Former Pennsylvania Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell pleaded guilty to theft and related charges Thursday and will spend at least three months in jail in a case in which state prosecutors allege she stole more than $500,000 from her own nonprofit and spent it on family vacations, designer clothing, furs, and personal bills.
Johnson-Harrell, 53, did not admit in court to stealing any specific amount of money designated for the nonprofit, Motivations Education & Consultation Associates (MECA), which she had established to help people struggling with mental illness, addiction, and homelessness.
Under a negotiated plea deal, she was sentenced to 11½ to 23 months in county jail, plus two years’ probation.
Under the deal, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Scott DiClaudio said that if she has no write-ups or misconducts in jail during her first three months, she can serve the remainder of her minimum sentence, or 8½ months, under house arrest. She is scheduled to begin her jail sentence Feb. 6.
Johnson-Harrell, a Democrat who represented West Philadelphia, pleaded guilty to three theft charges, two tampering offenses, and a perjury charge. Each of the third-degree felony theft charges relates to a range of $2,000 to $25,000.
She also pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges related to campaign or ethics code violations.
As restitution, Johnson-Harrell will surrender a Tioga property that will be sold, the proceeds used to pay restitution to MECA, the Attorney General’s Office said in a statement. Johnson-Harrell no longer runs MECA.
DiClaudio, who gave Johnson-Harrell encouraging words in court, said she could be a candidate for early probation termination, a common practice in his courtroom.
“We all make mistakes,” he told her. “Sometimes, we make them more than once.”
“You’ve made many great strides to help many people in the city, but you also made errors in judgment,” DiClaudio told her, saying her crimes were serious, but also noting that she has been an advocate against gun violence.
He said the outcome of her case was “a fair and just resolution.”
Johnson-Harrell, who wept softly when entering her guilty pleas, told the judge: “I’d like to apologize to my family for bringing them into the political world.” She then looked back at her relatives, including her husband and children, who were in the courtroom, and said: “I love you.”
Although Johnson-Harrell did not admit to stealing a specific amount from MECA, Chief Deputy Attorney General Kirsten Heine, of the Criminal Prosecutions Section, and Deputy Attorney General Philip McCarthy said after the hearing that their office still alleges Johnson-Harrell had unlawfully taken the full amount of more than $500,000 originally alleged.
In an e-mailed statement, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said: “This Philadelphia community would have been in a better place had this former public official invested MECA’s money into the people who needed the care she promised. Instead, the community received no help as Johnson-Harrell spent MECA money on fur coats, Porsche car payments and expensive vacations for herself.”
MECA received money from Medicaid and Social Security disability funds.
Defense attorney Jessica Natali said in an e-mailed statement: “Today, Movita Johnson-Harrell took responsibility for some poor decisions she made over the past few years. … While these were serious errors, they do not diminish, or erase, her long record of community leadership and service and passion for ending the scourge of gun violence.
“Movita is an exceptional woman who will serve her sentence, and then return to her mission of advocacy. She remains grateful for the strong support of her community as she accepted accountability for her actions.”
Johnson-Harrell resigned from her state legislature position after the AG’s Office charged her in December with theft, perjury, tampering with public records, and related crimes following a grand jury investigation.
“The thefts continued even after defendant’s appointment to a high-level position in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and her election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives,” the AG’s Office wrote in its criminal complaint.
From at least December 2015, Johnson-Harrell repeatedly misrepresented financial transactions to accomplish her theft scheme, the complaint says.
Johnson-Harrell spent a little more than eight months in the state legislature after winning a special March election to represent the 190th District. She replaced longtime State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, who was driven from office by a bribery scandal.
The first Muslim woman to serve in the Pennsylvania legislature, Johnson-Harrell made reducing gun violence her top priority. Her father, brother, and 18-year-old son were all killed by gun violence.
Johnson-Harrell previously served as Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s supervisor for his office’s Victim/Witness Services Unit, starting when Krasner took office in January 2018. She resigned from that position in January 2019 to run for the state House office, which she originally had sought four years earlier.
According to the AG’s Office, Johnson-Harrell misused MECA funds to pay:
About $15,000 for clothing, including $5,500 for four fur coats.
$19,000 in vacation expenses for 2017 and 2018 trips to Atlanta; Ocean City, Md.; Orlando; and twice to Mexico.
$20,000 for overdue mortgage bills.
About $20,000 in overdue water, gas, and tax bills.
$7,979 to satisfy her restitution following a 2013 summary conviction for making a false statement involving employer-withheld taxes at a West Philadelphia personal-care home she operated.
$4,000 to a criminal defense attorney for a relative’s case.
$3,830 for her grandchildren’s private-school tuition.
$2,500 in contributions to Krasner during his 2017 campaign.
$2,065 for overdue payments on her Porsche.
The AG’s Office also alleged that Johnson-Harrell paid herself “rent” checks of $3,345 a month from MECA’s bank account for a personal-care home she operated for MECA on Powelton Avenue even after she abruptly closed it in May 2018 after state regulators found no staff on duty and unsanitary conditions. She also paid herself $50,000 in “rent” money in 2017 for a Tioga property she used as a MECA group home even after she stopped operating it that February, the complaint says.