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Kenney pulls plug on Nutter spokesman's pension

In the weeks before Mayor Michael Nutter left office, he asked his successor, Jim Kenney, for a favor: Keep Nutter's director of communications on the payroll so she could collect her pension.

Former Mayor Mike Nutter and Desiree Peterkin Bell, the mayor's director of communications.
Former Mayor Mike Nutter and Desiree Peterkin Bell, the mayor's director of communications.Read moreStaff File Photo

In the weeks before Mayor Michael Nutter left office, he asked his successor, Jim Kenney, for a favor: Keep Nutter's director of communications on the payroll so she could collect her pension.

It was a conversation between two men who have not gotten along in recent years, and a relatively big ask, since the person in question - Desiree Peterkin-Bell - had publicly feuded with Kenney on Twitter.

"We talked in my office after the general election," Nutter said Thursday. "We came to an agreement."

There's some dispute between Nutter and Kenney over what that agreement was.

Kenney said Nutter told him Peterkin-Bell only needed four days to be vested into the system, so he acquiesced. Nutter said he told Kenney she needed a month.

Kenney agreed at the time, and Peterkin-Bell remained on the payroll when his administration took over last week.

This week, however, things took a turn in a story which on a micro level is about a $17,610 annual pension, but on a larger level says something about the continuing tension between the past and current mayors.

Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said the administration checked Thursday to see if Peterkin-Bell was still on the payroll, and learned she actually needed to stay until Feb. 5 to hit five years in city government and qualify for a pension. However, with 21 vacation days still owed her, she needed to work only four more days to reach that qualifying date.

"Since that timeline far exceeded our initial understanding, we are formally terminating her employment and she will not collect a pension," Hitt said in a statement Thursday night.

She will be paid for any unused vacation days, Hitt said.

Peterkin-Bell, 38, made $150,000 a year and stood to collect $1,467.53 monthly when she turned 60.

Peterkin-Bell, who worked as both director of communications and as city representative, said in a statement Friday that she is dealing with health issues and that her termination means she has to move a planned medical procedure.

"I would just like to take care of my health. I've given a lot to both jobs. Given this new, unexpected info, I now have to readjust a significant medical procedure," she said in the statement. "I am a woman of faith and believe in God, and I am driven by purpose, not position. I am putting my faith and trust in him during this time. I will pray for Mayor Kenney and his team."

Peterkin-Bell was appointed director of communications and strategic partnerships in 2010, and then took a break in 2012 to work for President Obama's reelection campaign in Pennsylvania. She returned and was at the helm of many large-scale events, including the September papal visit.

Peterkin-Bell earlier worked for Cory Booker when he was mayor of Newark, N.J., and for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Nutter said he believes his former top aide was "singled out." He said employees during his eight years frequently "ran out" their time in order to collect.

"It seems unusual that one person in particular, who served at a very high rank in my administration, is singled out and being treated differently than a number of other folks have been in the past and probably are being treated right now," Nutter said.

He said he spoke with Kenney at least three times after the November general election and told him that Peterkin-Bell had "about a month" left on the payroll, not four days.

"The point of the conversation was someone . . . performed admirably in our administration and left the government to go work for the reelection of President Barack Obama," Nutter said Thursday. "When you count up all the days, you find they're about a month short in vesting into a system they paid into. Like everybody else, you should then not be penalized as a result. I gave him all that information. He clearly understood it and at that time agreed to it."

Nutter said he was also aware Peterkin-Bell wanted to stay on the city's health plan because of a planned medical procedure. Nutter said he did not tell Kenney about the health issue.

Hitt responded Friday by saying Peterkin-Bell was not targeted, and that if letting employees stay on into a new administration to fulfill their pension was the status quo, it's one the Kenney administration wants to change.

"Maybe it always has been done this way, but I think it's right for us to question whether it should be," Hitt said.

"We're certainly not singling her out. We put aside any feeling or any past negative interactions because we didn't want to appear vindictive."

Hitt said that Peterkin-Bell no longer has a working city email account or phone number, and that keeping her on for a full month "goes way past generosity and starts to act against the public interest."

David L. Cohen, senior executive vice president of Comcast Corp., has called Philadelphia's unfunded pension liability (about $5.7 billion) the number-one crisis facing the city. As chief of staff to Ed Rendell when he was mayor, Cohen said, he faced similar situations, and thinks Kenney made the right call both times.

"There are always people in transition who need a relatively short amount of time," Cohen said. "Four days is a rounding error," he said, but a month, "that's a big exception."

Cohen said he thinks different standards should exist for exempt employees and career civil servants.

"I happen to like Desiree, for the record," Cohen said. "I think she's done really positive work for the city, but the municipal pension fund was not created to provide a pension for someone who would serve five, six, seven years and go on to another job."

215-854-5506 @juliaterruso