vehicles.

Harper said the police bureau “had no involvement in securing this contract or making any payments.”

The city paid more than $327,000 to Alpha Outfitters between 2007 and 2009 for work done on police vehicles.

Christine Kebr, 56, of Castle Shannon, a former senior systems analyst for the city, pleaded guilty on Dec. 6 to conspiring with Bedway to form Alpha Outfitters as if it were a female-owned business so he could bid on a contract. She is awaiting sentencing.

Bedway, Kebr and Sgt. Gordon McDaniel, who oversees the police vehicle fleet, appeared before the grand jury last month.

 

Channel 11's news exchange partners at TribLIVE contributed to this report.