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 pleaded guilty to stealing city funds and using that money for her own benefit, the Pennsylvania Attorney General announced Friday.
Desiree Peterkin Bell served as City Representative from 2013 to 2015, overseeing the Mayor's Fund and funneling some of that public money into her private life.
On Friday, she was sentenced to 90 days to 23 months of house arrest followed by 12 months of probation and ordered to pay $19,807.23 in restitution.
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She "used taxpayer dollars to enrich herself and fund her own lavish lifestyle,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said. This included misusing city money for "Uber rides, restaurants, travel, hotels, memberships, clothing and goods, and other personal expenditures."
Peterkin Bell surrendered to authorities in November 2018 after a grand jury investigation accused her of misusing two credit cards belonging to the Fund for Philadelphia.
She was charged with stealing $20,000 through the use of those credit cards and misspending another $225,000 from the fund, Shapiro said.
Shapiro described it as a "failure of a senior public official to be an honest steward of taxpayer money."
Peterkin Bell came to the 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 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."
Nutter, in a statement after the charges were announced, said he was "greatly saddened and very deeply disappointed."
"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."