Former Nutter Cabinet member pleads guilty to stealing city funds

Desiree Peterkin Bell pleads guilty to theft and will pay nearly $20,000 in restitution. She’ll serve 90 days on house arrest, but avoid prison.

Former Philadelphia City Representative Desiree Peterkin Bell leaves the Criminal Justice Center after pleading guilty to corruption charges

Former Philadelphia City Representative Desiree Peterkin Bell leaves the Criminal Justice Center after pleading guilty to corruption charges. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A top official in the administration of former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter pleaded guilty Friday to spending public funds on personal expenses and creating bogus sponsorship arrangements to redirect $225,000 for various city events.

In her role as the former Philadelphia city representative, Desiree Peterkin Bell sat on the board of two city-affiliated nonprofits: The Mayor’s Fund of Philadelphia and Welcome America, Inc. On two credit cards issued by the Mayor’s Fund, she racked up more than $19,000 in personal expenses from 2013 to 2015, including approximately 300 Uber rides.

Peterkin Bell also used money earmarked for the 2015 International Cycling Classic to pay off the city’s outstanding debts to host the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 event under the guise of “sponsorship.” Prosecutors said a similar scheme was used to illegally move money from the Mayor’s Fund to Welcome America.

Speaking outside the courthouse in Center City, Peterkin Bell said she takes responsibility for her actions — but she said she was unfairly targeted by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“I put my heart and soul into serving this city, and I made a mistake. But I think it’s clear that I’m not the criminal the attorney general portrayed me to be when he charged me,” she said. Peterkin Bell initially faced several felony charges, which were downgraded to seven misdemeanors in the plea agreement.

Senior Deputy Attorney General Kirk Handrich, who prosecuted the case, declined to comment on its outcome.

Peterkin Bell was sentenced to 90 days of house arrest, followed by a year of probation. She will be allowed to leave to bring her daughter to and from school and gymnastic events, as well as to church. As a part of her sentence, Peterkin Bell will repay the money spent on her expenses.

“You’ve gotten a pretty big break today, and you need to make the most of that opportunity,” said Judge Scott DiClaudio.

The Mayor’s Fund has repeatedly come under scrutiny for operating as a city-funded piggy bank for its leadership. Previously, the Board of Ethics fined former City Representative Melanie Johnson $2,000 for spending almost $7,000 on lavish meals and gifts.

The fund oversees millions in grant funding each year as well as money the city makes from the Philadelphia Marathon.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal