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Philly Board of Ethics fines former Nutter aide for misspending city money

Former City Representative Melanie Johnson spent nearly $7,000 of city money for personal items including travel, hotel stays at the Four Seasons, an iPad and various meals, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics found in imposing a $2,000 fine. The board's findings arose from Inquirer and Daily News reporting last year.

Former City Representative Melanie Johnson. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer )
Former City Representative Melanie Johnson. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer )Read moreMichael Wirtz

Former City Representative Melanie Johnson spent nearly $7,000 of city money on travel, stays at the Four Seasons, an iPad, meals, and other personal items, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics found.

Johnson, who held the position from 2008 to 2012 in the Nutter administration, agreed to pay a $2,000 fine, according to a settlement agreement released by the board Thursday.

The board's investigation came after the Inquirer and Daily News reported last year that Johnson had used credit cards for the city's nonprofit arm, the Mayor's Fund, for questionable purchases. Credit-card records showed expenditures such as a $1,687 bill at Cuba Libre, $589 at Maggiano's, $559 on gift baskets, and $248 on chocolate-covered pretzels for a Johnson family funeral. There were no documented explanations.

Inspector General Amy Kurland recommended Johnson be fired in 2012, but Mayor Michael Nutter declined and instead promoted Johnson, the newspapers reported. At the time, Kurland and the mayor concluded that  just $733 in charges could not be justified as work-related.

The Ethics Board ruled that Johnson spent $6,952 on herself. The city representative promotes Philadelphia.

Johnson could not be reached for comment Thursday and has previously declined comment.

Johnson, according to the board, had repaid the city $2,848 during her tenure. The ethics board asked her to repay an additional $4,104 on top of the fine.

"This case demonstrates the public value of solid investigative reporting and an independent office like ours," said Shane Creamer, executive director of the city's  Board of Ethics. He said he hoped the settlement would show that ethics rules "apply equally to all city employees regardless of rank."

The Mayor's Fund is a nonprofit — at the time run mostly by city officials — set up to advance the mayor's policy goals. As city representative, Johnson was automatically in charge of the fund and up to $10 million annually in grants.

In 2010 and 2011, Johnson stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Center City for the Wawa Welcome America Fourth of July celebrations. The board found that five nights were not justified. In 2011 the city Finance Department asked Johnson to repay $661 for three of those nights.

The city's ethic code states that if a city agency is aware of an alleged violation of misuse of taxpayer funds, "it shall refer such matter to the Board."

Creamer said the board found out about Johnson's misuse of money from the newspapers.

Johnson's successor, Desiree Peterkin Bell, outdid her in questionable expenses with Mayor's Fund credit cards — failing to document $52,000 in spending in 2015 alone.

Then-City Controller Alan Butkovitz recommended last year that the Mayor's Fund seek reimbursement for $241,000 in purchases by Peterkin Bell and others connected to the fund that "did not meet the mission of the nonprofit," including $22,100 spent on a farewell party for Nutter at the end of his second term. The Mayor's Fund board at the time said it would review the recommendations.

Creamer said he could neither confirm nor deny whether Peterkin Bell's expenses are under investigation.

The Kenney administration vowed to reform the fund and named a new board in March to find a new executive director.