Former Aide to Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter Allegedly Stole City Funds, Pennsylvania AG Charges

Before coming to Philadelphia, Desiree Peterkin Bell previously worked for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker when he served as mayor of Newark, N.J., former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration in New York City, and former President Obama's election campaign.

What to Know

  • Peterkin Bell came to Philadelphia with a resume that included stints working for now-U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and the Obama election campaign.
  • She quickly became one of former Mayor Michael Nutter's top aides and confidants.
  • As City Representative, she oversaw the Mayor's Fund, the primary use of which was to oversee the now-defunct Philadelphia Bike Race.

A top aide to former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has been charged with public corruption, the Pennsylvania Attorney General announced Tuesday.

Desiree Peterkin Bell, who was hired by Nutter as one of his top aides and went on to serve as City Representative, overseeing the Mayor's Fund.

The charges relate to spending by Peterkin-Bell while she oversaw the fund on "vacations, shopping, dining and entertainment that benefited her and not the public," Attorney General Josh Shapiro said.

Peterkin Bell surrendered to authorities Tuesday morning. 

She is charged with allegedly stealing $20,000 in city funds through the use of two credit cards and misspending another $225,000 from the fund that was supposed to go to supporting the now-defunct Philadelphia Bike Race, Shapiro said.

Shapiro described it as a "failure of a senior public official to be an honest steward of taxpayer money."

"Ms. Peterkin Bell is charged with stealing more than $20,000 in public funds on these unlawful credit card expenditures," Shapiro said. "Ms. Bell is also charged with misapplying $225,000 in taxpayer money, which the city had granted to the mayor’s fund for a restricted specific purpose: paying the costs of an annual cycling race and using the money instead to satisfy the other debts of the fund incurred at her direction."

Peterkin Bell came to the Mayor Nutter administration to immediately fill a large role in City Hall. Her impressive resume at the time included stints in Newark, New Jersey, as communications director for then-Mayor Cory Booker, who is now a U.S. senator, and as a senior advisor to former President Barack Obama's re-election campaign operation in Pennsylvania.

She quickly became a top confidant to Nutter, and was eventually named City Representative. The role combines commerce and marketing efforts to promote and oversee some of Philadelphia's largest events, from annual events like the former cycling competition and the July 4 Welcome America festival to one-offs like Pope Francis's visit and the Democratic National Convention.

The criminal charges against Peterkin Bell by Shapiro come two years after former City Controller Alan Butkovitz first raised questions about the use of the Mayor's Fund during the Nutter administration.

Butkovitz released an audit of the fund in August 2016 that found as much as $400,000 in questionable spending of taxpayer money.

Butkovitz questioned tens of thousands of dollars in charges from hotel room spending to a shoe purchase, naming Peterkin Bell by name as the person he believed to have misspent money.

"I find it absolutely intolerable the former chairperson used this account to purchase shoes," the controller told reporters. “It appears the former chairperson used the account as if it were a special slush fund."

Nutter, who left the mayor's office in 2015 after two four-year terms, attacked Butkovitz and adamently defended Peterkin Bell.

"The Controller is a liar, a snake and a hypocrite. There is no truth in what he says," Nutter said. "Every expenditure was proper and for an approved purpose and he never talked to either Desiree Peterkin-Bell or myself about any concerns, which is standard procedure, before releasing this slanderous, libelous and vicious bile from his mouth."

Shapiro also announced that he was passing along findings of his office's investigation to the Philadelphia Board of Ethics that included allegations of ethics violations against two other former city officials. He declined to give specifics Tuesday, citing confidentiality of board investigations.

Peterkin Bell's attorney was not immediately available for comment.

Nutter, in a statement after the charges were announced, said he is "greatly saddened and very deeply disappointed" by the allegations.

"My past comments in this matter were based on what was told to me at that time. If these new allegations are true, they do not reflect the tone and standards that I established for my administration during my tenure," he said. "As the Mayor during the time in question, I am very sorry for any potential violation of the public trust in this matter."

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