Charged! Former Mayor’s Office senior official arrested for illegal handling of taxpayer money

Hotel stays, shopping sprees, fancy dinners and a lavish lifestyle afforded by the taxpayer’s wallet. These were the benchmarks of felony charges filed against former Mayor’s Office official Desiree Peterkin-Bell for misuse of the Mayor’s Fund on Nov. 13.A city representative…

Hotel stays, shopping sprees, fancy dinners and a lavish lifestyle afforded by the taxpayer’s wallet. These were the benchmarks of felony charges filed against former Mayor’s Office official Desiree Peterkin-Bell for misuse of the Mayor’s Fund on Nov. 13.

A city representative under former PhiladelphiaMayor Michael Nutter,  Peterkin-Bell has been under investigation since 2016 by both the city and the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General for her alleged high spending on the taxpayers’ dime and the misappropriation of $225,000 of City funds.  

“If these charges are determined by a jury to be true, it’s a sad day for all the leaders of the City of Philadelphia who really bring their A-game and their integrity to the office every day,” the new board chair of the Mayor’s Fund Richard Levins said to Philadelphia Weekly.

Levins noted that Mayor Kenney’s changeover of new directors has led to an increased diligence for detail and transparency.

“I have tremendous confidence going forward that this fund is going to operate in the fashion that it should and the fashion that the City of Philadelphia and the residents want it to operate and the fashion that the mayor wants it to operate,” said Levins. “If I had any doubt about that I wouldn’t be on the board.”

If convicted on all counts, Peterkin-Bell faces up to 35 years in prison.

“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 in a press release on Nov. 13. “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.”

In the release, it announced that the former city representative, Peterkin-Bell had been “arrested and charged with conflict of interest, tampering with public records, and other counts of felony and misdemeanor theft offenses related to her misuse and misappropriation of taxpayer dollars while employed by the City of Philadelphia.”

Conducted by the Forty-first Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, the charges originate from a 14-month investigation into her time working for the City of Philadelphia, beginning in January 2013 through December 2015. The investigation focused heavily on two credit cards that incurred high spending charges, both of which were used by the former Philadelphia senior official during her three year span in office. The credit cards were entitled to the Fund for Philadelphia (“the Fund”), a city-related, nonprofit organization, and the resultant charges were footed by taxpayer dollars.

{{tncms-inline account=”AG Josh Shapiro” html=”<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”><a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/BREAKING?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#BREAKING</a>I&#39;ve just announced felony charges against a former senior Philadelphia city official for public corruption. Desiree Peterkin-Bell misused $250k of taxpayer money – abusing the trust of those she was tasked to represent.Press Conference: <a href=”https://t.co/rLgRoPGfx0″>https://t.co/rLgRoPGfx0</a></p>&mdash; AG Josh Shapiro (@PAAttorneyGen) <a href=”https://twitter.com/PAAttorneyGen/status/1062380830906036229?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>November 13, 2018</a></blockquote>” id=”https://twitter.com/PAAttorneyGen/status/1062380830906036229″ type=”twitter”}}

Over the course of Peterkin-Bell’s time within the Mayor’s Office, she exceeded $20,000 in fraudulent charges on the two credit cards.

When the Fund asked for bill statements from the two credit cards, Peterkin-Bell refused and feigned the costs to “work-related” expenditures.

Under review, the charges revealed a slew of personal credit card charges, including hotel stays, train tickets and flights to vacation destinations, even a wedding anniversary in Portland, Oregon, and clothing and accessories purchases mainly from Macy’s Center City location.

Other charges included social events at the White House, bar tabs and meals at high-end restaurants like Capital Grille, McCormick & Schmick’s, and The Palm. A number of charges included Uber rides for herself, her daughter and the family babysitter. Credit statements also revealed charges to social and professional networking websites, including a membership an online company to gain more Twitter followers.

One of the last large charges was made toward the end of the Nutter Administration in late 2015 when Peterkin-Bell hosted a dinner party to help jump start her future consulting business. The party included 17 plated dinners, and a full wine list, which totalled $1,699.  Testimony to the the Grand Jury indicated that Peterkin-Bell explicitly told her staff to give the local hotel the Fund credit card to incur the charges.

Levins explained to PW that the Mayor’s Fund no longer uses credit cards.

In addition, the Grand Jury found evidence that Peterkin-Bell misused $225,000 of taxpayer money that was contractually intended for the sole use of City services in the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic bike race. Held under the Fund’s authority,

the $225,000 was the remaining funds from a 2014 contract with the bike race.

In 2014, Peterkin-Bell entered a contract with Forbes, unbeknownst to the Fund’s board of directors, pledging money for its 30 Under 30 event. Unable to raise the pledged amount, Peterkin-Bell negotiated a lower number and then paid it with $200,000 from the bike fund. Concurrently, she instructed employees to create false sponsorships with the Philadelphia Marathon and the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic to legitimize the fund withdrawal.

In 2015, Peterkin-Bell used $25,000 of the “leftover” bike funds for Fourth of July festivities associated with the annual Wawa Welcome America celebration, which she chaired at the the time.

“This case is another example of my commitment to rebuild the Office of Attorney General’s public corruption unit after years of decline,” said Shapiro. “The people of Pennsylvania have a right to expect honest government from their public servants, and when public officials violate their oath, we will apply the law without fear or favor.”

PW reached out to Peterkin-Bell for comment on the felony charges, but did not receive a response at the time of this report.

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