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Former chair of Mayor's Fund spent $52,000 with no documentation

Former Mayor Michael Nutter and former City Representative Desiree Peterkin Bell.
Former Mayor Michael Nutter and former City Representative Desiree Peterkin Bell.Read moreStaff File Photo

Former City Representative Desiree Peterkin Bell was apparently a fan of Uber.

In 2015 alone, the then-chairwoman of the Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia used the ride-sharing service 458 times. The $8,738 total tab was picked up by the fund, a nonprofit established in 1979 to "advance the mayor's goals ... to the benefit of the citizens of Philadelphia."

Peterkin Bell provided no documentation to explain how those rides served those goals.

The lack of documentation — which violated fund policy — was not unusual.

In total, she failed to offer detailed explanations for $52,000 worth of charges she made that year on the American Express and Wells Fargo MasterCard credit cards issued by the fund.

Among the unexplained charges were  purchases at Macy's — including one for an unidentified $150 Ivanka Trump-branded item — and J.Crew, meals at posh Center City restaurants, as well as travel to New York, Washington, and other cities.

Absent any explanation of the expenditures, it is impossible to tell whether the credit card expenses advanced the fund's mission, or simply Peterkin Bell's lifestyle.

She declined repeated requests to address the undocumented spending for this article, which is based on a review by the Inquirer of the fund's credit card records.

Peterkin Bell's fund spending has been an issue before. In August, City Controller Alan Butkovitz accused her of operating the nonprofit as a "slush fund" for the Nutter administration.

Butkovitz pointed to money used to pay for, among other things, a trip to Rome by Nutter and his staff to bring the pope to Philadelphia, an open-bar reception for the NAACP convention, and Nutter's farewell celebration at University of the Arts.

Nutter and Peterkin Bell defended the spending as appropriate. Peterkin Bell even filed a defamation lawsuit against the controller; a Common Pleas Court judge recently tossed out the lawsuit.

Peterkin Bell's tenure as city representative and chairwoman of the Mayor's Fund ended in 2016, when Nutter left office. Her salary was $150,000.

The Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia is a nonprofit run by city officials that manages $7 million to $10 million each year to promote tourism, business and economic development, education, culture, and job growth. The bulk of its revenue comes from registration fees from the city-controlled annual Philadelphia Marathon.

Despite its admirable goals, the fund has faced controversies over the way its assets have been used during the last 25 years. The Inquirer and Daily News reported last week that Nutter ignored a 2012 recommendation from Inspector General Amy Kurland to fire Melanie Johnson, Peterkin Bell's predecessor as fund chair, after Johnson was found to have made inappropriate purchases with fund resources.

An Inquirer review of credit card records, obtained through a Right-to-Know request, showed that the fund spent $545,425 on various American Express and Wells Fargo MasterCard credit cards tied to the account in 2015. Charges ranged from pizza for youth programs to office supplies.

Receipts and written explanations were often provided to tie an expense to a particular fund program, per the fund's policy. Assistant City Representative Mary Margaret Hughes, for instance, incurred more than $1,600 worth of Uber charges on Oct. 7, 2015, but provided receipts, noting the rides were to various local charter schools as part of a Forbes Under-30 Summit event.

According to the fund's executive director, Ashley Del Bianco, the credit card policy required cardholders "to support the charges through original receipts and a description of what program the charge was related to."

The credit cards were meant only for items or services "impossible or inconvenient" to get with checks, Del Bianco said.

"We always try to follow up with the individual who incurred charges when there is a question," she said, "but we have to rely on them for that information."

But when it came to Peterkin Bell's expenses, there were seldom follow-up explanations.

When asked whether she ever pressed Peterkin Bell about her Uber charges, Del Bianco said: "I did not raise that question."

Del Bianco did, however, go to the Controller's Office in January 2016 to complain about Peterkin Bell's expenses. Her complaint led to Butkovitz's investigation.

"Essentially that is why I asked for some help," she said. "Because there are no policies that I can exercise."

Del Bianco said that in Peterkin Bell's role as city representative, she was in charge of running the annual marathon. Most of Peterkin Bell's credit card charges were paid through the marathon.

"I don't have the ability to yank the account away from her," Del Bianco said. "... It's her judgment as to how she uses it."

Nonprofit experts say the unexplained expenses can be problematic.

"Most nonprofits have credit card policies where they need to see receipts and are very strict about it," said Tish Mogan, the standards for excellence director for the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations, which teaches best practices to hundreds of nonprofits.

"If this is a nonprofit with the city's name on it, you'd hope the city would have a mechanism for ensuring it's well-run. Trust is a nice thing, but we tell nonprofits all the time that you also need to have a system in place so that there are checks and balances."

Some of Peterkin Bell's charges were scrutinized, such as an American Express statement that listed a $39.42 purchase at Macy's on Oct. 14, 2015 for "necklaces."

On Nov. 24, a staffer at the fund emailed Peterkin Bell to ask whether she made the purchase. "Yep," she replied, "for the marathon."

On the November credit card statement that year, another Macy's charge from Peterkin Bell was flagged — a $150 purchase that was simply labeled "Ivanka Trump." Scrawled on the statement was one word: "Dispute?" There is no further correspondence.

Other expenses that lacked documentation included $123 at the Palm restaurant on South Broad Street, $118 at McCormick and Schmick's Seafood Restaurant across from City Hall, $71 at Hawthornes Cafe, and $66 at Swank and Swine in Portland, Ore.

Nearly $30,000 of Peterkin Bell's charges in 2015 involved travel, including Amtrak trips to New York or Washington; flights to Norfolk, Va., and Rome; taxis around New York City; and the $8,738 worth of Uber rides.

More than $100,000 worth of travel expenses for Nutter, his security detail, and cabinet members, was charged to a fund credit card assigned to Kathleen Lonie, then executive assistant to Nutter's Chief of Staff Everett Gillison. Lonie had no formal role with the fund. Del Bianco said that Lonie had a card assigned to her "for convenience purposes" of booking travel for Peterkin Bell or the mayor for events associated with the Office of City Representative.

In addition to Peterkin Bell, Hughes and Lonie, Del Bianco also had a credit card.

Contacted by the Inquirer about Peterkin Bell's credit card use, Butkovitz declined to comment on the specific charges, citing his office's active investigation into the fund.

However, he said few city departments have credit cards assigned to employees.

"There should be extremely limited use of agency credit cards," he said. "It has to be extremely accountable. Otherwise it looks like free money."