Former City Representative Desiree Peterkin Bell - who last week was accused by City Controller Alan Butkovitz of using revenue from the Philadelphia Marathon as a "slush fund" to pay for former Mayor Michael A. Nutter's pet projects - filed a defamation lawsuit Wednesday, alleging that the controller's actions were malicious and reckless, and caused her great harm.
Also named as a defendant was Ashley Del Bianco, executive director of the Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia, the account which Butkovitz said was improperly used to pay for - among other things - a trip to Rome for Nutter and his staff in connection with last year's papal visit, an open bar at an NAACP reception, and a going-away party for Nutter.
Peterkin Bell, who left city government at the end of Nutter's term in January, is seeking at least $150,000 in damages, according to the complaint filed in Common Pleas Court.
"As a proximate cause of defendants' malicious, intentional, and/or reckless conduct set forth above, Ms. Peterkin Bell is entitled to damages that will compensate her for the injury to her professional and personal reputation, for her emotional distress, and punitive damages to punish defendants for their conduct and to deter such conduct in the future," the complaint states.
Butkovitz on Wednesday night said he had not seen the complaint, but had been told of it by his staff.
"I've never heard of a response as the one from Desiree Peterkin Bell or Mayor Nutter to a financial review. This further demonstrates Peterkin Bell's and Mayor Nutter's attitude that they are not accountable to anybody for that spending," he said. "That attitude underlines the importance of doing a thorough review of this. . . . Inappropriate responses trigger greater scrutiny."
Last week, Butkovitz said he wanted to do a deeper examination of the Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia, going back to the start of the Nutter administration in 2008.
Del Bianco did not respond to a request for comment late Wednesday.
City spokeswoman Lauren Hitt declined to comment.
Last week, Butkovitz held a news conference to announce the findings of an investigation into the Marathon Reserve Account, a subaccount of the Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia, at the behest of Del Bianco. "Instead of making grant awards, it appears the former chairperson used the reserves account as if it were a special slush fund," Butkovitz said at the time.
The Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia oversees about $10 million for various city programs that promote tourism, business and economic development, education, culture, and job growth. Much of its revenue comes from the Philadelphia Marathon.
Responding to Butkovitz's news conference - during which he said, "I find it absolutely intolerable the former chairperson used this account to purchase shoes" - Nutter last week said the money was properly used and called Butkovitz a "liar, a snake, and a hypocrite."
Peterkin Bell said the shoes, bought on Sept. 26 for $80, were for a model participating in the Philadelphia Collection, a fall fashion show that the City Representative's Office helps organize.
During the news conference, Butkovitz said Peterkin Bell, acting as chairwoman of the Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia, authorized the spending with no oversight from the fund's board of directors.
Peterkin Bell's lawsuit states that Del Bianco, the fund's executive director, signed the checks and therefore approved the expenditures.
"The accusation that Ms. Peterkin Bell circumvented the policies and procedures of the fund is laughable as it is Del Bianco's job as executive director to authorize such expenditures," the suit states. "The idea that Del Bianco could approve an expenditure and turn around and say the procedure for authorizing that same expenditure was not followed is demonstrably false."
Peterkin Bell and Del Bianco agree on one point: The Marathon Reserve Account was set up as a discretionary account for the Office of the City Representative, meaning that the city representative could spend the money as he or she saw fit.
Del Bianco has said she approached Butkovitz to look into the Marathon Reserve Account precisely because only one person had a say on how the money would be spent.
The 32-page complaint is laced with strongly worded accusations of vengeance, malice, and bullying. It calls Butkovitz "a hyper-ambitious politician who hopes to one day aspire for political relevance." It refers to Del Bianco as a "vindictive woman."
The complaint claims that Del Bianco was concerned about losing her job with a new administration coming in and wanted to be a "whistle-blower" to retain her job.
The complaint called Butkovitz's report a "sham investigation" and a "political stunt."
"Butkovitz, however, took his political stunt too far. Butkovitz turned the press conference into his private kangaroo court where he made false and defamatory statements about Ms. Peterkin Bell," the complaint says.
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