Desiree Peterkin-Bell, Senior Nutter Administration Official, Charged with Public Corruption, Theft of Taxpayer Dollars
HARRISBURG — Attorney General Josh Shapiro today announced felony charges against Desiree Peterkin-Bell, a former senior official in the Administration of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Peterkin-Bell was arrested and charged with conflict of interest, tampering with public records, and various counts of felony and misdemeanor theft offenses related to her misuse and misappropriation of taxpayer dollars while employed by the City of Philadelphia.
The charges stem from a presentment by the Forty-first Statewide Investigating Grand Jury following an investigation into Peterkin-Bell’s frequent, escalating use of two credit cards belonging to a city-related, non-profit organization known as the Fund for Philadelphia (“the Fund”) over the course of a three year period from early 2013 until late 2015. The Grand Jury also found evidence that she illegally used $225,000 of public dollars designated for City services related to the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic bike race to satisfy multiple other debts which she incurred in relation to other City events and contracts.
“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. “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.”
Between January 2013 and December 2015, the time period in which Desiree Peterkin-Bell served as City Representative after being appointed by Mayor Nutter in early 2013, the defendant made fraudulent charges on two credit cards issued to the Fund in excess of $20,000. The Grand Jury reviewed records indicating that Peterkin-Bell misused these two credit cards to pay for personal hotel stays, train tickets and flights to vacation destinations like the Waldorf Astoria Resort in Orlando, Florida, Newport News, Virginia, Brooklyn, New York, social events at the White House, and a wedding anniversary celebration in Portland, Oregon; Uber rides for herself, her daughter and the family babysitter; restaurants, bar tabs and similar entertainment at places like Capital Grille, McCormick & Schmick’s, and The Palm; social and professional networking websites and memberships including a company through which you could purchase more Twitter followers; and clothing and accessories, namely from Macy’s Center City location.
As the Nutter Administration was winding down in late 2015, Peterkin-Bell planned a dinner party on December 28 to help launch her future consulting business. When reserving a dining room at a local hotel as the venue for this party, the Grand Jury heard testimony that Peterkin-Bell ordered staff at the Fund to supply the hotel with a credit card issued in the name of the Fund’s Executive Director. Ultimately, the party featured seventeen plated dinners, a wine menu, and a dedicated bartender, at a cost of $1,699.00 which was charged to the Fund.
Because the credit cards were linked to an account held by the Fund, taxpayers ultimately footed the bill for all of these personal expenditures. Further, when asked for documentation or receipts to justify these expenditures by staff at the Fund, Peterkin-Bell simply refused or made representations that the spending was “work-related”, using her position and authority to circumvent the systems in place to safe-guard the spending of public money.
In addition to the misuse of Fund credit cards for personal expenditures, the Grand Jury also heard testimony and reviewed evidence indicating that Peterkin-Bell misused City funds to satisfy a debt incurred by the Fund, and to cover unrelated costs associated with a different City event in an unauthorized transaction.
In late 2014, the City entered into a contract with an event production and management company to oversee the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic bike race, which takes place annually in June. The express language in the contract prohibited any person from using any of this City money for a purpose other than costs associated with the race. After the contract was executed and payment received, the Fund maintained possession of approximately $225,000, money which retained the designation to be used for costs associated with the bike race.
In June 2015, in her role as the Chairperson for Welcome America, Inc., Peterkin-Bell was aware that the non-profit had not finalized enough corporate sponsorships to cover the cost of events associated with July 4, 2015. The evidence presented to the Grand Jury showed that, to avoid failure to meet Welcome America’s budget goals, Peterkin-Bell directed that $25,000 of the restricted money from the Fund’s bike race account be moved to Welcome America under the guise of a sponsorship, even though the bike race had received no benefits and no advertising in exchange for that money. A witness testified that a sponsorship invoice was created after the fact at Peterkin-Bell’s direction in an alleged attempt to conceal the misuse of City money.
That was not the only instance in which the Grand Jury reviewed evidence that Peterkin-Bell misused money from the Fund’s “leftover” bike race money to cover a shortfall. According to the Grand Jury’s presentment, in May 2014 Peterkin-Bell, acting without the consent or knowledge of the Fund’s Board of Directors, entered into a contract with Forbes in connection with the company’s 30 Under 30 event. Instead of fundraising to cover the cost of the contract as she had originally pledged, Peterkin-Bell negotiated with Forbes to reduce the Fund’s debt and instructed employees to create false sponsorship agreements with the Philadelphia Marathon and the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic in an attempt to legitimize her misuse of the Fund’s money (using the remaining $200,000 in restricted funds from the bike race account).
“This case is another example of my commitment to rebuild the Office of Attorney General’s public corruption unit after years of decline,” Attorney General Shapiro said. “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.”
Peterkin-Bell is criminally charged with misusing the $225,000 in City funds allocated to cover bike race expenses, which she is alleged to have used to cover debts for Welcome America ($25,000) and the Forbes contract ($200,000).
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