$500,000 buys some high-quality furs.
Or so the people of Philadelphia learned last week with the announcement of eight corruption charges against West Philadelphia State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, who will almost certainly be headed to jail after she steps down as a Pennsylvania state legislator.
Funneling half a million dollars from your fake charity for personal travel, private school tuition for your kids, and yes, furs, all seems pretty flagrant — even for Philly Democrats, who have a long history of corruption. In fact, State Rep. Johnson-Harrell’s primary legacy will be to make the crook who formerly represented the 190th District, Vanessa Lowery Brown, look like Mother Teresa for merely accepting $4,000 in cash bribes from an FBI informant.
State Rep. Johnson-Harrell got to live large during her yearslong money-funneling scheme.
The losers in all of this are plentiful.
Start with the voters in her district, who will have to hope that the third time is the charm and the next state rep they elect does not resign in disgrace, with a cloud of corruption around her.
Next, we have the donors to State Rep. Johnson-Harrell’s sham nonprofit, “Motivations Education & Consultation Associates,” whose donations did not go to “serve the mentally ill and drug-addicted poor,” but rather to her personal checking account.
Then we have the people of Philadelphia. Already having a reputation for corrupt politics, our city has yet again made national news, in the wrong way.
Finally, we have proponents of criminal justice reform, and particularly those focused on the idea of “focused deterrence,” a theory that focuses on small networks of men most likely to commit violent crimes in order to reduce the odds of crime occurring. Before and after her election, Johnson-Harrell advocated for such methods. Activists who invested hope into her should feel particularly ripped off in this moment.
Instead of moving the ball forward on changes to the criminal justice system — currently being debated in Harrisburg — she will be known as the first legislator in Pennsylvania arrested for illegally diverting $500K to purchase things like airline tickets and designer clothing.
The city Democratic Party, too, should be embarrassed. But after Johnny Doc, Vince Fumo, Chaka Fattah, Leslie Acosta, Renee Tartaglione, and the entirety of our city’s traffic court, the Democratic leadership is probably immune from such a feeling.
Which all begs a question that I have asked again and again as I’ve made my way in politics: where is the Republican Party to compete in Philadelphia? Voters in the 190th and elsewhere are being ripped off — and they know it. They are ill-served by the present crop of elected officials, and not just on corruption (school choice is another such issue I wrote on last week). If only we had a Republican Party that bothered to come in and listen to Philadelphia’s voters, maybe we’d all gain a better, more accountable political system for everybody.
Progressive types may sneer at the implication that the GOP could ever compete in cities like Philadelphia — or would even dare to — but as the parable of Movita and her furs shows us, it’s not like the Democrats are doing much good for voters here.
Maybe there is one change, within the voters’ reach, that would make serving as a Philly state rep a little less like operating your own fiefdom: shrinking the size of the Pennsylvania House, which is currently the largest full-time legislature in the country, as well as the most expensive.
Fewer legislators to keep track of would make holding them to account easier. But for now, the issue is dead in the water in Harrisburg.
In Philadelphia, it will be more of the same.
Albert Eisenberg is a Philadelphia-based political consultant. He formerly served as the communications director for the Philadelphia Republican Party and is a founder of Broad + Liberty. @albydelphia