It is tempting to shrug at the news that State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell has been charged with theft and perjury by Attorney General Josh Shapiro as more business as usual. The freshman state representative from West Philly — who intends to plead guilty and says she will resign her office — is joining a long list of corrupt Pennsylvania public officials, including her predecessor, Vanessa Lowery Brown, whose bribery conviction last December paved the way for Johnson-Harrell’s candidacy in a special election.
All told, according to Shapiro, the disgraced representative stole more than $500,000 from a nonprofit she founded over a decade ago — money that often came from Medicaid and Social Security checks of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable population. That pattern continued after she started working for DA Larry Krasner overseeing victim services and when she ran for office. She also lied about her finances in multiple financial disclosures.
In fact, she is the 60th public official arrested by the AG Shapiro since he took office in 2017.
Corruption is so prevalent among Philadelphia politicians that this isn’t even the first time a successor of a corrupt politician leaves office because of corruption. Last June ex-State Rep. Leslie Acosta was sentenced to seven months in prison for her role in a money-laundering scheme. Her predecessor, State Rep. Jose P. “J.P.” Miranda, left office during his first term after being charged as a part of a “ghost employee” conspiracy to funnel money to his sister.
Cynicism may feel like a natural response to this sordid story, but it shouldn’t be. Public corruption comes with many costs — not least of which is the cost of lost progress when efforts to improve people’s lives are put at risk.
For example, major scandals involving Sen. Vincent Fumo and Congressman Chaka Fattah, to name just two, focused on the billions of dollars to the city and region their work generated — diminished with their own corruption arrests. State Rep. Johnson-Harrell has been an important anti-gun violence activist in our city and played an integral role in the focused deterrence effort in 2013. Over the summer, as the death toll in the city climbed, Johnson-Harrell was instrumental at pushing the city toward a renewed focused deterrence effort.
All that effort and progress in preventing gun violence could be stalled or even lost with her arrest. That’s a tragedy — and worth more than a cynical shrug.
It should stoke outrage when officials like Johnson-Harrell, by engaging in corrupt behavior, show a complete indifference to the issues that are impacting the lives of their constituents and that they claim to care about so deeply.
The main immediate goal should be to ensure that the people of the 190th District have a member of the House of Representatives who serves them and not his or her own interests. What we need now is a discussion about what zero tolerance for corruption in government — and among candidates for office — looks like. Meanwhile, we should all make clear that an ethical government is a priority, and refuse to shrug off when an elected official is indicted as just another day in Pennsylvania.