Former City Representative Desiree Peterkin Bell pleaded guilty Friday to stealing and misusing funds from a city-operated nonprofit, capping a long-running saga that exposed abuse of taxpayer dollars at the Mayor’s Fund during Michael Nutter’s administration.
Peterkin Bell, charged last year with misspending nearly $250,000 from the fund, was sentenced by Common Pleas Court Judge Scott DiClaudio to 90 days of house arrest and a year of probation, according to court records.
In addition, she will be required to pay nearly $20,000 in restitution to reimburse what prosecutors said was an array of personal expenditures Peterkin Bell made at taxpayers’ expense, including vacations, restaurants, and Uber rides.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office oversaw the case, said in a statement that Peterkin Bell “took advantage of her high-ranking position of public trust and used taxpayer dollars to enrich herself and fund her own lavish lifestyle.”
Attempts to reach Peterkin Bell on Friday were unsuccessful. But on Twitter, she thanked God and tweeted an image of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa beneath the phrase: “Life’s not about how hard of a hit you can give... it’s about how many you can take, and still keep moving forward.”
One of her attorneys, Michael T. Sterling, said in an interview that he was “pleased with the outcome,” which allowed Peterkin Bell to avoid jail time. Prosecutors also agreed to let Peterkin Bell plead to all misdemeanor counts, sparing her any felony convictions.
Still, Sterling pushed back on the idea that Peterkin Bell stole money from taxpayers — despite her pleading guilty to several counts of theft — saying “what you have here is more of a process issue,” and adding that as part of her guilty plea, she volunteered to pay restitution.
“I think Desiree’s remorse comes at the point where [she] acknowledges, ‘I didn’t follow the process,’” he said.
Peterkin Bell was charged in November with counts including theft, receiving stolen property, and tampering with public records — counts that combined could have led to a substantial prison term if she was convicted at trial. She previously had denied wrongdoing.
Prosecutors said in November that a 14-month grand jury investigation found that Peterkin Bell used Mayor’s Fund credit cards to pay for about $20,000 worth of personal expenses, including vacations in Florida and Oregon, as well as a dinner party at the Bellevue Hotel to promote her future consulting business.
In addition, prosecutors said, the grand jury found that Peterkin Bell diverted $225,000 from the fund to help cover fundraising shortfalls for two unrelated events, the 2015 Welcome America and 2014 Forbes 30 Under 30 — events that Sterling, her attorney, sought to point out were public events hosted by the city.
The Mayor’s Fund is a nonprofit intended to advance the mayor’s policy goals and promote the city. Until 2017, the city representative chaired the fund, overseeing more than $10 million annually in grants and revenue from the Philadelphia Marathon.
Starting in 2016, the fund came under scrutiny from both former City Controller Alan Butkovitz — who contended that Peterkin Bell treated the nonprofit like a “slush fund” — and The Inquirer, which published stories raising questions about fund spending and oversight.
Peterkin Bell disputed Butkovitz’s statements and filed a defamation lawsuit against him. The suit later was dismissed.
Nutter also defended his former aide and called Butkovitz a “snake,” characterizing his assertions as “slanderous, libelous, and vicious bile.”
Still, turmoil surrounding the fund continued. In September 2018, another former city representative under Nutter, Melanie Johnson, agreed to pay a $2,000 fine after the Philadelphia Board of Ethics found that she spent nearly $7,000 of city money on travel, stays at the Four Seasons, an iPad, and other personal expenses.
After Shapiro announced in November that a 14-month grand jury investigation had found criminal wrongdoing by Peterkin Bell, Nutter said he was “greatly saddened” by the allegations, and said “they do not reflect the tone and standards that I established for my administration during my tenure.”
Nutter did not respond to a request for comment Friday following Peterkin Bell’s admission of guilt.
The Mayor’s Fund has since undergone an overhaul, with the Kenney administration appointing a new board and unveiling a plan for a reform.