Movita Johnson-Harrell has had a whirlwind year: She got a job as a crime victims' advocate at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. Her business closed. She filed for bankruptcy. And now she’s the Democratic nominee to represent the 190th District in the state House.
Johnson-Harrell is one of four candidates on the March 12 special election ballot to fill the West Philadelphia legislative seat vacated last month by Vanessa Lowery Brown, a Democrat who left office in disgrace after being convicted on bribery charges.
She was selected as her party’s nominee Sunday afternoon in an occasionally raucous 90-minute meeting of the leaders of seven wards in the district, overseen by former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the city party chairman. Johnson-Harrell was called into the meeting three times to answer questions about her financial troubles.
Brady, after the meeting, said attorneys for the party had reviewed Johnson-Harrell’s legal issues.
“They’re confident there’s nothing wrong there, nothing to preclude her from taking office,” he said. “We’re feeling pretty confident.”
Those troubles include a 2013 guilty plea for a summary charge of making a false statement or representation knowing it to be false, involving employer-withheld taxes at a West Philadelphia personal-care home Johnson-Harrell operated. Court records show she finished paying $25,569 in restitution in late December 2017, just days before starting her job as supervisor of victim witness services and restorative justice in the office of District Attorney Larry Krasner, which paid $96,105 per year.
Johnson-Harrell said the summary charge was filed because a payroll company she hired failed to withhold state unemployment-insurance taxes from workers' checks.
Johnson-Harrell, who resigned from her job at the District Attorney’s Office on Friday, filed for bankruptcy in November, and in December cited $788,083 in assets, including her 2009 Porsche Cayenne and three Powelton Avenue properties where the personal-care home was located.
She also listed $607,429 in liabilities, the biggest chunk being a $465,000 default judgment from October, the result of two 2005 loans for a combined $560,000 that were secured with those properties. They were listed in October for sheriff’s sale, but that was postponed two weeks ago due to Johnson-Harrell’s bankruptcy filing.
The personal-care home was abruptly closed in May after state investigators found unsanitary conditions and no staff on duty. At the time, Johnson-Harrell said she no longer ran the business.
Johnson-Harrell also has a string of local judgments against her for Philadelphia tax liens, along with an IRS lien of $56,397 in 2011 for unpaid federal taxes.
Johnson-Harrell was escorted in Sunday’s ward leader meeting by State Rep. Jordan Harris, the Democratic House whip, and State Sen. Sharif Street, a lawyer and vice chairman of the state Democratic Party.
The Democratic candidate selection process has been marred with mishaps. The original front-runner for the nomination, attorney Sonte Reavis, withdrew from consideration after a “Clout” column in the Inquirer and Daily News raised questions about his residency in the district. Another “Clout” column also raised residency questions about the party’s original nominee, barbershop owner Darrell Thomas, who announced on Facebook on Saturday that he was withdrawing from the race.
Two Democrats who unsuccessfully sought the party nomination, Amen Brown and Pastor Pam Williams, will appear on the ballot as independents. The Republican nominee is Michael Harvey. Any Democrat is heavily favored to win the election because 87 percent of the district’s voters are registered with the party. The winner will complete Brown’s two-year term in office, which pays $88,610 per year.