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Former Nutter aide Desiree Peterkin Bell fined by Ethics Board for spending $20,000 on personal expenses

Former city representative Desiree Peterkin Bell will have to pay a $6,000 fine, plus nearly $20,000 in restitution for using money from a city-run nonprofit for personal expenses.

Desiree Peterkin Bell leaves the Criminal Justice Center Thursday, January 2019. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Desiree Peterkin Bell leaves the Criminal Justice Center Thursday, January 2019. DAVID SWANSON / Staff PhotographerRead moreDavid Swanson / File Photograph

Desiree Peterkin Bell, the former city representative who pleaded guilty last week to stealing and misusing funds from a city-operated nonprofit, was also found in violation of the city’s ethics laws and fined $6,000.

The fine is in addition to the $19,807 in restitution Bell is required to pay as part of her plea deal and settlement with the Board of Ethics.

Bell was charged in November by the state with several felony counts, including theft, receiving stolen property, and tampering with public records; combined, they could have led to a substantial prison term if she was convicted at trial. Prosecutors said she misspent nearly $250,000 from the Mayor’s Fund, a nonprofit intended to 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.

Bell cut a deal to plead guilty to all misdemeanor charges, avoiding prison. She was sentenced by Common Pleas Court Judge Scott DiClaudio to 90 days of house arrest and a year of probation. She was also ordered to pay back the money she used for personal expenses.

“The deal all along was that she would be required to pay restitution through us,” Shane Creamer, executive director of the Ethics Board, said, noting that restitution through the courts is a difficult process.

The board approved the settlement Wednesday; it was announced Thursday.

Reached for comment, Bell said that she would pay restitution with her personal contributions to the city’s pension fund.

“My attorney has already begun that process” of withdrawing the money, she said.

In a statement following her guilty plea, Bell said that the attorney general “wanted to use me to pretend they were tough on corruption." She lambasted the office as ignoring “truly powerful political players” who abused their positions, but did not name anyone.

Her conduct, she said, “was more about convenience than about corruption.”

Both the attorney general and Ethics Board found that Bell used the Mayor’s Fund credit cards for nearly $20,000 worth of personal expenses, including Uber rides, vacations, and a dinner party at the Bellevue Hotel to promote a future consulting business.

Starting in 2016, the fund came under scrutiny from then-City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who contended that Peterkin Bell treated the nonprofit like a “slush fund.” The Inquirer also published stories raising questions about fund spending and oversight, including under Bell’s predecessor, Melanie Johnson.

The Ethics Board found that Bell violated conflict of interest rules in three cases, justifying the highest possible fine per violation.

“These were deliberate violations … not unintentional," Creamer said.