HARRISBURG — State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, a West Philadelphia Democrat, said Wednesday that she would resign after prosecutors charged her with stealing more than $500,000 from her own nonprofit and spending it on family vacations, designer clothing, furs, personal bills — and her bid for the legislature.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Johnson-Harrell engaged in “brazen corruption” and systematically tried to cover up her crimes by falsifying records and financial statements.
“Her theft knew no bounds," Shapiro said as he announced that his office had charged the first-term lawmaker with theft, perjury, tampering with public records, and related crimes Wednesday morning.
Shapiro said Johnson-Harrell would plead guilty to charges and faces jail time. “There will be a guilty plea that will be worked out, and you will see the details of that soon," he said.
Johnson-Harrell, 53, disputed many of the charges, but said she would resign this month.
“I am saddened and dismayed by the nature of the allegations brought against me today. I vigorously dispute many of these allegations, which generally pertain to before I took office, and I intend to accept responsibility for any actions that were inappropriate,” Johnson-Harrell, who represents the 190th District, said in a statement through her attorney.
The charges against Johnson-Harrell mean she is poised to become the second state lawmaker from the West Philadelphia district to leave office under a cloud of criminal accusations in one year. Johnson-Harrell won the seat in a March special election to replace Vanessa Lowery Brown, who was convicted of bribery and other charges and resigned last December.
She turned herself in at a Philadelphia police station on Wednesday morning.
Prosecutors said Johnson-Harrell used Motivations Education & Consultation Associates (MECA) — a nonprofit she established more than a decade ago to assist people struggling with mental illness, addiction, and homelessness — for profligate spending and personal gain.
Over several years, Johnson-Harrell tried to hide her crimes through an elaborate scheme involving multiple properties in Philadelphia, Shapiro said. Among the steps she took were inflating her tax bills, hiding the nonprofit’s money through false record-keeping, not reporting the money she was taking from MECA as income, attempting to transfer real estate, and under-reporting her real salary, prosecutors said. She misrepresented her money and assets in bankruptcy filings, tax returns, and financial disclosure statements, they said.
Many of the purchases investigators tracked were easily traced to MECA funds: Often, Johnson-Harrell spent an amount she had allegedly transferred from the nonprofit to a personal account. She made some purchases directly from MECA accounts, and she repaid herself for fake loans to the organization, according to the criminal complaint.
“MECA’s actual mission was to serve as a cash account for Johnson-Harrell’s own personal use,” Shapiro said.
Among the funds used was $12,500 Johnson-Harrell allegedly transferred from MECA to the Friends of Movita campaign committee during her run for legislature this year. She told the campaign to record the money as a $15,000 personal loan from her, prosecutors said.
Then, toward the end of the campaign, Johnson deposited into the Friends of Movita account a $30,000 check she had saved from a transfer of MECA funds to her own account. She withdrew half in cash and left the rest for the campaign as an unreported loan, according to the complaint.
Johnson-Harrell also funneled $12,000 in MECA funds to Friends of Movita during a previous run for the same seat in 2015 and 2016, authorities said.
Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, who has known Johnson-Harrell for years, said she was surprised by the charges.
“I’ve only seen her doing a great job. I’m sorry to hear it. No win in that, because she loves her community and served it well,” Blackwell said. “Things happen, but I’m hoping for the best, but we’ll just have to see what happens.”
Paying bills and spending lavishly
Johnson-Harrell was spending the organization’s money while a home MECA ran for disadvantaged Philadelphians — partly funded by Medicaid and residents’ Social Security disability checks — was falling into squalor, Shapiro said.
The attorney general’s investigation was sparked by Johnson-Harrell’s closure of the home in 2018 after the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services threatened to shut it down.
Even after it was shuttered, prosecutors say, Johnson-Harrell continued taking monthly rent payments totaling $50,000 from MECA for the property, which she owned.
With MECA funds, Johnson-Harrell allegedly spent $16,000 on vacations in 2017, including a two-week vacation with a relative to a resort in Mexico in April and a second trip to Mexico in November. She dropped $5,500 on four fox fur coats weeks after she filed for bankruptcy, according to prosecutors, and spent $13,000 in total on online shopping, including designer clothing.
In 2017, Johnson-Harrell gave a total of $2,500 to Larry Krasner’s campaign for district attorney, making each donation immediately after transferring money from MECA to her personal account. She also gave $500 to then-candidate Joe Khan, Krasner’s opponent in the Democratic primary.
She would become a supervisor in the Victim/Witness Services Unit of Krasner’s District Attorney’s Office the following year.
Johnson-Harrell also used the money to pay overdue gas bills, back taxes to the IRS, an overdue water bill, tuition for her grandchildren’s private school, and past-due car payments. She paid $7,979 in restitution for a 2014 criminal conviction for not paying unemployment compensation taxes and sent the City of Philadelphia two checks labeled “taxes,” according to the case affidavit.
‘Those elected to serve have to follow the law’
Johnson-Harrell was the first Muslim woman to serve in the Pennsylvania legislature. Reducing gun violence has been her top issue. Her father, brother, and 18-year-old son were all killed by gun violence.
Johnson-Harrell “remains a woman dedicated to ending gun violence in Philadelphia and focused on the well-being of all Philadelphians,” her lawyer, Jessica Natali, said in a statement. “This matter will be resolved with the Attorney General’s Office and ultimate disposition will be addressed in a courtroom at an appropriate time.”
Shapiro said Johnson-Harrell had used her tragedies to help others.
“It is not lost on me that Rep. Johnson-Harrell has faced serious struggles,” Shapiro said. But, “defrauding a nonprofit, defrauding taxpayers, and then systematically lying over many years to cover it up is unjust, it’s unfair, and it’s a crime.... She is going to spend time behind bars.”
House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody said the 190th District’s constituent service office would remain open to serve residents until a new representative is elected in 2020.
“These criminal charges are beyond disturbing. Rep. Johnson-Harrell is taking responsibility for what she did, and I expect her to resign very soon. She obviously cannot continue serving in elected office," Dermody said in a statement. “I know her commitment to her constituents — especially to the goal of ending gun violence in Philadelphia — is heartfelt and sincere.... But the fact is, those elected to serve have to follow the law before they can make the law.”
Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.