As Movita Johnson-Harrell, a Philadelphia community advocate known for her work helping victims, was preparing to ask voters to send her to the state legislature in 2015 and 2016, this is what state inspectors found at two homes she ran for about 30 needy people:
Mouse droppings in a kitchen, bedrooms without proper lighting or shades, an overdue fire-safety inspection. Holes in walls, broken or damaged floors, toilet, and sink. A stinking, dead mouse under a tub, flies and gnats buzzing over left-out food.
And according to charges filed Wednesday against Johnson-Harrell, the West Philadelphia Democrat was writing $12,000 in checks to her state House campaign from the nonprofit she used to run the personal-care homes, spending money that came from Medicaid and the residents’ Social Security checks.
It was just a fraction of what prosecutors say Johnson-Harrell, 53, took from the organization — more than half a million over several years, allegedly spent on her vacations and clothes, car payments and taxes, bills and political donations.
Meanwhile, state inspectors accused the homes run by her nonprofit, Motivations Education & Consultation Associates (MECA), of infractions including mismanaging residents’ finances and errors in administering residents’ medications, records obtained by The Inquirer show.
The money Johnson-Harrell is accused of stealing came from the people her five homes were meant to be helping — those struggling with mental illness, addiction, and other issues. Johnson-Harrell’s care homes used Medicaid funding and monthly Social Security disability checks of several hundred dollars per resident, said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. That was the nonprofit’s only income, public records show.
“If she was taking money out of the till, it was their [supplement] checks, which is not much money,” said Diane Menio, executive director of Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly (CARIE), whose long-term care ombudsman program handles complaints in facilities, and dealt with complaints in Johnson-Harrell’s homes. “If she’s taking that kind of money from the place, how could she be spending any kind of money on the residents?”
Johnson-Harrell, who supervised victims’ services for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office before being elected to the legislature, was charged with theft, perjury, tampering with public records, and related crimes. Shapiro said she tried to cover up her spending of MECA’s money by falsifying records and financial statements.
She submitted her resignation Thursday and will formally leave the legislature on Dec. 13. Johnson-Harrell disputed many of the allegations in statements this week but took responsibility for “any actions that were inappropriate.” Shapiro said a plea deal is in the works that would include jail time.
Most of Johnson-Harrell’s alleged theft took place in the years before she joined the legislature. She was elected in a March special election to represent the 190th District in West Philadelphia at a salary of $88,610 a year plus expenses. She replaced Vanessa Lowery Brown, who resigned in December 2018 after being charged with bribery and other crimes.
Attempts to reach Johnson-Harrell on Friday were unsuccessful.
Inspection records from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services for MECA-run homes on Powelton Avenue, West Tioga Street, Tabor Avenue, and Wakefield Street show they violated state rules as early as 2009. Inspectors logged infractions such as missed medications for residents, mismanaged resident finances, bugs or mold, and general disrepair. The Inquirer reviewed about 250 pages of inspection records, all addressed to and signed by Johnson-Harrell, for the four properties from 2009 to 2018.
Johnson-Harrell fixed the problems or made plans for correcting them, the records show.
In July 2013, Johnson-Harrell decided to rent a three-building property she owned on Powelton Avenue to MECA for a personal-care home. She charged MECA $3,345 in rent, the amount of her mortgage, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
In 2018, officials inspecting Powelton Avenue “discovered that the residents were living in squalor — completely unlivable conditions,” and MECA shut down the home, Shapiro said. Johnson-Harrell had closed the Tioga Street home the year before.
One advocate recalled that Johnson-Harrell’s homes “came up” during meetings with state officials about personal-care homes with problems. Officials “felt like she was trying. … They would really try to work with operators to try to help them get into compliance, and I think they were really trying to do that with [Johnson-Harrell],” said the advocate, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the case.
Johnson-Harrell closed the Powelton home in spring 2018 after state officials threatened to shut it down, prosecutors said. Just before it closed, the person who works in advocacy received a call from other workers “saying they’d been out and had seen some really troubling conditions at Motivations.”
“When they closed down, I thought, ‘Oh, well, yeah, that’s not a big surprise,’ ” the person recalled.
That was the property that sparked the attorney general’s investigation.
After the homes shut down, she continued to pay herself rent on some of them from the nonprofit’s coffers, prosecutors said.
When the Powelton property closed, Johnson-Harrell told The Inquirer she had resigned from MECA as of Dec. 31, 2017. But in May 2018, she notified the state of the home’s closure, and the home replied with a letter addressed to her as director. In 2019, she included a MECA salary on her financial disclosure for the legislature.
In 2014, MECA brought in $515,921 in residential care revenue; $441,598 in 2015, $830,270 in 2016, and $887,126 in 2017, according to the only available tax filings for the organization. Johnson-Harrell is listed as the sole employee.
Personal-care homes are normally run as for-profit businesses and collect residents’ government checks as rent payment.
“I was surprised to see that it was operating as a nonprofit," Menio said, “because we could not find any charitable purpose for the organization. We didn’t see anything charitable.”
Johnson-Harrell runs another nonprofit, the Charles Foundation, named after her son, to reduce gun violence and improve young people’s lives. Its public filings provided little information and reported modest revenue. The foundation held its ninth annual gala on Nov. 23 for $100 per person. Her son, father, and brother were killed by gun violence.
Keir Bradford-Grey, the leader of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, on Friday praised Johnson-Harrell, saying she cared about both youthful victims and defendants. Bradford-Grey said Johnson-Harrell cared “about kids on both sides of the gun.”
On Friday, a longtime neighbor stopped for a minute outside Johnson-Harrell’s former Powelton facility. She said she was glad the operation had closed.
Residents “used to just come out and carry on on the sidewalk. I don’t know there was the supervision," said Sandra Moorer. "They deserved better care.”