Federal grand jury that questioned staff of ex-Pittsburgh mayor expires; feds mum on probe

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PITTSBURGH — A federal grand jury that heard testimony from several staff members and police officials linked to former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has expired without returning indictments.

Ravenstahl and his attorney have denied that there was any wrongdoing or that the former mayor was targeted.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton, who confirmed the investigation earlier this year without describing its scope or purpose, declined to comment Tuesday. Hickton could continue the probe by swearing in another grand jury, though there was no indication he planned to do that.

Ravenstahl, a Democrat, announced in March 2013 that he wouldn't run for another four-year term less than two weeks after forcing his hand-picked police chief, Nathan Harper, to resign.

"I've done nothing wrong, and that will be proven over time," Ravenstahl said then.

Harper has since been indicted, pleaded guilty and been sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for diverting more than $70,000 from a police bank account into two unauthorized credit union accounts and then spending nearly $32,000 of that on himself.

Harper and his attorneys have said Ravenstahl directed the police chief to open the slush fund accounts, and Ravenstahl even acknowledged his bodyguards, who were police officers, had bank cards for the accounts.

Some grand jury witnesses who have spoken about their secret testimony have suggested the fund might have been created to enable Ravenstahl and Harper to keep certain expenses off the city's books, including any spending by the guards who accompanied the 34-year-old divorced mayor to events after regular business hours.

The grand jury also heard from an officer who worked as Harper's assistant. Officer Tonya Montgomery-Ford said in a federal lawsuit filed in June, in which she alleged she's wrongly been suspended from her job, that she was asked to process parking variances that helped a friend of Ravenstahl's make more money in his valet parking business.

Ravenstahl could not be located for comment Tuesday, and his defense attorney, Charles Porter Jr., did not immediately return calls and emails.

But former federal prosecutor Bruce Antkowiak, who teaches law at St. Vincent College, said the grand jury's expiration bodes well for Ravenstahl.

Antkowiak said a grand jury's 18-month term might expire in a case with voluminous documentary evidence, though there's been no indication that an inordinate number of city records had been subpoenaed. He said another possible scenario is that Hickton might want to assess the evidence — and perhaps even review it with Department of Justice attorneys — before deciding whether to press on or end the investigation.

Another grand jury could be impaneled to hear a summary of the evidence presented — the witnesses wouldn't normally be called to testify again — and could be asked to return indictments. But Antkowiak said he believes that's unlikely.

"The fact that you don't have indictments is not in any way, shape or form a concession" that the case is over, Antkowiak said. "But, all things being equal, you would want the grand jury who heard all the witnesses live to be the one to return the indictment."

He said if he were Ravenstahl's attorney, this "would be a situation of cautious optimism."

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