Despite her years in government, Desiree Peterkin Bell — who served under New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, before joining Michael Nutter's administration — apparently missed the part about taxpayer money and accountability.
Peterkin Bell was charged Tuesday by Attorney General Josh Shapiro with a variety of felony corruption charges, including theft by unlawful taking and theft by deception, receiving stolen property, and tampering with public records while she served as City Representative, a job that gave her control over the Mayor's Fund. Shapiro's office says Peterkin Bell misspent $250,000 in public money.
The grand jury presentment detailed a litany of instances where Peterkin Bell used credit cards linked to the fund – a nonprofit funded with private donations and taxpayer dollars to improve the city – to spend lavishly on herself, including travel, shopping, restaurants, and Uber rides.
Every time we write a sentence like "taxpayer dollars to spend lavishly on her/himself," we experience a tragic sense of déjà vu.
But there's another déjà vu moment in considering Peterkin Bell's saga: the fact that at the center of this mess is a nonprofit. There is a long list of reasons to be cautious when government and elected officials start looking at nonprofit organizations as a way to circumvent transparency when spending our money. Some of those reasons are named Vince Fumo, Chaka Fattah, and Mike Veon – all of whom are serving or have served prison time for their raids of nonprofit organizations that they set up.
Peterkin Bell, who faces jail time if convicted, didn't set up the Mayor's Fund, and the money she allegedly took was tied to public dollars contributed to the fund, not private donations. But the Mayor's Fund was another a nonprofit lacking oversight. Peterkin Bell made decisions and expenditures with no accountability – and outright disregarded requests for documentation of her spending, which included shoes from Macy's, travel with her husband, and a $1,700 dinner to launch her own consulting business. She also made questionable moves with money earmarked for one event to cover expenses she incurred for other events and had staff falsify documents, according to the grand jury presentment.
The Internal Revenue Service, which is in charge of granting nonprofit tax-exempt status, has been subject to major budget cuts, so it can't be relied on to investigate such abuses. This created a vacuum in oversight. Of course, that's no excuse for the way the Mayor's Fund was mismanaged.
Peterkin Bell's predecessor, Melanie Johnson, was removed from the position for mishandling funds under her control, using the fund's credit card for questionable personal expenses. Mayor Nutter then gave Johnson a new, higher-paying job. When then-Controller Alan Butkovitz started investigating Peterkin Bell's activities, the mayor lambasted him, calling him, among other things, a snake. Johnson has not been charged with any crimes.
The Kenney administration has revamped the Mayor's Fund following Peterkin Bell's departure; now, there is a new nine-member board but no credit cards.