The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday announced charges against Desiree Peterkin-Bell, a former official in Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration, for allegedly misappropriating nearly a quarter-million dollars in taxpayer funds.
Peterkin-Bell surrendered to Philadelphia Central Detective Division on Tuesday morning and her lawyer, Walter Weir, said in an interview that she will plead not guilty to the charges against her.
Peterkin-Bell, who managed the city-related nonprofit organization the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia, is accused of stealing $225,000 from the fund and spending it on luxuries and to satisfy unrelated debts. The public money she allegedly misused was earmarked for use in organizing the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic bicycle race.
“This is a case of a high ranking public official—who was charged with the stewardship and safe-keeping of taxpayer money—using the resources of her office to enrich herself and abuse the public trust,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference Tuesday. “These funds were supposed to be invested in Philadelphia and programs which benefit its citizens. Instead, Desiree Peterkin-Bell funded her own lavish lifestyle: vacations, shopping, dining and entertainment; and she misused dollars earmarked for a specific purpose to satisfy unrelated debts which she helped incur, and then falsified records to cover it all up. My office will go after this kind of corruption wherever we find it.”
The alleged theft of funds occurred from early 2013 to 2015 and involved Peterkin-Bell’s use of two city credit cards for travel tickets and hotel stays at destinations including the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando; social events at the White House; a wedding anniversary in Portland, Oregon; 514 Uber rides for herself and her daughter; payment for babysitting; tabs at high-end restaurants; and shopping trips.
Shapiro’s office also alleged that Peterkin-Bell used money from the fund to cover expenses incurred from a city contract she negotiated with Forbes Magazine related to its “30 Under 30″ event. Peterkin-Bell allegedly instructed employees to create false sponsorship agreements in an attempt to legitimize her misuse of the fund’s money, instead of fundraising for the event.
The announcement of charges comes almost two years after former City Controller Alan Butkovitz accused Peterkin-Bell of operating Mayor’s Fund as a “slush fund.”
“We have been aware and have cooperated in the attorney general’s investigation,” Weir said, adding that Peterkin-Bell is not working with prosecutors in any other public corruption cases.
“They were entrusted funds, but whether or not my client should be held liable for use of those funds, we intend to contest,” Weir said.
Peterkin-Bell faces eight charges: conflict of interest, theft by unlawful taking, received stolen property, theft by deception, misapplication of entrusted property, tampering with public records, and theft by failure to make required disposition of funds received.
Shapiro said the charges carry a maximum penalty of 19 years in prison.
This is not the first time the management of the Mayor’s Fund has drawn scrutiny. Peterkin-Bell’s predecessor, Melanie Johnson, was fined $2,000 by the city Ethics Board for spending nearly $7,000 of city funds on herself.
Shapiro added that Johnson is not being charged and that Nutter had no knowledge of Peterkin-Bell’s activities. Nutter had previously been critical of Butkovitz’s allegations, but appeared to change his tune on Tuesday.
“I am greatly saddened and very deeply disappointed to learn the details of this new information and these specific allegations. My past comments in this matter were based on what was told to me at that time,” Nutter said in a statement. “If these new allegations are true, they do not reflect the tone and standards that I established for my administration during my tenure. As the mayor during the time in question, I am very sorry for any potential violation of the public trust in this matter.”