Former Philly official fined for spending city money on herself

Philadelphia City Hall (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Hall (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Philadelphia Board of Ethics has fined former City Representative Melanie Johnson $2,000 for tapping public funds for personal expenses that included meals, an iPad, and stays at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Johnson has also agreed to reimburse the city $4,103 for the improper expenses, according to her settlement agreement with the board.

As city representative, Johnson served as chair of the Fund for Philadelphia, a nonprofit that raises money for city-related projects, including the Philadelphia Marathon.

She was also chair of Wawa Welcome America, Inc., the nonprofit that runs the city’s Fourth of July festivities.

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Johnson opened a credit card in her name, tapping the Fund for Philadelphia, and used it to pay for restaurant tabs, an iPad and dues to a professional organization, according to the ethics board.

She also stayed five nights longer than necessary for her duties at the Four Seasons Hotel before and during the 2010 and 2011 Welcome America Fourth of July celebrations, which featured concerts on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The ethics board was unaware of the improper expenditures for years and first learned of them in a March 2017 report by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, said Shane Creamer, the board’s executive director.

“I think this demonstrates the value of solid investigative journalism,” Creamer said.

According to the story, Mayor Michael Nutter and other city officials were alerted to Johnson’s questionable spending in 2012 after city Inspector General Amy Kurland conducted a review.

Johnson was required to repay $733 for some expenses and was replaced as city representative, but she continued working for the city until Mayor Nutter left office at the end of 2015.

“I think this demonstrates the importance of having an independent agency to enforce the city’s ethics laws,” Creamer said, “because we can conduct investigations and hold people accountable evenly, regardless of what their rank or position is.”

Johnson cooperated in the investigation, according to the settlement agreement.

Johnson was succeeded in the city representative post by Desiree Peterkin-Bell.

In 2016, then-City Controller Alan Butkovitz accused Peterkin-Bell of improper spending on meals and travel. She denied the accusation, and the board’s Thursday announcement made no reference to her conduct.

Campaign infractions

The ethics board has also fined unsuccessful congressional Democratic candidate Rich Lazer $300 for engaging in fundraising activity in February while he was still a deputy mayor for labor in the Kenney administration.

Lazer made calls to potential supporters, telling them he was considering a run for Congress, and then the finance director of his campaign committee followed with requests for contributions, according to the board.

In its settlement agreement, the board said Lazer relied on inaccurate advice from an attorney that his activity wouldn’t violate city charter prohibitions on political activity.

Lazer ran in a crowded field for the Democratic nomination in the 4th Congressional District, which is centered on Delaware County. Attorney Mary Gay Scanlon won the nomination.

The board also fined Beth Grossman — the Republican who ran unsuccessfully for city district attorney — $7,500 for accepting political donations in excess of city contribution limits from Scott Wagner, the GOP’s current Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate.

Grossman agreed to pay the amount of the excess contributions, $21,476 to the Ethics Board.

The board cited Wagner for those contributions in April, and fined him $3,500.

An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of Grossman’s fine.

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